On Opening Day, I went to church…

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I’ve lived in St. Louis since 1996 and have spent 20 or so days and nights at Cardinals games each season since I moved here. But I had never been to the Cardinals’ home opener until yesterday.

I don’t love the new Busch Stadium. There are too many gaudy ads and the decision to switch from a manual to electronic out-of-town scoreboard in the move from the old place still bothers me. A development the Cardinals termed “Ballpark Village” was supposed to be built just after the construction of the new stadium in 2006 but remains in planning mode five years later. There’s a rarely used softball field out in the lot where that project was meant to take shape. We, the residents of St. Louis and loyal followers of all things red, were promised a large residential space and all sorts of bars and restaurants. It hasn’t happened yet and things don’t look promising with the economy landing blow after blow on most Midwest cities.

Nobody in St. Louis really talks about the problems with Busch or that joke of a softball field. Maybe because it’s a bit embarrassing, or maybe it’s because … well … the game just started. And Carp is pitching.

I’ve never been to Opening Day in other towns. I’ve seen Camden Yards, Fenway Park, the old Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Great American Ballpark, but all during mid-season games. I can’t speak to the way the start of the baseball season is celebrated in other cities, so I won’t. I’m sure Boston is nuts, and I can hear the kegs being tapped and untapped in Wrigleyville as I type this 300 or so miles away.

In St. Louis, the Redbirds have a college football-like following. And me? I like a good tailgate.

My four buddies drove down to my house just south of Busch around 10:00am. Through some act of the supernatural, we had acquired tickets in an all-you-can-consume luxury box for the 3:15pm game. We hung out for a bit, then joked about ESPN’s Steve Berthiaume picking the Astros to win the Central as we headed out the door around noon and entered the sun-drenched sea of red.

My friend Kevin had a cousin with a nice tailgate spot, so we stopped there for a short while and then moved on to the patio outside Kilroy’s — a busy place about two blocks from the ballpark. Kevin had a buddy doing promotional stuff for Budweiser, so we sucked down some of the local stuff (ha!) as a girl not far from us flashed her Cardinals panties to strangers in the bathroom line. What a peach.

Around 2:00pm we headed toward the gate and waited in a mass of fans who held the same desire to catch all of the pre-game festivities. People always say the Yankees “know how to throw a party.” I think the Cardinals are the same way. Hall of Famers and all sorts of other favorites are introduced and take big looping laps around the stadium in the back of Ford trucks. Brock, Schoendienst, Whitey, Gibson.

Then comes Stan Musial, trailing the pack in a golf cart. Former MLB commissioner Ford Frick called him “baseball’s perfect knight” and he’s waving to his kingdom as the public address announcer offers his career stats. “1,815 hits at home. 1,815 hits on the road. 20 consecutive All-Star teams.” He’s The Man, and he’s ours.

The announcer wraps up the intro noting that Stan was a “recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the greatest honor this country can bestow on a civilian,” and it puts a charge into the crowd. Musial won that medal through the hard work of a lot of local people who organized a successful petitioning movement called Stand for Stan. Musial breaks down, he can’t make it out of the cart because the emotion is overwhelming. You can tell how much this all means to him. And the moment rewards us with the confirmation that baseball is far from trivial.

We get a first pitch from Jim Edmonds and a flyover of two big military cargo planes. The weather is great, the fans are into every pitch, and a first-inning RBI single from Holliday brings optimism for a season thrown into an odd spiral by the failed Albert Pujols contract talks and Adam Wainwright’s spring Tommy John surgery.

Then we start seeing the holes. The middle infield defense proves its shoddiness, Ryan Franklin serves up beach balls in the ninth inning, Albert Pujols grounds into three double plays for the first time in his career and flies out to the warning track. Baseball is back, and it brings heartache right alongside joy.

We leave the stadium after the 11-inning loss to San Diego and stop in around a few bars to see friends. It’s a long season and the world’s biggest brewery is down the street. There’s no sense in letting a hanging curve and a Cameron Maybin fist pump ruin an otherwise beautiful day. Concerns about a baseball team are best served in a cold frosty mug. 161-1 is still well within reach.

Video: Albert Almora, Jr. saved by the ivy

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The ALCS had a weird play in Game 4 on Tuesday night, but Game 4 of the NLCS did as well. This one involved Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr. and his attempt to spark a rally in the bottom of the ninth inning against Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling.

After Alex Avila singled, Almora ripped a double to left field, past a diving Enrique Hernandez. The ball rolled to the ivy in front of the wall. Most outfielders there would’ve put their hands up, which would have alerted the umpires to call an immediate ground-rule double. Hernandez didn’t, instead fishing the ball out and firing it back into the infield. Avila had stopped at third base, but Almora kept running. Much to his surprise, he pulled up into third base to see his teammate standing there, resigned to his fate as a dead duck. Third baseman Justin Turner applied the tag on Almora for what he thought was the first out of the inning.

Almora, however, was then sent back to second base after the umpires correctly called a ground-rule double.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, the lucky break didn’t help as closer Kenley Jansen came in and took care of business, retiring all three batters he faced without letting an inherited runner score. The Dodgers won 6-1 and now lead the NLCS three games to none. They’ll try to punch their ticket to the World Series on Wednesday.