Best Of 2005

Best Place to Bird-Watch
If you think good bird-watching requires long hikes into mosquito-infested forests, you've never been to the Robert and Martha Gaddy Wild Bird Garden in Tower Grove Park. "St. Louis is a great place for birding because of the Mississippi River -- a natural flyway for migratory birds," confirms Denise Kirkpatrick, owner of a Wild Bird Center franchise in south county. One of the best spots for birdwatching, says Kirkpatrick, can be found in the heart of the city, in Tower Grover Park. During spring and fall, the park is home to warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, thrushes, sparrows and many other birds. Kirkpatrick suggests arriving early as birds are most active in the morning. The Wild Bird Garden is located at the northwest corner of the park, along South Kingshighway and Magnolia Avenue. Other popular birding sites: the Woodland Pool and Cypress Circle at the east end of the park. For birding tips, visit one of the local Wild Bird Center shops (see www.wildbirdcenter.com), or call the St. Louis Audubon Society at 314-822-6595 or the Webster Groves Nature Study Society at 314-935-8432.
On the balmy night of May 10, the collective world of Cardinal Nation stood still. Indeed, it seemed the sky had fallen when Scott Rolen sprinted out of the batter's box and plowed into Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Hee Seop Choi. A seriously injured shoulder put an end to Rolen's 2005 campaign. And to the rescue came Abraham Orlando Nuñez. Plucked last winter from the boneyard that is the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 29-year-old switch-hitting free agent had signed with the Cardinals on Christmas Day. What a gift he proved to be! When Cardinals manager Tony La Russa subbed Nuñez for Rolen at third base, it seemed akin to the Yankees replacing Babe Ruth with George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk. We're talking, after all, about a utility middle infielder with a lifetime batting average of .238 over eight seasons with the Bucs. Plus, in 630 career games, Nuñez had played the hot corner eight times. How did he respond to the challenge? Try career highs in games played, batting average, runs scored, RBI and homers, combined with stellar play at third. Come Christmas morning, let's hope a big fat World Series ring is twinkling under the Nuñezes' tree.
The graceless aging of an NFL superstar is a sad, sad sight to behold: Emmitt Smith nickel-and-diming his way to the all-time rushing title; Jerry Rice vowing to play another season after two releases in a calendar year. Marshall Faulk is a few years away from risking such ignominy (he turned 32 this offseason, which puts him late-middle-age in football years), but in the aftermath of the Rams' bipolar 2004 campaign, the warning signs were gathering. Faulk had -- by his remarkable standards -- an off-year (774 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns), and in February coach Mike Martz made official what had become apparent by season's end: Promising young Steven Jackson would be the featured back in 2005, Faulk the change-of-pace back. No one would have been surprised if Marshall Faulk had vented to the media, demanding a trade. But then something odd happened. Faulk not only didn't argue, he actually renegotiated his contract to reflect his new job -- and to give the Rams some needed salary-cap relief. After all the negatives that have glommed on to the team since the Patriots upset them in Super Bowl XXXVI -- Kurt Warner's fall from grace and bitter departure, the annual Orlando Pace holdout, that strange fight between Martz and Kyle Turley -- Faulk's selfless act is a reminder that if the Rams are going to be among the NFL elite once again, they must be a team, and that the greatest player in franchise history still wants to lead that team, even if he has to do so mostly from the sidelines.
How'd a hockey player slip into this Best of St. Louis business? No Blues team took the ice in the 2004-05 season. And judging by the fire sale going on over at the soon-to-be-named-something-else-Savvis Center, there's a good chance there won't be much of a team on the ice for 2005-06 either. At least not in St. Louis, anyway. So how can there be a "Best Blues Player," you ask? Shut up with your questions. There are probably less than a hundred people left in this town who even care about the NHL. That means ten votes for any mook who's ever worn the Note could take this category. We're giving it to Jamal Mayers. Why? Because when the majority of the Millionaires on Ice went to Europe or headed to the golf course, Mayers went out and found himself a job with the Missouri River Otters. Sure, Ryan Johnson and Barret Jackman did the same, but we're sticking with Mayers. We reward hometown loyalty. He plays hard, he's young, and he'll be one of the few players on the roster the new owners can reasonably afford. Jamal Mayers is the future of this team. They're going to love him in Saskatoon.
There was a time when St. Louis' indoor soccer Steamers drew like the Blues. Thanks to terminally inept league (and sometimes team) management, those days are long gone. But the team's Philadelphia-based ownership has tried its ass off to heat things up again, moving the Steamers to the Savvis Center, conceiving a reality show and signing a female player. Competitive all season long before slumping to a 20-20 final record a swift playoff bow, the reconfigured Steam team also managed to maintain its soul: player/coach Daryl Doran. An indoor pro since Reagan slept in the Oval Office, Doran hasn't lost anything in the intervening decades besides his hair, leading the 2005 squad in assists while ranking eighth in the league in scoring. In a town still drunk on its soccer-epicenter glory days, the durable Doran is a worthy throwback.
