Best Of 2008

A decade ago there were more than 200 days of horseracing each year at Fairmount Park. These days there are 60. With the deals the track is trotting out, it's hard to fathom why people aren't flocking to play the ponies. Take Fairmount's Horse Hooky Tuesdays, which promise a full afternoon of thoroughbred racing for the cheap admission price of $1.50. Not only is the crowd more colorful on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. (crusty, cigar-chomping old men and Mexican cowboys, mostly) but with $2 bottles of Coors and 75-cent hot dogs, you can get a belly full of beer and hot food for less than a two-horse exacta box. Of course, if you also play that exacta box, you stand a chance of walking out with more than you came in with.

A little more than a year ago, Steve Lee, an employee at the Richmond Heights Community Center, and Anthony Bonner, basketball coach at Vashon High School, teamed up to form the St. Louis Stunners, a semipro basketball team in the American Basketball Association. Each week the pair ran open practices and tryouts at the Heights, the recently remodeled fitness hub for the cities of Brentwood, Richmond Heights and Maplewood. Though the endeavor was short-lived, the intense pickup games that followed each Stunners practice endured. Today some of the area's best amateur ballers, including Antonio Rivers, a semipro veteran and University of Central Missouri alum; and Lee, himself a former star at Riverview Gardens, throw down weekly at the gym just south of Highway 40. Don't fret if the only dunking you can do involves doughnuts. The Heights holds open gym on the weekends with enough half-court games to match most skill levels.

You'll be pleased to know that the Riverfront Times softball team enjoyed a markedly improved season in 2008, hovering around .500 for much of the summer. While armchair analysts have attributed this uptick in performance to human growth hormone, carbo-loading with Busch beer and questionable calls from the ump, we know that a little practice in the cages goes a long way toward victory (or, in our case, toward something approaching competence). The nine batting cages at the Fenton location of Swing-A-Round Fun Town (there's another location in St. Charles) are arranged in a semicircle, creating a kind of fenced-in Thunderdome for sluggers to let loose on both baseballs and softballs. The wide-open design of the pit allows the batter to place the ball down a baseline or to simply swing for the fences. The price is sixteen swings for a buck; you can also rent cage time for $24 per hour. For added ambiance, take your cuts adjacent to the miniature golf course and the tinkling sounds of the bluer-than-blue waterfall — just like they do in the majors.

Fridays are for pub crawls and Saturdays for movies. Wednesday is a night to go riding. And there's no better outfit to tag along with than the Belleville Area Biking & Eating Society. The BABES (as they call themselves) hitch up every Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. Three possible routes, usually ranging between 13 and 26 miles, begin and end at a different restaurant. After the haul everybody whips off their helmet and Spandex and whistles for barbecue plates and pitchers or whatever happens to be on tap for the evening. Most often the rides cover the best of southern Illinois' rolling terrain, but some rides originate on the Mississippi's west side, one of the most popular being the Sunday-morning Donut Trail Ride through south St. Louis. (Boo-yah!) Subscribe to Roger Kramer's e-letter via the Web address above for the latest info. Newcomers are always welcome. The rides are free for members of Hostelling International, $3 for nonmembers.

St. Louis Blues general manager Larry Pleau and coach Andy Murray have made no secret of their plans for the down-at-the-heels franchise. "Build from within" has become their mantra as they hungrily stock up on fresh young hockey studs-to-be like David Perron, Lars Eller, Jake Allen and T.J. Oshie — none of whom is even old enough to legally purchase an A-B InBev product — and Erik Johnson is quickly proving himself to be the leader of this hockey brat pack. The 2007-08 season was Johnson's first in the NHL, and although he only played in 69 of 82 games, he managed to score 5 goals (more than any other defenseman on the team) and rack up 28 assists. With his lanky six-foot-four-inch frame and golden-boy looks, the twenty-year-old defenseman bears a reassuring resemblance to erstwhile star Chris Pronger. That, his solid rookie year performance and his close relationship with friend and mentor Al MacInnis help to remind flagging fans of happier times while enticing us with promises of a younger, better (dare we say Stanley Cup-contending?) hockey team. Meanwhile, get set for another year or two of growing pains.

The International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame is relocating to Texas. But bowling aficionados need not worry — Saratoga Lanes reflects the pastime at its finest. This year, in celebration of Saratoga's significance as a historic landmark, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. According to Lindsey Derrington of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, who prepared Saratoga's nomination, the structure was constructed in 1916 by the Maplewood Planing Mill & Stair Company to house its office, warehouse and retail space on the first floor with the second story devoted to eight bowling lanes. The lanes were remodeled between 1954 and 1956 but haven't changed much since. (Today Saratoga's the only surviving upstairs alley in town. In 1940 there were a dozen.) While you're lacing up your bowling shoes, prepare to put on your thinking cap, because Saratoga doesn't roll with computerized scoring. Yep, we're talking No. 2 pencil and paper score sheet. Just like the good Lord intended it to be.

