Opening Day

As I am about to take my son to another opening day, I pause to reflect on some amazing opening day experiences and memories I have accumulated over the years. This is not a comprehensive list, but an odd assortment of experiences that every true fan will enjoy. I hope they facilitate a whole fountain of precious memories for you, as well.

After seeing the Cards play on grass every year of my life, I was there opening day in 1996 when the major renovations took place to the interior of Busch, including the installation of grass, the red seats, the manual outfield scoreboard, and the flags in right center field for all those whose numbers had been retired.

I remember 1980 opening day, when I scored some tickets in the front row - directly behind the Pittsburgh bullpen. Rod Scurry was a relief pitcher for the Pirates, and his hands were massive. I have no idea why, of all things, I remember that, but seeing those pitchforks at the end of his arms stuck in my mind. By the way, Pete Vuchovitch pitched a brilliant three-hit, complete-game shutout to beat the Pirates 1-0 - the only run scoring when George Hendrick doubled home Bobby Bonds from first in the second inning. How many opening day starters will throw a complete game this year?

In 1983, I was there to see the Cards get their World Series rings. The year before, I camped out three different nights in order to get tickets for both League championship games against the Braves, and for three of the four World Series games against the Brewers (how I missed game 7 tickets is a long and painful story for another time).

In 1995, I took my boys out of school (a fairly common, if not annual, ritual) to attend another opening day, this time in Kansas City. The season got started late because of the player strike that cancelled the World Series (I actually say the last game played in ’94 - when the Cubs lost to the Giants and I was in the bleachers at Wrigley). So, the players’ strike ended, but the Umpire strike had just begun. When we showed up at the Stadium around 9am, there was Bruce Froemming and about six other umpires walking around the parking lot and making a lot of noise. I was a college and high school umpire, so I thought this was amazing. I spent the morning talking with them and supporting their cause. Twice, reps from the KC front offices were sent out to ask them to leave, and I was one of about a half dozen fans that told those front office people to back off. All of a sudden, Bruce and the other umps did a dead sprint across the parking lot (well, by dead sprint I guess I mean the kind of sprint that someone like Froemming does that threatens their death - he did carry a lot of weight with him), yelling obscenities. I thought, “What the hell?” A cab had just pulled up, and the scab crew had gotten out and was walking into the front doors when the umps caught sight of them and gave them hell. It wasn’t long after this that the front office people came out again and threatened to bring the cops out to escort them off the parking lot. Bruce and his clan were thinking about packing it in, when I went up to them with what I thought was a brilliant idea. The Royals were trying to win fans back after the strike cancelled the World Series, and they were giving away General Admission seats on a first come, first served basis. I told Froemming and his crew to get in line for free tickets, let the franchise that was trying to kick them out actually pay for their entry into the game, and then cause a ruckus while in there. Bruce looked at his colleagues and the started thinking about it. Shortly after that my sons and I went in, and I guess I just forgot about the umps. Until about half-way through the game. I heard some unrest kick up in the right field G.A. seats. When I looked to see what was going on, by golly there were the umps lined up and down the stairs in the right field corner, shouting something or other. It didn’t take long for the Royals to boot them out of the stadium- but they made their point. When I got home that night and watched SportsCenter, sure enough there they were. The story made National sports news.

All these are good stories, but the best ever opening day experience of all time is now to be told. In 2005, I attended the last ever game in the Old Busch Stadium. Through the winter, my son and I would attend the ground-breaking ceremony for the new stadium. I would show up at odd hours to watch the demolition of the old, and stood there on a freezing cold night when at about 1:00am the last arch went down. There were a few tears shed. I broke through security fences a number of times to steal odd pieces of the deconstructed stadium, and bough at auction some bleacher seats (where I spent much of my childhood - left field, of course, watching Lou Brock), some red seats, and the large white St. Louis flag that flew at the top of the Stadium.
When opening day rolled around, every effort my brother and I had made to get tickets proved fruitless. We showed up early that morning in 2006 with pockets full of money ready to buy a ticket for whatever it cost. There was nothing. We attended all the opening day ceremonies outside the stadium; met the project director for the stadium construction (hold that thought - we’ll come back to it); and with only hours left before the first pitch still had no tickets. My brother finally answered a call from a childhood friend of his who was on the paint crew of the new stadium, and who was actually in the stadium just hours before the first pitch finishing the painting. He said he didn’t know what use they would be for us, but he scored us two visitor’s passes. He came outside and handed them to us.
What’s a visitor’s pass? We had no idea - we still don’t. But once we had them, our thinking was this: walk through every door you can until someone says “What the hell are you doing here?!” So, when we saw some press people walking through a glass door about three hours before the game, we thought - “What the heck, let’s try it.” We went up to the security guard, flashed our cardboard visitor’s passes, and were prepared for anything but what we heard - nothing. Just a quick nod of the head and we were through.

