Best Of 2006

Let's not kid ourselves: It was a grim year to be a Blues fan. Key players were traded, injuries piled up, and wins were in short supply. But on the night Al MacInnis' number was retired, the Blues showed they still had their pride. With Chopper in the building and the opposing Edmonton Oilers fighting for a berth in the playoffs (seemed to work out pretty well for them, by the way), the battered Blues ground out a 2-1 victory. Meaningless? Not at all. Jason Bacashihua displayed flashes of brilliance between the pipes that night, exhibiting quick glove work and smart positioning that belied his year-end total of four victories. For that one night, with an inspired team in front of him, the first-year, third-string goalie looked Vezina-worthy. And that's what the Blues have needed in the crease since the departure of Curtis Joseph: a goalie who can hold up his end of the bargain in the big game. Bacashihua may not be ready to do it consistently, or even to claim the starting job this year. But if he stays healthy and hungry, he could be the goalie of the Blues' future. And now that the ownership has been settled and Erik Johnson is on the roster, it looks like the Blues actually have a future. Bacashihua — his name means hope.
When the Cardinals acquired Juan Encarnacion in the off-season from the Florida Marlins and gave him $15 million over three years, fan reaction was, to put it kindly, muted. Cardinal Nation expected a serviceable replacement for Larry Walker, someone who'd produce something near the .287 average, 16 home runs and 76 RBI he accumulated last year with the Marlins. During a slow April our so-called best fans in baseball turned on J-Enc. "He's left more men stranded than FEMA!" someone quipped on talk radio. But by midseason Juan had turned it on — and hardly anyone noticed. His projected stats — a .280 batting average, 20 homers, 82 RBI and a slugging percentage of .448 — would be the best single-season numbers of his career. With his long stride and nonchalant gait, Encarnacion continues to be accused of dogging it defensively, but he's doing anything but. In a darkish year for St. Louis baseball fans, one that saw an inconvenient run of injuries and a veritable revolving door in the clubhouse, the unsung Encarnacion has been a rare bright spot — he's the only Cardinal who managed to crack the lineup in more than 150 games. What's more, he has gone about his business with quiet equanimity and class — the mark of what St. Louisans like to think of as a true Redbird.
After the team's miserable showing last year, incoming Rams coach Scott Linehan pretty much gets a free pass for '06-'07. But if fans aren't expecting a first-year miracle out of the new head coach, they are looking for tailback Steven Jackson to stand and deliver in his third pro season. Jackson's a big man, and the Rams' 2004 first-round pick out of Oregon State matched that late last year with a big mouth, complaining that outgoing head coach Mike Martz's game plan had given him short shrift. The six-foot-two, 231-pound Jackson finished the season with 1,046 yards rushing on 254 carries, for an average of 4.1 yards per; he carried the ball twenty times or more in only three games. This year, with Linehan's love of the running game and Marshall Faulk's absence from the picture — probably for good — Jackson is projected to get plenty more touches. If the top running back from the draft class of '04 can live up to his promise, the Rams' 2006-'07 record may well reflect the upgrade. We're betting that he can, and that it will.
Such a conundrum does the knee-weakening mug of John David Washington present. On the one hand, if the Rams rookie, signed as an undrafted free agent over the summer, earns some quality PT on the gridiron this fall, it ups his chances of being kept on for seasons to come. But on the other, it also means covering up that comely countenance with a helmet. The five-ten, 200-pounder can surely play; at Division II Morehouse the running back set single-game and career rushing records. And he'll likely do just fine finessing the refs and handling the press. After all, his dad is two-time Oscar nabber and Hollywood A-lister Denzel. It's that face, though — modelesque cheekbones and hunky bedroom eyes that out-sizzle the Man on Fire himself — that's most worth rooting for. He's welcome to cross our line of scrimmage anytime.
Jose Oquendo is the Jose Oquendo of this year's "Best Coach" category. Even as the managers of all three of St. Louis' professional sports teams piloted their clubs to subpar seasons, only Oquendo, the Cardinals' "Secret Weapon" of the 1980s and 1990s — stands out. During the World Baseball Classic this past spring, Oquendo moved from the third-base coaching box to the dugout to manage the Puerto Rican national team. As he did throughout his playing career, Oquendo made a flawless transition, leading Puerto Rico to a 3-0 record in the opening round. Things didn't go so well in the next round, as Oquendo's squad — which featured Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams and Ivan Rodriguez (not to mention Redbird receiver Yadier Molina) — beat Albert Pujols and his Dominican mates 7-1 but lost 6-0 to Venezuela and then was narrowly defeated 4-3 by Cuba to end the run.
