Best Of 2013

You know that feeling when you're putting on a pair of pants and find $20 in the pocket? Isn't that just the best feeling in the world? Now multiply it by several hundred thousand, and that's how the St. Louis Cardinals feel every time Matt Carpenter takes the field. Carpenter came up through the Cards farm system after being drafted in 2009 and always looked like a pretty decent hitter. Not a ton of power, but he was known for taking tough at-bats, smart at-bats, always working, always grinding. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any easy way to get him playing time in the majors; he was stuck behind David Freese at third base, Allen Craig at first, and he wasn't much of an outfielder. So the Cardinals continued a bit of a tradition for the franchise and moved him to second base. There, Carpenter has been a revelation. His defense has far outstripped even the most optimistic expectations, and he has become one of the best leadoff hitters in the National League. He's always on base. Literally always. You think you've seen a game he wasn't on base? Nope, sorry, you're mistaken. Always. On. Base. Coming into the season, no one would have expected Carpenter to be an All-Star second baseman, but that's exactly what he is.

There is a tremendous hole in the St. Louis Rams organization where Steven Jackson's ass used to be. But take a look at second-year cornerback Janoris Jenkins and you could swear that above those full-portioned thighs swells an ass of authentic Jacksonian hardiness, a muscular and high-grade posterior anchoring the legs of a power athlete. Granted, Jenkins isn't fully built like the fan-favorite running back, but with his workaday hindquarters and dreadlocks, it's clear the mantle has been passed. Jenkins' solid booty performance means he's not just the Rams' best cornerback, because, baby, he's got the best back of them all.

Taut twentysomethings and rotund retirees are here in various states of undress at the Carondelet YMCA's outdoor pool — and they are an eyeful. More than half of the eighteen-and-up crowd have some wicked tattoos on display. So sometime between Memorial Day and Labor Day, plunk down your white plastic lounger next to the lazy river and watch the ink parade float by in endless loops. The guy with "TOOL" etched on his bicep: a homage to the band, or an early-warning system of sorts? The sloppily drawn rose planted on a toned thigh: a mistake from a bygone spring-break trip, surely? And what to make of that cryptic five of clubs playing card? The spindly tree straight out of a Tim Burton flick? The eagle's wings that span the width of some dude's entire chest? There are stories behind every inch of ink here at the pool, but the ones you conjure are infinitely more interesting — and a fine way to pass a languid summer afternoon.

It's summertime, and the cottonwood fluff is floating over the shores of Post-Dispatch Lake. Spread a quilt beneath one of those big old trees, unpack the picnic-basket snacks and pop the wine cork. Then lean back on your elbows to watch the world go by. St. Louis loves its Forest Park, so the waterways and pedestrian paths around this spot get a lot of use: ambitious paddle-boaters on a mission to make it to the Grand Basin at the foot of Art Hill; dogs of many varieties tugging at their leashes in search of a more perfect smell; sweethearts young and old, holding hands as they stroll. Although people (and dogs) abound, the mood on this stretch of shady grass between the lake and the path is peaceful, even when snatches of Broadway melodies from the Muny vie with guitar twangs from the Friday night bands featured at the Boathouse — the proximity of which is perhaps the best feature of this particular place to picnic. If you need to freshen up, or if you run out of wine, its clean restrooms and outdoor bar are just a few steps away.

A robin's-egg-blue circle affixed to the entrance of the Audubon Center at Riverlands highlights the day's birding news in dry-erase marker: "Blue Grosbeak seen on Two Pecan Trail." There are telescopes along the large plate-glass windows inside the striking educational space, but outside is where the birdsong chirps. Senior ecologist Lane Richter, an avid bird watcher for eight years, says of that blue grosbeak, "He's been singing here all summer. And he's about as blue as the cap on this water bottle." A true cerulean blue. However, the bird Richter is most excited about having spotted in the 3,700 acres of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is not flashy but the fairly common Passerina caerulea — it's the white-winged scoter, a sea duck. "This is not their turf. They stick to the coasts as a rule," Richter says. Another favorite is the American white pelican, which winters in Ellis Bay on the Mississippi. "They fish together like a sort of animated seine net, scooting the fish with their feet into one spot where they all can feast." The center's position near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers — a globally designated "Important Bird Area," makes it best place in the metro area to see 325 species fly by.

Forgo the map and explore, letting vivid sights and smells direct your way as you casually stroll through the Missouri Botanical Garden. Most likely, they will draw you toward the left path by way of the Victorian Rose Garden. Its open yet strategic design recalls to you that the Queen of Hearts may pop from behind a bush and demand your head at any moment. Continue on and meander past the Tower Grove House — Henry Shaw's country residence — wondering what such a strong structure is doing in the middle this magical place. You then will find yourself on the way to the herb garden, where with each savory scent you salivate, wanting to pluck a fresh sprig of mint for nibbling. Soon, you'll pass through the German and Bavarian gardens, tangling through endless paths of flowers and foliage. But no matter which direction you head, you are bound to end in the Japanese Garden, where your transportation into another world is complete and you forget that a bustling city awaits outside the walls.

