Part XVII: Busch Stadium
(AKA: The Night of Free Food and Free Beer)
(AKA: The Cardinal Way)
This is another special post because I had one of my best friends, Matthew, join me for this final part of my trip, and this was a ballpark he had to visit at least once in his life. Even more lucky, I had gotten a hotel only two blocks away from the stadium and was able to fully prepare for this game. In fact, this is another one of those games were I felt completely ready to see every aspect of a new ballpark. Then again, I had gotten very good at preparing with the other 29 ballparks I had visited.
The game was on a Friday night, and the weather was fairly mild… a perfect day for a ball game. Since the game was against the Miami Marlins, we didn’t have the overly crowded streets like I had seen on TV last season. However, that didn’t matter, many fans still showed up en masse because Busch Stadium really is a gem in the Midwest. Would this place live up to expectations?
Ballpark 31: Busch Stadium, elevation 440 feet
The game: Marlins @ Cardinals on August 14, 2015
After leaving our hotel room and printing out our tickets, we took a brief stroll towards the Ballpark Village since the stadium wouldn’t open for another hour. This entire area is fairly new as the space was left unused for several years. Walking inside is like an epic entry into one giant party with several large screens showing that day’s baseball action; the game that afternoon was a cross-town match between the Cubs and White Sox. In the middle of the open concourse, there is an enormous restaurant that takes up most of the Ballpark Village.
However, the true highlight of this building is Cardinals Nation which includes an excellent restaurant and a Hall of Fame Club. Included in here are artifacts from the rich history of the Cardinals. One of my favorite pieces is the jersey from “Turn Ahead the Clock” night where MLB teams wore “futuristic” uniforms. For the Cardinals, their logo featured a robotic Cardinal perched atop a silver bat. There is also a museum on the history of the Cardinals that people can go into with a ticket to that day’s game. There was only so much time to check out a couple booths, but as we exited the museum area, Matt and I were greeted by a friendly lady who wanted to interview us in order to get some free stuff. I can never say “no” to free stuff… but I didn’t expect what I was going to receive.
Both Matthew and myself were asked about our impressions of Cardinal Nation and where we were visiting from. When I told them I was on a ballpark tour and wanted to save one of the best stadiums for last, they seemed to really love that. So, instead of giving me one free prize… they gave me a BUNCH of free drink wooden tokens to use at the bar. Not one or two, but seven! Since Matt doesn’t drink, he gave me his free token… so that left me with EIGHT free alcoholic drinks! Keep in mind, I wouldn’t be driving that entire night, and this was still 150 minutes before the game. Thus, I took advantage of this incredible gift and got a couple free beers right away… since I got a free Sportsman’s Park cup out of it! For the record, I’m a fan of hard apple cider!
Honestly, there should be an entire half-day devoted to Cardinals Nation as the authentic store is top-notch, the museum is must-see, and the atmosphere of the whole place is great for any baseball fan. There are a plethora of outlines showing where the old Busch Stadium stood, and a brick diamond shows where the original base paths were. This goes without saying, but I loved it here.
Soon after checking out the Ballpark Village, Matt and I made our way to the center field gates to enter new Busch Stadium. Upon entry, we were greeted with a gorgeous brick facade any several player statues including Ozzie Smith. We worked our way to the field level seats to take in some BP and then take some great pictures with the Gateway Arch in the background. Yes, this monument can be seen from inside the stadium. It’s a bit breathtaking to be able to see such a famous landmark from within Busch.
Walking within the lower concourses, we stumbled upon some neat touches from the old Busch Stadium like the scoreboards from the previous stadium. Particularly, we first ran into the National League scoreboard that showed the scores still from the final regular season home game for the St. Louis Cardinals at old Busch on October 2, 2005. Yes, it has been a decade since this new stadium opened its gates. It is also nice to see new Busch acknowledge their prior footprints, or as they call it “traces of the past.”
