Summer is the season for baseball stories, past and present.
Stories of driving by an empty field and remembering your childhood when the same field was filled with kids like yourself in baggy, itchy flannel uniforms and full of outfield chatter.
“Hey batta, hey batta, batta … swing!”
“We wanna pitcher, not a belly itcher ...”
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Stories of going to Cardinals games with my grandpa, and taking the Redbird Express west along State Street in East St. Louis and over the Eads Bridge into downtown St. Louis. That’s still my favorite entrance from the east side into St. Louis.
Stories of trade rumors, and high earned run averages and low batting averages, and every day you can pick up the newspaper or your phone and follow updated standings and statistics.
Stories of Bryce Harper charging the mound, and Albert Pujols hitting his 600th career home run, and how this year’s Cardinals team reminds me of some Cardinal teams in the 1970s.
Summer 2017 marks 50 years that I’ve become a diehard Cardinals fan. The infatuation began in 1967 when I was 8 years old. Gibson. McCarver. Brock. Cepeda. Maris. Javier. The El Birdos, as Harry Caray nicknamed them. I was hooked.
Two stories I’ve read this spring about former Cardinal players — Rick Ankiel and David Freese — grabbed my attention.
Their stories remind me there’s more to baseball than box scores and multimillion dollar contracts.
Cardinal fans will never forget Oct. 27, 2011. David Freese rescued the Cardinals in Game 6 of the World Series with a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning. Then a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. I watched on TV in my living room. Standing. Mesmerized. Unbelievable. One night later, the Cardinals were World Champions.
In a feature article in USA Today (April 20, 2017) written by Bob Nightengale, Freese shared insights into his personal life and his struggle with depression. Honest. Poignant. As the beginning of the article points out, the 2011 World Series ring sits in a bank security deposit box but Freese hasn’t seen it or worn it in five years. His World Series MVP trophy is in a box in his parent’s basement in their suburban St. Louis home. No trophy cases. No spotlights.
Freese, hometown hero, now plays third base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is quoted in the article, “You win the World Series in your hometown and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinals baseball. And sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be ...”
He was married last September and Freese seems happier with baseball and himself. As much as he loves his hometown of St. Louis, he’s not a hometown World Series hero in Pittsburgh. Said Freese in the article. “Before, I used to let baseball define me. Being a World Series MVP, that’s just part of my story. It’s not who I am.”
I just finished Rick Ankiel’s book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life.” A great book, especially to fans like me who watched Ankiel’s transformation from promising pitcher to outfielder in the major leagues.
I was at Busch Stadium on Oct. 3, 2000, for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Ankiel’s career went sideways when he had five wild pitches in a single inning. He had the yips. No explanation. He was uncontrollably wild.
I was also at Busch Stadium on Aug. 9, 2007, when the 28-year-old Ankiel played his first game in right field in St. Louis for the Cardinals. He hit a home run in the seventh inning. It was magical. Story book. I have been a baseball fan for 50 years. Ankiel’s story may never be matched.
This baseball summer 2017, I think a lot about Freese and Ankiel. I’m glad they shared their stories as a reminder that baseball is a game and it’s played by young men. Neither the game or its players are perfect.