Located off Highway 109 in Eureka, about ten minutes from Interstate 44, Rockwoods Reservation offers a variety of short hikes in a beautiful, quiet setting. The park features six hiking trails of varying difficulty levels and lengths up to 3.6 miles. The Lime Kiln Loop Trail, a 3.2-mile hike, passes by a 40-foot stone kiln, which, as its name suggests, was formerly used for burning limestone to make powder for mortar. The loop trail features a rocky elevation gain to get your heart pumping at the start of the hike but then levels off in the middle stretch before declining again. The 1.5-mile Trail Among the Trees is mostly paved but winds through an almost surreal stretch of new-growth forest and passes by a cave. In relatively close proximity to the city, Rockwoods Reservation offers an opportunity to see wild plant and animal life and natural resources while learning about St. Louis' industrial history.

We could begin with the slides — the really fast one that leaves you skimming across the surface of the pool four stories below, or that loopy-doopy slide with more twists than a log flume. Perhaps we should discuss the lazy river? How we've spent hours just floating round and round. Then there's the beachlike wading pool that starts out a millimeter deep and gradually drops to a depth of three feet. And the fountains. Did we mention the fountains in the wading pool? We should talk about those. Or the diving boards in the big pool? The high dive is great for cannonballs. And speaking of the big pool, good golly, it's massive. Michael Phelps would probably tucker himself out swimming just one length in the lap lanes. And how about the crowd at this pool? Where else in St. Louis do you see such a diverse mix of people merrily enjoying themselves? Yes, we should probably mention all these things. But our favorite part of this gorgeous swimming pool? The frozen grapes for sale in Ziploc bags at the concession stand. So cool. So brilliant. So satisfying. Sort of like the Maplewood Family Aquatic Center itself.

St. Louis has no shortage of beautiful parks to run in, and for that, we are blessed. Carondelet Park is ideal mostly because of its versatility. You can run the paved, marked trail one time around for about a mile and a half. Said distance is perfect for the weekend warrior who may not be able to stomach much more, but it's also great for more intense runners who want to stretch it out over multiple laps. Let's face it: A one-mile lap is too short and arguably repetitive (sorry, Francis Park). And six miles is a bit much (you win, Forest Park). Carondelet offers an ideal distance, and the route is beautiful. The western side leads you down tree-lined Leona Street, which features a stretch that's covered by a canopy of trees and attracts bird enthusiasts from all over the area. The Loughborough Avenue stretch takes you past the playground, the horseshoe pits and the lovely Boathouse Lake. Finally, the Holly Hills Boulevard run gives you a chance to slow down, catch your breath and check out some of the prettiest homes in the city.

Greg the Leg? Legatron? Put aside Greg Zuerlein's silly nicknames and recognize the rookie who trotted onto the field in overtime, set himself and launched his inhumanely powerful leg to knock through the game-winning 54-yard field goal against the San Francisco 49ers. In the midst of another depressing, almost-good season, Zuerlein's pristine leg gave us the biggest (and most enjoyable) win, stunning the eventual NFC champs while sporting the Rams' gorgeous throwback uniforms. Yes, the whiners will whine: "But he's a kicker! He was a rookie last year! What about that Miami game? This is Sam Bradford's year!" Shut up, whiners. In the 2012 season it was Zuerlein's insane range that effectively shrunk the field for an offense that could only tease greatness. Zuerlein hit the longest field goal in Rams history (60 yards) to put away the Seahawks, and no player in NFL history attempted more 50-yard field goals than he did as a rookie last season. What it comes down to is that Zuerlein represents what the Rams need to compete in the roughest division in football: the confidence, composure and balls to put down the best teams on the biggest stages.

Jesse Finney is a badass dude. He's got a lifetime of learning to kick ass behind him and now mostly trains other people how to kick ass. A member of the St. Louis Boxing Hall of Fame, he runs his own gym and heads up Finney's HIT Squad, an MMA team he purchased upon retiring back in 2011. Wait, he's retired? Why is a retired MMA fighter our winner, you ask? On December 30, 2012, a man in the process of shoplifting seven bottles of vodka from the Schnucks in Crestwood got into an altercation with a female employee. The man attempted to make his getaway but was stopped by — yep, you guessed it — Jesse Finney. Finney held the man until police arrived, and the day was saved. Well, except for one bottle of vodka, which was somewhat tragically smashed during the struggle. Besides that, the outcome was a good one, all thanks to Finney, a real-life crime fighter.