Possibly the single most difficult challenge in sports, one that leads many to call Tiger Woods the world's greatest athlete greater than any basketball, baseball, football, tennis or soccer player, greater than Lance Armstrong (who, in seven consecutive years, won a race equivalent to running a marathon every day for three weeks) entails hitting a stationary ball, standing and watching it fly, and then walking (or riding in a cart) to repeat the process. When St. Louisans seek to perfect this maddeningly difficult and exhausting challenge, many head to Tower Tee, where they can play eighteen holes, drive some balls, or attempt to putt a pink ball through the legs of a plastic hippopotamus. And when they're worn out from the intense effort, local duffers have the option to relax by participating in a considerably less-difficult pastime: trying to hit a 90 mph fastball. Because here, smack in the middle of this golf-hater's nightmare, stands a veritable Batting Cage Wonderland, featuring eleven (eleven!) cages. Softball players can avail themselves of a high, medium or low arc; and just last winter Tower Tee installed two new cages that offer fast-pitch softball at 40 or 55 mph. Baseball devotees may choose speeds ranging from 30 to 80 mph. If that ain't enough, on Wednesdays brave souls can subject themselves to the supreme test, when the 80 mph cage is steroided up to a big leagues-like 90. One dollar buys you fourteen pitches (tokens are available in bulk at a generous discount). During spring, summer and fall, the cages are open from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. every weekday and from 9 a.m. till 10 p.m. on weekends.
The young man steps up to the Gateway Grizzlies ticket counter...
What a great family that guys got, Joe. You can tell just by
looking at em. Beautiful wife, two smiling kids.
He steps up to the counter and wait a minute. Can you believe
this, Dave? Hes asking for four seats on the first-base line just a
few rows back from the field!
Whoa! He better be packing serious moolah. Four seats in gorgeous
GCS Stadium so close to the field you can hear the players infield
chatter? Joe, thats going to set him back $80 easy.
Hes reaching for his wallet.
Maybe even $100. Great seats, a quick walk to the main concession
stand. And hey, if you ask me, Joe, those concession prices are
pretty reasonable. A bit cheaper than Busch Stadium for much better
food. I might head down there between innings myself for some of
those pulled-pork nachos.
Looks like hes taking out two $20 bills, Dave.
Oh, no! Whats he thinking? Whats he thinking?
The cashier takes the two twenties and I dont believe it! I dont
believe it! The cashiers giving him four reserved seats on the first-
base line...and four bucks change! I simply dont believe it!
Play of the year right there, Joe. Now, lets go get some nachos.
You feel powerful sitting in a place like Lester's Sports Bar & Grill. It's not so much that you're invariably sitting next to a few seven-figure-salaried Claytonians. That's a given. The joint's owned by Busch's Grove proprietor Lester Miller, after all, and even rainmakers get a burger yen. No, what gives you that fearsome dose of megalomania is the acre after acre of plasma screens Miller has installed throughout his bar. With ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, FOX News, MSNBC, CNBC or CNN playing on at least ten different screens at all times, you feel like you know everything. There's nothing that's happening in the world at this moment that you do not know. You have agents around the world. Nothing escapes your notice. You see everything. You are omniscient. And we're not talking merely about the White House and the latest Cardinals score (any old Hooters will do for that). At Lester's you can indulge your rarefied sporting tastes. You want to see this year's terrier group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show? Try table 25. How about Magns Ver Magnsson competing in this year's World's Strongest Man competition? That would be table eight.
A list of the quotes, malapropisms and non sequiturs that have made Mike Shannon both the most maddening and the most endearing radio play-by-play guy in baseball would be too long for even this supersize edition of the RFT to publish. (We swear we heard him opining about the 1970s TV miniseries Roots at some point last year.) Shannon has been such an integral part of St. Louis baseball lore St. Louis lore, period for so long that it's easy to take him for granted. But last season, when Shannon began excusing himself from Cardinals' road trips to care for his ailing wife, the team's radio broadcasts sounded so, well, ordinary, even under the more-than-adequate stewardship of John Rooney. So to Mike Shannon: Our condolences on the passing of Judy Shannon, and our fervent hope that when the Cards win their eleventh World Series title, you're the one who calls the final out. Get up, baby!
Few Cardinals fans will forget that hot night of August 9, when Rick Ankiel, who hadn't appeared in a major-league game for nearly three years, strode to the plate in the seventh inning against San Diego and uncorked a three-run blast to seal the game for the Redbirds. A goose bump-inducing curtain call from a delirious crowd ensued. It was a storybook return, a true Roy Hobbs moment. At his postgame news conference, manager Tony La Russa, on the verge of tears, said, "I'm fighting my butt off to keep it together." Two days later Ankiel's remarkable and improbable reinvention from pitcher to outfielder continued, with two home runs against the Dodgers and a sparkling catch in right field. Another victory seized by a desperate team that had just returned home reeling from a horrid 1-5 trip to Pittsburgh and Washington. Five years in the minors, his epic collapse as a pitcher, the Tommy John elbow surgery, the heartbreak and humiliation all of it washed clean. Yes, Mr. Fitzgerald, there are second acts in America. St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty called it "a feel-good story," but it was so much more than that. In his quest for redemption, Ankiel ignited Cardinal Nation with sparks of hope, while giving his teammates a reason to think a nightmarish season might yet conclude in glory.