Completing our lap around the Cardinals home, we got some free trading cards for a new baseball card game, got some sticker sheets for Matthew (only four bucks), and I perused the Cardinals Authentics Shop at Ford Plaza behind the center field district. I’ll put it simply, this store is amazing. There are plenty of pennants, banners, and posters to whet your appetite. Better yet, the game-used items are fairly priced and are at a great price point that would make fans like myself want to buy stuff. I looked around that store for about half-an-hour before I decided that I would get a hat. Luckily, an awesome gentleman working behind the counter told me that there was a sale on game-used hats from last year’s postseason. Even though I’m a Dodgers fan, I couldn’t pass up a chance at a perfectly fitted red Cardinals postseason cap. Even though the blue hat with the cardinal looked nice, I had to go with the classic red with interlocking “STL” lettering. Yes, I’m a HUGE jersey head and love the aesthetics of certain team jerseys (…yes, I subscribe to and read “Uni Watch” frequently). The Cardinals are one of the few teams that still use chain-stitching on their wonderful jerseys, so I knew I had to get one. I had been debating between getting a cream-colored jersey or a classic home white jersey. Sadly, they didn’t have any good choices that were my size in the cream color. I take that back… they did but at a VERY expensive price. I had a few choices in mind that I would think about during the game. Meanwhile, I opted for a red ’14 postseason cap for now for only $25. That’s cheaper than a regular fitted cap from the team store! It had the postseason patch and everything. I knew I’d return to this store later.
Ticket prices: Busch Stadium really is a good value for games, especially compared to other parks with great teams. However, Matt and I got one of the best views of the night with the Saint Louis (Gateway) Arch right in our sight line. We sat in the top section, but the top of this park doesn’t feel far compared to other fields. We sat in the Infield Pavilion 345 section in row 2 and found those tickets on StubHub for just over $30 each. Because the pavilion isn’t that far from the plate, foul balls can easily make it to that section. In fact, we had several foul balls come near us! Yeah, we had to keep our eyes on the field at all times. These prices are a good value, and the Cardinals do a good job of making tickets affordable, which explains the high capacity percentage when it comes to attendance. Even for a big giveaway night, those were not bad prices. Oh, the giveaway for this game was a Red Schoendienst red jacket mini-statue. Red was going into the Cardinals Hall of Fame that weekend, and the small statue features him in a classic Cardinal red jacket. This was a very sweet giveaway item!
The fans: This is where St. Louis gets very high marks from both myself and Matt. Right away, we were greeted with friendliness and sincerity. It should be pointed out that my friend, Matt, was wearing a Dodgers cap as he had come in from LAX and hadn’t bought any other new hats… yet. I didn’t have any caps on at all. So, here I was with this obvious Dodgers fan…
…and he didn’t get booed or heckled at all! In fact, we had a couple fans ask us if we were from Los Angeles and struck up a couple quick 30-second conversations with random Cardinals fans. Now, I had gotten used to this from other places with friendly fans. Matt was completely floored that he was accepted into this ballpark with open arms despite being an NL rival. He was already loving this ballpark, and so was I.
The food: When in the Midwest, do as they do and eat meat, lots of meat! Of course, most of the Midwest is known for their barbecue. Unfortunately, they no longer have the St. Louis Dog or the Food Network cart that I had seen on a couple tv shows. However, I saw a food item that looked incredible… everything bacon. I’m talking about the extreme bacon sandwich which contains ground pork wrapped with bacon and stuffed with cheese, bacon pieces, and served on a bacon bun! Oh, and this also came with a bag of maple bacon chips for $12. This sandwiched tasted WAY better than it looked, and that’s saying a lot. I love bacon, and this sandwich lived up to expectations. Well done! However, I will talk more about food later…
The game: With the Marlins in town, many people figured this to be an easy win for the Cardinals who were streaking towards the playoffs. Of course, there was one other major story in this game, and that was Ichiro Suzuki. He is one of my favorite players of all time not just for his hitting ability, but his incredible work ethic and his love for the game… even well into his forties. I could honestly see him playing until he’s in his late 40s. Before this game, he was sitting on 2,912 career major league hits… only 88 hits away from three thousand! Before this game, there was an unofficial record taking place. Ichiro was only one hit away from catching Ty Cobb for the 2nd most professional hits if you include Ichiro’s hits from the Japanese professional league. Whether you count those or not, this is still an unbelievable feat. He was 41 years old still playing and going for a milestone that would pretty much cement his legacy and put him the Hall of Fame. During his first at-bat, he grounded out softly.
As it turned out, this would become a pitching duel between Tom Koehler of the Marlins and Jaime Garcia of the Cards. The first three innings moved quickly as both teams only managed one hit. The 4th inning had a bit more action, but it was still a scoreless tie with the game being only about an hour and ten minutes in. The clouds slowly began rolling in, and sundown was approaching which made the Gateway Arch slightly tougher to see. The view was still excellent from my vantage point. There was a sense of bewilderment when I realized that I was only less than a mile from the mighty Mississippi River, but this was more of me being a geography nut at this point of the game.
