Most of the ink and airtime goes to the Rascals and the Grizzlies -- and no, we don't mean the NBA Grizzlies -- but the real minor-league success story is the St. Louis Swarm of the International Basketball League. In the Swarm's first two years, they've won the IBL championship twice; you can't do better than that. The Swarm's coach is Bernie Bickerstaff, former coach of the Seattle Supersonics of the National Basketball Association and general manager of the Denver Nuggets. This past season, Bickerstaff's team finished with a 43-7 record before beating the Grand Rapids Hoops, a fugitive team from the defunct Continental Basketball Association. The Swarm averaged 3,324 attendees this season, down from 4,515 last year. That was good enough for second in the league, but team ownership had wanted to bring in about 6,000 fans a game by the second year. So the Swarm will not play next season, though the owner says there's a better-than-50-percent chance the team will return for the 2002-03 season. One problem may be that the games are in the Family Arena in St. Charles, and though lots of folks have moved west of the Missouri River, most basketball fans are miles away and the Interstate 70 bridge bottleneck and the I-270 interchange may be disincentives. But because the NBA boneheads scuttled Bill Laurie's attempt to return NBA basketball to St. Louis by buying the Grizzlies (now the Memphis
Grizzlies), the Swarm is the best we can do.
Given the disturbingly unpredictable quality of their team play, it's surprising that the 2001 Cardinals feature so many players having individually fine years: Fernando Via (at bat but especially in the field), Placido Polanco, Matt Morris, Darryl Kile (skimpy win total to the contrary), Steve Kline, J.D. Drew (when not benched by injury), even part-timer Craig Paquette. But in a bipolar season of wild fluctuation -- extended winning streaks interrupted by a depressive malaise -- the steadiest and clearly the best performer is Albert Pujols. Certain to be the uncontested NL Rookie of the Year, Pujols briefly slumped (by his already lofty standards) in July but has otherwise proved a consistent astonishment, remaining entrenched among the league's elite in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base average, hits, runs, runs batted in, home runs and doubles. (Don't look for him to challenge Vince Coleman's rookie stolen-base record, however. Although a heady runner, Pujols is slow afoot, leaving him prone to double plays.) Do the splits, and you'll find no vulnerable areas: Pujols excels against right-handers and left-handers, during day and night, on grass and turf, at home and away. His defensive versatility makes his offensive achievements still more impressive: Pujols has started at third (his ostensible position), first, left field and right field, seldom embarrassing himself and frequently impressing with soft hands and a strong, accurate arm. And have we mentioned that Pujols is 21 years old, with only one previous season of professional ball (mostly at Class A Peoria) on his short résumé? Of course, there's no real need to recount most of these facts -- you know them already because Pujols' sensational debut has been covered extensively both locally and nationally. His continuing success in the face of that ceaseless attention is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Pujols' season: His head still fits easily in a regular-sized cap, and he's displayed admirable maturity on and off the diamond. The only question that remains: What can he possibly do for an encore?
Right there in the middle of the horrendous slump the Cardinals ran through in June, St. Louis fans had to accept whatever excitement they could find for their baseball dollar. So when the PA announced the first-ever major-league at bat for Stubby Clapp, Busch Stadium faithful figured, "Why not give him a standing ovation?" It didn't take a sabermetrician to know he has the best name for a baseball player to come down the pike in decades. Once upon a time, baseball rosters were filled with men with names such as Cool Papa Bell, Babe Ruth, Chief Bender and Rube Marquard. Obviously Stubby Clapp belongs among those legends more than he does pinch-running for the likes of Craig Paquette and Andy Benes. Nobody believes for a second that Clapp is bound for the Hall of Fame, but everybody in the ballpark recognized the sound of baseball as their grandfathers knew it. Like most Cardinals in June, Clapp struck out that day, but the fans didn't care. They again rose to their feet as he walked, head bowed, back to the dugout.