It's not the widest smile on the team. That belongs to Yadier Molina, who's had a lot to smile about lately. But So Taguchi's smile reflects two qualities that are rare in professional baseball today: silence and innocence. Because he speaks so little, watching So play ball is like watching a silent movie. He's Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp to Tony La Russa's stone-faced Buster Keaton. We get to imagine what So is feeling, which isn't hard to do, because his eyes always tell us. Mostly they tell us that So is so very happy to be in St. Louis. As a bench player, every time he gets to snatch a fly ball out of the Wrigley ivy or rally the Cards' playoff hopes with an improbable clout, So's guileless smile suggests that every at bat, every catch, is his first. He's every kid who ever wanted to play America's game, anywhere in the world.
Baseball's a game of revered statistics. Home runs. Batting average. Hit-by-pitches. The higher the numbers are, the better your player is unless we're talking about ERA. Pitchers fear the high earned-run average, and rightly so. If the other team's scoring that many runs off you, you "suck" to use a term we heard the other day at the ballpark as a pitcher. Strangely, pitchers who come to St. Louis with middling numbers often improve greatly while they're wearing the Birds on the Bat. (Hello, Chris Carpenter!) Likewise, pitchers who produce great numbers here can go elsewhere and end up with lousy numbers. (So long, Matty Mo!) Is it the magic of Baseball Heaven? No, it's the magic of pitching under the instruction of David Edwin Duncan. The man once traded for Ray Fosse never pitched himself; he was a light-hitting catcher his whole career. But his list of reclamation projects as a pitching coach is a marvel, both for the names involved (Kent Bottenfield, Darren Oliver, Woody Williams), and for the fact that these same pitchers left here with seemingly successful careers, only to bottom out elsewhere. Cards skipper Tony La Russa has long credited Duncan with the Redbirds' success, and last year's World Series victory (remember that? It was awesome!), achieved with spare parts, baling wire and unlikely stars such as Anthony Reyes, Braden Looper, Adam Wainwright and even Jeff Weaver, finally provided tangible rewards for Duncan's intangible magic. Admittedly, some of those names dropped off this season, even though they're still under Duncan's tutelage. But lest we forget, Dave also provides the Cards with help at the plate, in the form of his beefy offspring, Chris "Dry Humpin'" Duncan. How many pitching coaches can boast of improving a team's pitching staff and batting average? Just one: the uniquely talented Dave Duncan.
Do we have a certain fondness for the man known as "Jammer?" You might say so. He's been a St. Louis Blue his entire professional career, and every time he puts on that sweater, he represents the city proudly. Mayers is never going to lead the team in points, but he's got some moves on the ice and is good for about a dozen (give or take) goals a year. He's also tough as nails, a dogged checker and willing to drop the gloves (his 89 PIM last year were tops on the team) for a teammate. But Mayers is an even better teammate off the ice. Jam 'n Sal's Community Stars (www.blues.nhl.com/community/jam_n_sal.htm), a program he created with fellow Blue Bryce Salvador, recognizes kids who perform small acts of kindness and generosity. Mayers is also an instructor at the Hockey Academy of St. Louis, where he teaches youngsters how to play. He's the kind of quiet guy who puts his head down and works hard for his team, then turns around and works hard for others. Awards and recognition? Those are for other people. Except for this year. This year Mayers gets his due if only with this small token of our appreciation. Thanks, Jammer, for doing right by the city year after year, on the ice and off.
You still see a lot of Kurt Warner jerseys around town. Way too many. OK, sure, the guy won a Super Bowl, but what's he doing these days? Riding the pine for the freakin' Arizona Cardinals. Meanwhile, Marc Bulger puts up good season after good season. In 2006, he threw for 4,301 yards and 24 touchdowns. He limited his interceptions once his Achilles heel to eight. That earned him a passer rating of 92.9, seventh best in the league. Only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees threw for more yards. Can Bulger repeat Warner's remarkable 1999 season and lead the Rams back to the promised land? Dude, have you seen the scrubs who've won Super Bowls since then? Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson heck, golden boy Ben Roethlisberger gave the worst performance by a Super Bowl quarterback ever. The Rams have a franchise quarterback, a rare thing in the NFL these days. And now that they're paying him a franchise-quarterback salary, they have every reason to surround him with the role players who can help him.
All right, so he's a career minus-12 that's not so good. But, he was only minus-2 last season, which means he's improving the defensive aspect of his game. Either that or he scored goals in bunches last year, helping to offset his defensive lapses. And look at that: 27 goals, 25 assists, second on the team in total points, right behind Doug Weight. And while Dougie did have a great year, we're handing out the attaboy to Stempniak because of his nose for the net. He played the full 82 games last season, he racked up more goals than anyone on the team, he led the team in game-winning goals and he's only 24 years old. That means he's dependable, he's got the scoring touch, he's showing signs of clutchness and he could get better with age. Let's hope it all comes together for Stempniak this season, and that he gets the opportunity to pot those rarest of goals playoff goals.
Yes, if you go by the book the Laurie family's sale of the St. Louis Blues to Dave Checketts is a 2006 maneuver. But while its relevance as a business transaction is old news, the sale's impact on the "product" St. Louisans can expect to see on the ice is a current event. (Speaking of current events, it was also nice to see KMOX [1120 AM] reclaim its status as the radio home of the Blues.) The Blues have been a local sports soap opera since their inception, but most of the time, anyway until the past couple of seasons they've also been fun to watch. Happily, we're looking forward to '07-'08, and for that we have Mr. Checketts to thank.