Tucked away between Washington University's Hilltop Campus and the South 40 residential complex (specifically, between Stix International House and Blewett Hall) is a hidden little corner of paradise. Since its founding by the Wash. U. Women's Club in 1995, "Ibby's Garden," built to honor former university first lady Elizabeth Danforth, has hosted throngs of butterflies, from monarchs and viceroys to skippers and buckeyes. Amazingly, it seems to draw very few humans, despite the heavy foot traffic on the path that skirts the garden. That, of course, only adds to charm. Shaded from the boulevard by mature trees and secluded amid wildly tall foliage, you can sit there for hours undisturbed by anyone without wings. With more than 40 varieties of native plants, the garden was designed by June Hutson of the Missouri Botanical Garden to supply food and shelter for a shrinking butterfly population, and while it blooms madly all summer, its best attribute is the color in the air.
In some instances more is more and bigger is better. Even if the forlorn and largely unused park parcel adjacent to the BJC hospital complex should be leased and lost forever, Forest Park would continue to radiate Best-ness with lovely, leafy authority via its miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths, its extraordinary cultural institutions, its broad and various fields and facilities for sport, its secluded redoubts, its visually thrilling vistas. The park — our park — is 1,293 acres big, and restored to a fare-thee-well after years of neglect. In a fashion as dynamic as it is democratic, Forest Park is a resource for just about anybody: those who fancy the arcane (such as the monument to physical culturist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn near Post-Dispatch Lake), and those who delight in the mundane (such as the musical and climatological assaults of the Muny). Forest Park, our treasure, is vitality defined, our region's heart, maybe its soul.
Saddle a two-wheeler under the magnificent shadow of the Gateway Arch — specifically, at the intersection of Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and Biddle Street, the exact point where the locally maintained Riverfront Trail segues into the Mississippi River Trail, governed by a multistate consortium from Minnesota to Louisiana. Point the bicycle due south, and pedal. Through the gaping maw of woebegone industrial relics you'll pass, but only for a mile or two; remind yourself that everything old does ultimately turn new again, and that while this territory awaits its urban revitalization, there's a certain Langston Hughes charm about it. Eventually the trail (which is not always a trail per se; it does take to a few city streets, as noted by the maps accessible on the MRT Web site) will take you past the pocket parks of Lyon, Minniewood and Bellerive before depositing you on South Broadway. Before long you're skirting Jefferson Barracks County Park. You might contemplate seeing the trail all the way to its conclusion in New Orleans — but you've got to start heading back: Your city of St. Louis still wants you.
Like you, dear reader, most of the time we're too busy shopping, eating out, drinking wine and watching Law & Order to even think about going on a hike, much less weigh the options of where. That's why we love Rockwoods Reservation. This forested haven offers seven trails for the hiking one of which is only 300 yards long! If the tiny trail is nice for a stroll between episodes, the Trail Among the Trees is the tops. It's a one-and-a-half-mile meander, and if you pick up a brochure before you start, you'll be well versed in all items of interest along the way. Try to find the hidden cave on the first half of the trail; it will provide a cool breeze and challenge your sense of adventure. The less courageous needn't worry about the path being too treacherous sometimes stairs and bridges help you along. (Note to the genuinely intrepid: Rockwoods offers some longer, non-interpretive trails for y'all, too.)
The best jogging route is the one you map out for yourself. For the purposes of this contest, let's say the best jog nowadays is the Downtown St. Louis Jog, and you can map your own route. Though your aim is to release endorphins and hunkify your calves, you also want to see what's going on, who's on the street, who's on the street with a dog, what's in the galleries, what outrage Bob Cassilly has perpetrated, which old building is being revitalized, which new building is filling up. So: Begin at the Milles Fountain across from Union Station and make your way north to Washington Avenue. Head east; when you reach the Eads Bridge (which Walt Whitman called a "structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable"), cross it, availing yourself of the sidewalk on the south side so you can take long, luxuriant ganders at the Arch. Touch toe to Illinois (so you can tell your friends your running often involves two states) and then head back across the bridge. When you get to the Missouri side, hang a left and run through the Arch grounds. Be careful crossing the perilous Memorial Drive into Luther Ely Smith Park. Soak in the sight of the Old Courthouse, then follow Market Street west back to the fountain and cool off. Cool fountain spray is one reward. The other is the mental movie you've made of a town on the mend, shot from a runner's intimate perspective.