We're inclined to believe the Jack La Lannes of the exercise world who argue that swimming is one of the most effective ways to trim the fat. But that doesn't mean we have to do it in the futureworld pools of spa-land, surrounded by trim souls exercising not to lose weight but, it seems, to rub it in that they don't really need to. Nor are we interested in competing with dozens of others for lanes. We prefer doing it in a pool with character, clean water and wide open space, and there's no better place than the YMCA on Locust. Down below street level, the pool has the feel of a magic mosaic cave: gorgeous navy and tan tile surrounds the pool on both floor and wall; a monster echo accents each strained freestyle splash and kick (and scream -- a 3-year-old's squeal in here will burst your eardrums); glass blocks allow sunlight in from above. The result is both stunning and suitable for lopping off the flab.
As much as we admire the cool professionalism of Joel Quenneville and the brooding intensity of Tony La Russa, the Rams' Mike Martz ranks as St. Louis' most outlandishly entertaining coach since Whitey Herzog retired to the fishin' hole. Martz suffered last year from absurdly outsized expectations: He took the reins of a Super Bowl champion, and handicappers confidently predicted Martz would ride his offensive Thoroughbred to another crown. The Rams obviously fell short of that goal -- imploding defensively, losing Kurt Warner to a freakish pinkie injury for a five-game stretch and backing sheepishly into the playoffs as a wild card before a first-round exit. But was a 10-7 season ever so flat-out fun? With the exceptions of the Kansas City debacle and second Carolina game, every week offered heart-palpitating excitement as the Rams and their opponents ratcheted up the scores to stratospheric heights. Even the playoff loss to division rival New Orleans -- which started awfully with a misfiring, concussion-fogged Warner and out-of-character play-calling conservatism from Martz -- ended with a jaw-droppingly brilliant scoring run that had the Saints looking stunned and helpless until Az Hakim took mercy and muffed a fair catch. The refreshingly frank Martz also brings his hard-charging offensive approach to bear on decision-making in other areas: Faced with an inept, underachieving defense, the coach didn't cautiously tinker or tweak but boldly rebuilt. When Joe Germaine sputtered in the preseason, Martz yanked and publicly berated him in the San Diego game, traded him to the cross-state Chiefs and secured Jamie Martin as backup QB in a head-spinning three-day span. Betting on a Rams Super Bowl win remains a long shot -- too many unpredictable variables -- but counting on Mike Martz to endlessly astonish us is a mortal lock.
Care for a closer view of the wild blue yonder? Spirit St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield has three flight schools where an average person can learn to fly. The runway leading to a pilot's license involves a minimum of 40 hours' flight time, up to 10 hours of ground instruction and a cost of $2,500. But maybe you just want to dip your toes before taking the plunge. Skyline Aviation offers introductory flight lessons at the reasonable cost of $20 for a jaunt in a two-seater Cessna 150, or $35 for a larger-engine four-seater Cessna 172. Jeff Ryan, 22, a flight instructor with Skyline, gives introductory flights to prospective students each week. The 30- to 40-minute flight often passes by the Arch and may even wing north, upriver toward Alton. Neophytes actually get to copilot the plane. "Once we're at altitude, I explain the basics to them and let them start flying," says Ryan. But not to worry: He adds that any wrong move on the controls can be quickly corrected. The experience is nothing like being a passenger in a flying bus. Here, you're in the cockpit, face to face with infinity, at one with the birds. "Once we're speeding down the runway for takeoff and the nose goes up, you can hear them suck in their breath," says Ryan, "but when the plane has landed, it's often, 'Hey, I want to do this again.'"
She whirls, she twirls, she competes in those big fluffy dresses. And she has the best amateur standing in Latin dance in the city -- possibly the country. This year, P.J. Mallinckrodt of Kirkwood has accumulated more titles than a Ford dealership. At the Dancers Cup Grand Ball in Nashville, she took first place in the Open International Latin Championship. At the St. Louis Star Ball, she took first in the Open International Latin Championship. Her list of wins is too long to reproduce here. Occasionally you can spot P.J. out for fun at Club Viva! or Club La Onda on Latin-dance nights. You might even see the tall, stunning brunette on TV. She's got a shot of making it to the Star Ball in November, a televised event that's the ballroom equivalent of the prom. The event she's eyeing is called a "team match," with contestants chosen on the basis of championships they've won this year.
