2009 All-Star Game

July 18, 2009

I had the privilege of going to the All-Star Game last weekend.

As my excitement built for the trip during the week prior, I looked forward to watching some baseball in St. Louis. Over the last two years, as I’ve moved away from Boston, I’ve watched the sport just a little less without the draw of the Red Sox at 7 pm every night. That always provided me with a natural cool-down state coming home from work or class. I’ve also gone to fewer games — maybe three a season versus eight or nine. On that merit alone, for just getting to watch baseball, it was going to be a great weekend.

But I’d forgotten that Cardinals supporters brand themselves as “the best fans in baseball.” Red Sox fans obviously take umbrage with that claim; we think there is no more devout follower in any sport, but that should have sparked something for me. St. Louis is the city that deems itself baseball’s heaven, with Busch Stadium its cathedral, the Cardinals ministers of its faith, and the congregation, thousands, were vocal in the streets this weekend.

Downtown St. Louis is marked by a number of federal buildings, mid-height skyscrapers, and public spaces parks and spaces. There are dozens of old buildings that have been renovated into residential lofts; many had vacancies and some were abandoned construction projects. The chief cultural entity downtown is Busch Stadium, and the city’s nightlife revolves around the park. I’d imagine in the offseason, downtown St. Louis is less attractive.

With the game in town, there was a palpable vivacity on the streets. Red washed over everything, the most primary of the colors that would illustrate the weekend. I expected the weekend to be exceedingly corporate or filled with out-of-town mercenaries like me, boasting about our team selections (Papelbon, Youkilis, Bay, Wakefield) and sporting the home colors. Instead, Cardinals fans took the weekend as their chance to go on display. They were everywhere, proud of their city hosting the game and had been waiting for months to party. The Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game were at least 75% attended by Cardinals fans.

This means more to some than others, but you could stop anyone on the street and start a conversation about baseball, and your complement in the conversation would gleefully engage you in dialogue, telling stories and listening attentively to yours. Everyone preached the same religion when the All-Stars were in town.

Wearing Red Sox shirts the whole weekend, I was naturally stopped by many Cardinals fans who felt like they needed to have a word with me on a few topics, now. In case you hadn’t heard: fans around baseball aren’t wholly fond of Red Sox fans. Sox fans maintain a heightened combination of brashness and arrogance that plays just fine against similar alpha fans (Yankees), but not around fans in the midwest, who take the game at a slightly slower pace. There were many comments about 2004, though they all just conceded that series to Boston anyway for performance and historical reasons. Throughout the weekend, I was easy fun for a lot of curious midwesterners who only know Sox fans from what they see on ESPN.

Cardinals fans repeatedly called themselves the best “baseball” fans in the country, and here, they might have a case. I heard what sounded like very knowledgeable Cardinals fans talking about other teams and current news, and all of this was coated with far less acrimony than Sox fans, who strike me as more impatient and a little bit more drunk. Just being around these fans made the game better, and every Red Sox fan should see games in St. Louis, because once they know you’re a real fan, they become your best friend.

The game on Tuesday ended up as somewhat like background noise to the conversations we were having with people in our section. Fans ended up buying US beers when we were getting ready to buy a round for them. The crowd was loud when big moments occurred and appreciated the competition on the field. I took business cards of people with whom I’ll share pictures, offered to help a Cardinals fan get tickets when he comes up to Fenway, and kicked my feet up on a beautiful summer night taking in a tradition I’d never before experienced.

The Gateway Arch lords over the St. Louis skyline. Looking anyway to the east places the arch above everything you see, and it’s a steady presence. It was a very American weekend. Ushers gave out American flags and children waved them during the Star Spangled Banner. Anheuser-Busch products were absolutely everywhere; I rarely went without a beer in my hand and all but three pitchers of the stuff were Bud.

The President threw out the first pitch, concluding the weekend’s theme of service, appearing in a video with the four other living Presidents to laud thirty citizens who devote their lives to improving their communities. I wondered whether Major League Baseball thought that up independently, or if Barack Obama called up Bud Selig and said, “hey, I’ll come down there and throw out the first pitch if you run an inspirational campaign about service for five days.” If so, quite a draw: the current President hadn’t thrown out the first pitch since Gerald Ford. Obama came out wearing a White Sox jacket, eliciting boos from the crowd (though probably from many who were reacting more to the President, not his team).

We finished the weekend off by taking a cab a few miles out of downtown and eating at Pappy’s Smokehouse, recently named best barbecue in St. Louis. Pappy’s ribs were probably the best I’ve ever tasted, with what seemed like a crusted pepper glaze on the top. Pappy sat down and chatted with us, said he’d just been in New York and grilled 9,000 rack of ribs in the recent downtown BBQ competition. I asked him if I’d have to wait in the growing order line to purchase a t-shirt. “Not if you’re talking to Pappy.” He brought back my t-shirt and though stuffed, I needed to get myself to stand up up so we could catch our flight. Instead, I enjoyed sitting, sated after one of the best weekends of my life.

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