Our first trip was to the Cardinal dugout - in which we sat for a few minutes before we walked down the line into the outfield. The Stadium was empty - gates wouldn’t open for another hour. When we saw the Cardinal pitcher’s emerge out of the dugout and begin some warm-up tosses, we thought we were in trouble. Turns out not. They were surprised to see us, but as we would learn as the day wore on as long as we pretended like we belonged, no one would question it. We talked to Jason Isringhausen and Adam Wainright, whom I saw pitch five years earlier when he was an 18 year old starting out his career with the Macon Braves.
We walked through every corridor in the Stadium. We saw very little of the game, telling ourselves that this day was about the Stadium. We stood next to Jack Buck’s widow as she lofted the flag up the new flagpole in the Center field plaza right before the playing of the national anthem. We were behind the outfield wall as the Cardinals mounted the red Mustangs that would take them onto the field for their inaugural introduction to the fans - an Opening Day tradition in St. Louis. At one point, we saw a set of stairs go up a wall that led to a door. We climbed it, opened the door, and were in the Cardinal bullpen. You heard that right - in the bullpen. We thought we were in real trouble. Relief pitcher Brad Thompson was standing right there, looked over at two fans now in his bullpen, and said “Who are you?!” I was scared crazy, but not my brother. Jimbo has never met a stranger before, and he just stuck out his hand, said, “Hi, I’m Jim Dorhauer and this is my brother John.” Brad shook our hands, and we just stood there with Brad until the inning ended, exchanging some small talk and well-wishes, admiring the new digs. Then we left. I was half-way down the stairs when I heard the door open again. Jimbo wanted something else. I turned just in time to hear him shout, “Hey, Brad, throw me a ball.” By golly, he did just that and Jimbo walked away with a prize.
From there, we continued opening every door except one: when we got to the player locker room we just stood for a minute or two in awe and wonder and out of respect (not fear, mind you - we had gotten long past that), we refused to break the sanctuary that is the player’s locker room.
I found my good friend’s seats and sat with him for a while and told him what we had been doing. He was jealous and amazed, and refused to believe that we actually made it into the bullpen. So, guess what? We went back and took him with us. When we opened the door and he caught a glimpse of the field from there, he was awestruck. He would not go into the bullpen, but he did stick his foot over the threshold just so he could say he was there, and then ducked back down the stairs and went back to his seat with his own story to tell.
From there we went to the luxury boxes. We met Bob Gibson outside one, and Jimbo got pissed when Bob wouldn’t sign the ball for him. We ended up the owner’s suite - which is located near a whole slew of cooking stations with chefs ready to cook to order whatever cuisine you wanted. There were only a few outs left in the game, and I actually sat in a seat for the first time. Jimbo stood behind me, and before too long I heard him talking to someone. I wasn’t interested in that conversation until I heard him ask: “Are you guys pissed that Selig didn’t show up for this today? I mean, its his Brewers you guys are playing?” The guy admitted they were a little miffed. I wondered who the hell this was, and turned around: it was the Stadium project manager we saw outside the Stadium earlier in the morning - long before we had tickets.
The game ended, and it dawned on both of us we still didn’t have tickets. We wanted those to keep for memories’ sake - and so we started bidding on tix to buy of those who actually paid to see this game. We found a couple of drunks who thought the $40 Jimbo was offering sounded good, and one whom I found who actually gave his away for $20 (I watched Jimbo bid for his and realized if I found someone who was drunk, I could probably get mine cheaper). Thus ended the perfect opening day.


Ron Rollins said...

I've umpired for 30 years. But somehow, the idea of umpires, who are supposed to keep order in a game, causing a fuss that gets them kicked out of a game, seems silly and petty.

It also goes against the entire grain of what umpires do. Especially when it was for a paycheck. If that's why they're doing the job, we were better off without them.

Kincaid said...

One correction, the umpires didn't strike in 1995, they were locked out.

Ron, umpires are supposed to keep order in a game they are working, not in a game where the league has locked them out, cut them off from their permanent source of income (yes, paychecks are an important part of someone's career-imagine that!), and replaced them with whatever non-Union workers were willing to do the job. There's a line where a worker is no longer bound by the code of his employment within the workplace, and this would be pretty far past that line. Keeping the order of a game as an umpire does not extend to require them to docilely accept whatever treatment their employer wants to hand down or to stand by meekly when their employer tells them they will no longer be working because they can find people who don't care about working conditions or pay or silly things like Unions who will replace them.

Thanks in part to the visibility of the umpires who were locked out making sure MLB couldn't just sweep the issue under the rug, they soon got their careers back. I tend to not think of the difference between working in your career and being out of employment with no idea when your family will get it's next paycheck as a little more than silly and petty, and I think causing a little ruckus at a baseball game in order to try to get out of that limbo is pretty understandable.

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