Best Of 2002

Marvin Neals has been through this before. In the '70s, several of the basketball teams he coached at Soldan High School won twenty or more games. He coached David Thirdkill, who played at Bradley University and in the NBA. Neals quit coaching more than ten years ago, ending up with 328 victories. He's a retired principal who last year came back to coach varsity basketball at Cardinal Ritter Prep. The Lions were the top-ranked small school in the area and finished the year with a 25-3 record. Ritter lost to Lutheran North in the district finals, 54-44. This season, Ritter should return with a good team -- point guard Ken Burke averaged just under twenty points a game. In the second-to-last game of last season, Ritter defeated John Burroughs 72-70, with Burke sinking 36 points. Ritter, an archdiocesan high school, is moving next year to a new Midtown campus featuring a new building, football field and gymnasium. Having an experienced, accomplished coach to head its basketball program can only be a plus. The combination of Ritter's talent pool, its emphasis on academics and Neals' coaching should have college recruiters lined up out the door.
Although hardcore street skaters may scoff at the idea of an indoor park as the best place to skate in a city filled with steps, rails and the usually dry River des Peres, the multilevel warehouse known as Ramp Riders, with its excellent plywood half-pipes, bowls and BMX jumps, is the ideal space for practicing your ollies, impossibles, sex changes, fakies, grinds and 360's. Even the pipes and debris in this seriously gritty warehouse, buried in an Midtown industrial area -- think of a post-tornado City Museum -- become stunt props for maniacs. Ramp Riders offers Monday beginner sessions, but the rest of the week is open for skating to everyone over twelve. Don't worry, Mom -- helmets are mandatory and kids under eighteen must have a parent or guardian sign an insurance waiver. A lounge sells junk food, and on the TV is -- what else? -- skate videos. But best of all, at Ramp Riders the cops can't touch you.

Obscured by all the drama, melodrama and misery of this baseball season, from the deaths of Jack Buck and Darryl Kile to the barely avoided work stoppage, there is Albert Pujols. The season isn't finished, and Pujols already has more than 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored, both for the second straight year. The ridiculous part of that statistic is that Pujols has only been in the major leagues this year and last year. He is 22 years old. After his first two years, he has a "career" total of more than 200 RBIs and 200 runs scored. He is not a fluke. Pitchers and teams have seen him dozens of times, and they still haven't solved him. In his rookie season, he tied for the lead in the National League for game-winning RBIs. He set the record for National League rookies with 130 RBIs. Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to Independence, Missouri, when he was 16. He was All-State twice in high school and graduated from Fort Osage High School in Independence before going to Maple Woods College in Kansas City. He spent one year in the minors before making the Cardinals in spring training last year after Bobby Bonilla pulled a hamstring. Bobby Bo or no, this man would not have gone unnoticed.

It's near the end of the year, and no one has yet figured him out. Baseball takes great comfort in statistics, but to compare numbers between one era and another is tricky. It's hard to gauge which player had the best first two years in the majors. But whenever that debate is pursued, Albert Pujols' name is going to be mentioned. Poo-holes: Get used to saying it. He's going to be the talk of this town for a long time. All he needs is a nickname.

With the ever-expanding, über-hip Washington Avenue club scene pouring more and more gassed-up boozehounds out into the streets of downtown each and every Friday, it is not a stretch to assume that a renaissance in late-night public-park usage is afoot. If you would like to contribute to such a renaissance, get on down to the supercool playground(s) at Fourteenth and Lindell after polishing off that last Red Bull-and-Stoli at Lo. Boasting two challenging yellow twisty slides and a pool in the middle, we recommends going headfirst down one of the sloped snakes and losing your cell phone in the dark before stripping nude and taking a dunk in the grimy pond. The motto's "go big or go home," right? Live it or leave it.
Yes, you can always take your out-of-towners to the top of the Arch, but how predictable is that? How many times can you hunker down in a Kubrickian white bubble car and inch to the top? How about a walk among the roses instead? The Missouri Botanical Garden is world-class, considered one of the most prominent and respected gardens in the world, alongside London's Kew Gardens and the New York Botanic Gardens. It's also a world leader in botanic research; its botanists and biologists scour the rainforests for endangered species and magical new drugs. Like the Arch, we often take it for granted, but that shouldn't diminish its glory: With its variety of gardens, seasonal plantings, gardening hotline (314-577-5143, 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Friday), ethnic festivals and various events, the park blossoms daily in the heart of South City.
Early morning. You're riding through a wildflower pasture under the power of your own two legs. The first beads of sweat begin to form. Reach for the water bottle, take a swig. Shift to a lower gear for a better workout. You're alive.