A boxer isn't defined by whom he trains with or by his last fight. A boxer is defined by his career. This is the story of how a kid named Robbie "The Peashooter" Cannon fought his way out of Jefferson County to join the upper echelon of local boxing alongside the likes of Deandre Latimore, Devon Alexander and Hollie Dunaway. Cannon has fought more than 150 amateur bouts, won an unprecedented six Golden Gloves titles and 30 some-odd championships. His pro record stands at 10-2 with one draw. The 21-year-old Missouri State Super Featherweight champ fights out of the Twin City Athletic Club in Festus, trained by Joe Pounds, the gym's head coach. Cannon's watershed moment came when he stepped into the ring with Ira Terry. It was assumed Cannon was just another chump for Terry to brutalize, thus the crowd in Tunica was on its feet when Cannon stepped to him for ten rounds before Terry was narrowly awarded the victory. Cannon's mettle was tested last March, when Rafael Valenzuela stopped him in the second round with a series of body blows and headshots that drove Cannon into the ropes. The defeat was the price Cannon paid for dropping weight the same day to make the 135-pound limit. Bad strategy — but Cannon's young, and he will learn.

The boxing gym at the 12th and Park Recreation Center is nothing to look at, with its peeling paint and ancient-looking equipment. Sans A/C, or even cross-ventilation, the place blasts like a furnace on hot summer days. But the scrappy setting matters not to St. Louis' young fighters, who flock to the gym by the dozen come weekdays at 2:30 p.m. They start young — trainer Kenny Loehr will take 'em beginning at age seven — and seem to stay forever. A former Marine who was shot in the Korean War, the 76-year-old Loehr won his bread as a postman but made his life as a boxing coach. Since 1955 he has shepherded hundreds of fighters to Golden Gloves championships and took Michael Spinks all the way to the 1976 Olympics. Loehr's latest star is Deandre "The Bull" Latimore, a Vashon High School grad who recently turned pro and moved to Las Vegas for more exposure. Fighters say Loehr has long been known for his hard-knocks, no-nonsense approach. "I thought he was a maniac when I first met him," says Harold Petty, Loehr's assistant. "But he softens up once he sees that you love to work." Loehr puts it another way: "I'm not what you call too nice of a guy sometimes, but my life is these kids."

If Albert Pujols is the heart and soul of the Cardinals, then Yadier Molina is the guts, a player whose importance you might not consider — until, from his knees, he throws out the tying run diving back into first base, or until you see his calming, but no-BS attitude when talking to one of the many pitchers with whom he has worked this season. Molina's confidence as a field general is remarkable when you consider he is only 26 years old, an age when most ballplayers are just about to enter their prime. Even if you add a couple of years to his baseball age to account for the wear and tear of being an everyday catcher, Molina still has many great years ahead of him. At this writing, his batting average stands at .305 (complete slash line, for all you stat buffs: .305/.349/.393). While the vast majority of his hits are singles, he remains a fine complement to the lineup's bashers. Besides, Molina is already guaranteed a place in Cardinals history thanks to a single home run: his blast, in the rain, to win Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

Rick Majerus' first year at the helm of Billiken basketball was...predictably mediocre. With the cupboard left bare following the departure of Brad Soderberg, the team finished with just sixteen wins and tied for ninth place in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Still, Majerus managed to make things interesting. He added a strong emphasis on academics to the program, and two players were named to the academic all-conference team. With his history of heart problems, it appeared at times (such as during a loss to George Washington in which his team scored a record-low twenty points) as if the rotund coach might keel over. Yet he maintained his legendary sense of humor, telling reporters at one postgame press conference, "We're going to get food in here after the games even if I have to pay for it myself." Next season look for the Billikens to rebound after moving into brand-new Chaifetz Arena and drawing a strong recruiting class anchored by six-foot-eleven power forward Willie Reed out of Kansas City.

Dear Jeremy: Do you remember when we met on that brilliant Saturday afternoon last September? There we were in the nosebleeds of the Edward Jones Dome, irrationally optimistic (yet again) that this would be our year. And there you were on the field, so cool and confident in front of those 66,000 partisan fans. But that didn't matter to you. No, it was as if you knew this autumn day was going to be your coming-out party and soon enough you'd be leaving hapless defenders in your wake just like you did on the gridiron at Kirkwood High. After sitting out the entire 2006 season with a bum knee, you started 2007 with a bang when you scooped up that bobbled reverse and ran it 29 yards down the sideline. Later that day you hauled in a 25-yard pass for a touchdown — and then returned a punt 66 yards for another TD to vanquish those dastardly folks from Illinois. From there you kicked in the afterburners and didn't look back. By mid-November you'd broken the freshman NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards. Come January you helped catapult Mizzou to its best season in school history and picked up scores of accolades along the way (2007 Consensus All-American and Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, just to name a couple). So, Jeremy, we've got just one question for you this year: How about another September-to-January romance? Please? We'd love you for it.