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.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.