The Katy Trail -- its name taken from the now-defunct Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, one of whose routes it traces -- starts in St. Charles and spans more than half the state. Country towns are spaced nicely apart, and wildlife encounters are not uncommon. We've got a number of good trails around here, though. The North Riverfront Trail is very doable. From the Arch north to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, the twelve-mile trek wends through urban, industrial and natural settings. Ride past scrapyards, fields of restored prairie grass, men fishing from the banks of the river. The Great River Road Trail, starting in Alton, heads northward with the shining Mississippi on the left and towering bluffs on the right. Barges, laden with coal or grain or salt, ply the river; egrets, gulls and, in winter, bald eagles soar overhead. The spirit of the mythical Piasa bird is strong here. None of the trails should be missed -- you like living, right? -- but it's the Katy we ride when we're searching for natural beauty.

No, it's not because the people are "different" from the bland Land's End suburbs -- colorful, flamboyant, maybe even ho-mo-sexual. We're praying St. Louis has passed that junior-high gawking stage. Maryland Plaza's best because everybody is watching and being watched -- and knows it. A juggler plies his spheres, arms aching, and nobody looks up from café conversation. A woman walks by with a standard poodle, and voilà! the dog leaps, catches one of the juggler's balls in midair, steals it and does a small twirl on the sidewalk. The crowd applauds. The juggler presses his lips together, furious at the show-stealer but trying not to show it. The woman hurries the dog along, sensing tension. Agendas have clashed, disrupting stale ritual and exploding it into spontaneity. Such things happen often here, because people watch for them. They know that at this cobbled intersection, everything comes together: The sport of voyeurism. The parade of possibilities. And the infinite varieties of the human condition, treated as public art.
Although it remains a mystery as to why the Lou's closest haven for pony bettors has night racing on Saturdays and Sundays and daytime racing during the week (should be the other way around, friends), one thing's for certain: Sarah Tomer, the brunette who cracks the coldies at the Corona kiosk on the walkway between grandstands, is a bombshell -- and sweet as peach pie to boot. Kitschily resplendent in a form-hugging yellow unitard, away from the shade, our girl would have plenty of reason to feel like a grilled piece of meat, what with a swarm of drunken losers surrounding her and ultraviolet rays beating down on her in the early-evening sun. But no, she serves the suds with a smile and got a bling-ass physique to back it up. Hot, hot damn.

The best part of picking cornerback supreme Aeneas Williams as Best Ram is that it avoids all that Kurt Warner/Marshall Faulk back-and-forth. Who's more important to the Rams, Warner or Faulk? Which sight scares a Rams fan more, Jamie Martin or Trung Canidate? Yikes. The Rams are by far the best NFL team to watch, and that's because of the methamphetamine offense led by Warner, Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and on and on. What makes them possibly the best team in football -- last year's glitch-filled Super Bowl game is best forgotten -- is the newly revamped defense, masterminded by Lovie Smith and led by Williams. Born Aeneas Demetrius Williams (he has a brother named Achilles and a son named Lazurus), Williams was a walk-on as a sophomore at Southern University in Baton Rouge. By his senior year, he had tied for the national lead in interceptions with eleven. Named to the Pro Bowl nine times, he came to the Rams last year from the Arizona Cardinals -- yes, those Cardinals, with you-know-who still the owner. Last year for the Rams he made a career-best 100 tackles and returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns. Sure, coach Mike Martz's obsession with trick plays and his devoted observance of Air Coryell is what gets attention and puts points on the scoreboard, but for the Rams to defeat parity and again be the envy of the rest of the league, they have to play on both sides of the ball. Aeneas makes sure that happens. In the epic poem The Aeneid, by Virgil, Aeneas escaped from ruined Troy and drifted for years before finding Rome. This Aeneas may have spent too many years in the ruins of Arizona, but at last he's found the NFL version of Rome -- only this time, licensed minister Aeneas is doing just fine with the rest of his fellow Christians in the coliseum.
Let's make this short and sweet. La Russa has actually won the Big One and a division title or three. True, his championship ring dates back to 1989, with the Oakland Athletics, where he coached those true testaments to better bodies through chemistry, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. But who cares? The lawyerly La Russa has World Series wins on his résumé. Mike Martz, for all his bluster and bragging about "Max Q," is nothing-for-one in Super Bowls. Bossing the league's most talented squad, Martz runs the risk of becoming the Bobby Cox of football -- doing the least with the most amount of talent. Not so La Russa. He's skippering a storied -- but not bulletproof -- franchise in a baseball-crazy town, a team that appears to have the monied want-to to buy the talent it needs despite its poor-mouth whining about needing state money to build a new stadium. Witness the acquisitions of Scott Rolen and Chuck Finley. True, La Russa and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan don't seem to be able to develop young hurlers, and the team looks awful against the Atlanta Braves. But you have to tip the cap to anybody who can keep in first place a team that's been struck by a rash of early-season injuries and the deaths of Jack Buck and Darryl Kile.