For maximum twisties with minimal traffic, head south on I-44, take the Washington exit onto Highway 100, go about five miles, turn left on Highway V and start getting lost. It's alphabet soup, roadwise -- Highways A, KK, YY, UU, AB and a host of others spider through the hinterlands -- and you can spend a whole day scooting through rolling farmland on two-lane country roads that don't seem to go anywhere. Eventually, though, most roads lead back to Highway 100, which meanders through wine country near New Haven and Hermann. Make sure you stop at the Barrel Bar in Hermann for the world's best frog legs.
This is category where there is far too little competition. Why more bars don't have pingpong tables set up defies reason. What goes better with a 12-ounce cold one but a good volley of pingpong? OK, for the hoity-toity, call it table tennis. The table's been up for years at Red's Eighth Inning Bar, although lately it's being taken down on Friday nights for karaoke. The need for an alcohol-induced version of "Whole Lotta Love" doesn't seem like justifiable cause to take down the table, but a bar's gotta do what bar's gotta do. The Way Out Club (2525 S. Jefferson Ave. at Gravois Avenue) is rumored to have pingpong leagues on Monday nights, but that sounds a little too formal. The truly enlightened don't keep score playing pingpong. They just volley. And volley. The volley's the thing. Just drop in anytime from 6 a.m. to close, Monday-Thursday and on Saturday, to start pingin' and pongin' at Red's Eighth Inning Bar. (Parenthetical aside: According to the barkeep, the bar was always called the Eighth Inning, and the current owner is a redhead.) So what better way to start the day? Linda Blackwell is the owner, and word has it she prefers pingpong to a pool table because it's less trouble. This offers another reason for pong -- which would you rather be hit over the head with, a pool cue or a pingpong paddle? Volley on.
We'll take the ponies over pai gow poker any day. The fresh air. The past-her-prime longshot that winks en route to the post, sending you scurrying for the nearest betting window. The wise guys poring over reams of stats sitting next to cute girls in tube tops who giggle at the rube that bets it all on a past-her-prime mare that happened to wink. The bad nachos dripping with cheese sauce, the smell of hamburgers on an open grill. The $1 bottles of Bud and live music every Friday. The impossibly tiny jockeys just an arm's length away. The silks, the blinders, the carefully wrapped legs, the immaculately coiffed owners who always smile so widely in the winner's circle. Thousands of broken dreams in the form of old betting slips that cover the ground like so many snowflakes. And, best of all, the bugle that sings 10 times a day, announcing the start of yet another race. With the action spread over so many hours, it takes more time and effort to lose your stash than in any casino. And you'll never have so much fun doing it.
Forest Park Golf Course is our sentimental, and readers', favorite. Opened in 1912, the course was a progressive city's answer to members-only private country clubs. The 27-hole course, recently renamed for the late businessman and benefactor Norman K. Probstein, is undergoing a major facelift led by the city and Forest Park Forever. Of course, if it's the quality of the course that matters, then you can't go wrong in the Land of Lincoln. Family-run Annbriar Golf Course, about a 45-minute drive from downtown St. Louis, "has it all: shot values, scenery, wildlife," according to Golf Digest. Annbriar, as the story goes, was the dream of Ann Nobbe, who wanted to build the course on her family farm. She died at age 26 in a traffic accident; her parents completed the project in 1993. The course was designed by Michael Hurdzan, who also did Crystal Highlands and Tavern Creek Golf Course at Country Club of St. Albans. After some fits and starts -- the wrong kind of grass was used originally, forcing a temporary closing -- Annbriar has emerged as one of the region's top draws. Golf Digest ranks the course among the nation's top 500; it's ranked No. 7 in Illinois. The clubhouse includes a pro shop and the Smokehouse Restaurant, where one of the specialties is -- drumroll, please -- Tennessee smoked pork. Yummy! For non-residents, rates are $53-$63 for 18 holes.