Best Local Boxer
While sparring partner Cory Spinks went down feebly in his marquee rematch with Zab Judah back in February, further down the card fellow Kevin Cunningham trainee Devon Alexander "The Great" triumphed over Donovan Castaneda in a unanimous decision. In June Alexander single-handedly electrified the "Rumble by the River" in St. Charles, taking down welterweight John Rudolph by technical knockout in the third round. At the tender age of eighteen, the upstart with the 5-0 pro record likely has his best fighting days ahead of him. Says Cunningham: "I see Devon as having a bigger future than Cory, if he stays focused."
This year four-year-old Lady Riss became the first horse in Fairmount Park's 80-year history to exceed $100,000 in earnings in a single season, garnering $105,540 in winning six of seven starts at the metro east's little track that could. Given that Lady Riss is, well, a lady (filly, in Thoroughbred parlance), such a feat would figure to come with an asterisk attached. As in most sports this side of gymnastics and synchronized swimming, males are typically regarded as superior to their female counterparts when it comes to zipping around dirt ovals. Not so Lady Riss, who on July 23 topped the best boys Fairmount could muster in the $40,000 Pete Condellone Memorial Handicap. Riss has classy connections, too: Her trainer, Leroy Hellman -- the self-proclaimed "only white Leroy in East St. Louis" -- sports the track's best earnings-per-entry percentage among trainers with more than 100 starts; and if we were to give an award for "Best Owner," DuQuoin native Dana Waier would win by a dozen lengths.
Any sports-bar blowhard with a decent timbre to his voice and a varsity letter jacket moldering in his closet believes that he too could be a color commentator. And who can blame him? After all, the paragon of the profession is John Madden, whose "analysis" consists of the well-placed "Boom!" Thankfully, FSN Midwest Cardinals analyst Al Hrabosky is that most practiced of patient observers -- and, undoubtedly, the goofiest of pro sports' many goofballs -- the former relief pitcher. So while he isn't afraid to criticize an Albert Pujols base-running blunder or to question one more Tony La Russa pitching change, Hrabosky understands that "color" doesn't have to equal "loud" or "outraged." His countless hours spent sitting in the bullpen getting up to who-knows-what hijinks taught him that over the course of a 162-game season there are only a half-dozen or so plays worth getting that upset about. Instead Hrabosky approaches each game with a dry wit and a bevy of terrific stories from his days as the Mad Hungarian at the ready -- because, as any ex-reliever will admit, sometimes just watching baseball day after day can get a little boring.
Best Coach
Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer in Game 6 of the 1985 NLCS? It's a question that, to this day, grips Cardinal faithful like the Kennedy assassination. "When Jack hit it, he flipped his bat and started running down the first-base line," recalls former Cardinal ace Danny Cox. "Then he yells, "Take that, bitches!' Hittin' a bomb to take you to the World Series is pretty damn cool. If you don't like that, I don't know what you can like." After being passed over for ex-Royals nemesis Hal McRae in the Cardinals off-season hitting-coach sweepstakes, Clark signed on in the same role with the independent Frontier League's River City Rascals. This is a guy who spent almost three seasons as hitting coach for the big-league Los Angeles Dodgers. So savor this living local legend while you can.
Hard to believe that in the decade since Washington Avenue's rebirth, the street has gone without a sports bar until just this past year. That said, Flannery's could win accolades simply for going against the grain and offering anything other than the haute cuisine and/or mind-numbing techno music served up at nearly every other Wash. Ave. establishment. But Flannery's is a great sports bar in its own right, boasting more than a dozen TV sets (many of the big-screen, plasma variety) and a menu chock-full of bar fare, from burgers to wings to pizza to a damn fine chili dog. Unlike too many so-called sports bars, Flannery's is open on Sunday. Add the Irish-Hooters ambiance provided by the plaid-skirted waitstaff, and you've got yourself the Best.
Where in St. Louis can you play tennis on courts graced by champions the likes of Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, Patrick Rafter and Martina Hingis? The answer: Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park. On days the Aces aren't playing, you too can grace Dwight Davis' stadium court and pretend you're facing off against Roddick's 145 mph serve as you launch ball after ball high into stadium seats. If the stadium court is busy, Dwight Davis has eighteen others available for fees as low as $2 for unlimited play. In 2004 Apted-Hulling Inc., which owns the Cheshire Inn Hotel and Creve Coeur Racquet Club, took over management of Dwight Davis, turning what used to be humdrum municipal courts into a public tennis center with country-club perks. The company renovated the clubhouse, adding a lounge, full-service pro-shop and snacks and beverages -- including beer and margaritas for after those grueling three-set matches. Also new this year are lower rates, with free tennis Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. and tennis clinics guaranteed to improve your game in just two hours. (Memberships -- no more court fees! -- are also available; the center is in operation April through October.)