On Thursday, July 19, 1979, future major-leaguer Rick Ankiel was born, and the Cincinnati Reds arrived in St. Louis following the all-star break where 27,228 fans settled in at Busch Memorial Stadium to watch the two all-star-laden teams resume the second half of the season. I was there with my dad for my first major league baseball game.
It was the summer after third grade, and I was eight years old. I now knew my multiplication tables and how to write in cursive, but no educational environment could have prepared me for what going to a major league stadium with my dad would do to my soul. It was the highlight of my life at the time, and forty-one years later, it remains pretty close to the top.
My dad never missed work at the meat-packing plant, but he did that summer day. We didn’t have enough money for a hotel, so we boarded a Great Southern Coaches bus in the early morning darkness for a twenty-four-hour adventure, rode the two-hundred miles north, and spent the afternoon using public buses to check out the zoo and marvel at the majesty of the Gateway Arch. But that evening, cliché notwithstanding, I walked through the left-field tunnel into the open air of the stadium and felt as if I had entered heaven.
Lou Brock had turned forty a month before and was in the final season of a remarkable career. He still hit over .300 that season, and in a stroke of good luck, our seats were right behind him. Two months later, the Redbirds would go ahead and retire his #20 jersey, making him only the fourth Cardinal at the time to receive such an honor—joining legends Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Stan Musial. The speedy Brock finished his career in the 3,000 hit club and as the all-time leader in stolen bases (and decades later he has only slid into second place).
Lou went 3-5 that night, knocking in three runs along the way. He also caught a couple of fly balls that evening under my eager eye, and somewhere along the way, little eight-year-old me held the family camera and snapped a fuzzy picture of the future hall-of-famer as he patrolled left field.
Lou Brock died yesterday at the age of eighty-one. One of his famous legs was amputated five years ago, and he battled blood cancer for the past several. His storied life is over now, which makes me sad. But it also makes me remember.
My wife bought me a couple of stadium seats from that old version of Busch Stadium a few years ago now, and they sit on our back patio. Sitting in those seats reminds me of July 19, 1979, when I was eight years old and sitting with my dad in a veritable heaven watching Lou Brock play baseball. I’m glad to imagine Lou suiting up on the other side of life now, and I like to imagine that my dad is saving me a seat.