The 5th inning provided a wonderful moment as Ichiro came up to bat for the second time this evening. This time, he drove a hit into left field and that would be professional hit number 4,191… which tied him with Ty Cobb. There were more than a few fans who realized this and gave him a nice applause. There were a couple sections where all the fans stood up and cheered. Of course, I stood up and cheered because regardless of opinion, accumulating that many hits over the course of two decades is still impressive and a tremendous feat. Including his hits from the Orix Blue Wave of the Nippon Professional Baseball league will still be debated among many fans, but the St. Louis faithful didn’t care about that. We absolutely loved that the fans recognized such a moment, and that is one more reason to say that the Cardinals fans are some of the best in the majors. Kudos to you, St. Louis!
The first score came later that inning off the bat of Matt Carpenter. The Cardinals took the early lead, and then tacked on another run in the 7th inning to make it a 2-0 game. In general, the game moved at a fairly brisk pace as both sides were getting quick outs. Jaime Garcia was still cruising along getting out after out. As quickly as the game started, he had already pitched 8 scoreless innings and looking to close out the game himself. Because of the quick pace, Matt and I decided to look around and see what was nearby. All we had to do was look over at the newly developed Ballpark Village. Matt figured, “You already got free beer there…. you STILL have more free alcohol coming to you. We may as well eat there, too!” Again, thank you, Saint Louis!
In the bottom of the 9th, Matt Carpenter belted a home run to bring the crowd to its feet and gave the Cards a 3-0 lead. As for Jaime Garcia, he nearly pitched a complete game shutout, but after hitting a batter and allowing a walk, he would leave the game having pitched 8 and a third scoreless. When Garcia departed the game, he got probably the loudest ovation of the night. These fans appreciate a fine pitching effort, and that standing ovation was well deserved. Finally, after the Cardinals’ closer Trevor Rosenthal allowed an unearned run to score, the Marlins were looking to tie the game with Ichiro at bat looking to pass Ty Cobb. That wouldn’t happen as he popped out to end the game. The Cardinals won, 3-1 in a game that only took less than 2 and a half hours! Because we finished the game so quickly, all the shops were still open and buzzing with people. After much deliberation, I decided to make my final stop at the Cardinals Authentics Shop. This time, I wanted something more than a hat.
Most of my friends know how much of a jersey nut I am. One of my favorite sites is the Uni Watch site maintained by Paul Lukas, you should check it out! One of the most interesting reads on the Uni Watch site is the article about jerseys that contain chain-stitching on them. Included in that article is a fascinating story about a few older ladies who made the Cardinals’ jerseys by hand. When seeing these beauties up close, the logos really do pop from the jersey. I knew I had to get one. Unfortunately, there were not many jerseys my size, and the majority of the ones I liked were very expensive. Matt did find one that was a white home jersey with TWO special patches on them. The first one was the special Stan Musial memorial patch with the #6 on it. The other patch was from the 2013 World Series! Even though it was a jersey of bullpen coach, Blaise Ilsley, this jersey was gorgeous… especially for only $100. Compared to some of the other jerseys ranging from $150-$300, I thought this was a good buy, especially for a World Series jersey. I quickly bought it, and I proudly wear that thing from time to time.
The food… again: After declaring victory from the inside of the stadium shops, Matt and I built up quite an appetite for delicious chili. We went back to the Cardinals Nation Restaurant & Bar. I got two more free drinks; I felt like I was ahead for the day. All those drinks would have cost me about $25, and I was amazed that one of those included a non-beer drink (I think I had a rum and Coke for that one). We were greeted by our awesome waitress, Amanda, and she saw that I had another free beer token. When she asked where we came from, I explained my story and she went out of her way to give us food recommendations and places to go around town. Oh, I also had a $5 off coupon from the MLB at the Ballpark app if Matt and I spent $25 or more. I was more than happy to pay for the entire meal that way we could get the discount.
At this point, Amanda explained that the Ballpark Village was built to try and revitalize the downtown area. Also, we found out that area was partly owned by the Cardinals organization… so in a sense, she was also working for the Cardinals! She sat and talked with us for more than a few minutes, and we went on about stories about our travels, and I admitted that Busch Stadium was one of the best I had been to up to that point, and I sincerely meant that. She gave us so many tips small details about the Ballpark Village that we had to do a double take on the way out! Thank you Amanda for being awesome and being especially courteous.
For the record, she also gave us a free food item off the bill, which ended up being another baked potato for me. I only ordered the baked potato because of the enormous sandwich I ate inside the stadium. Matt ended up getting the soup of the day, which had damn good chili, shared Chef Clarence’s Famous Chili and Cheese Fries (highly recommended at only nine bucks), and a pulled pork sandwich with a baked potato on the side. When Matt asked if could have a small side bowl of chili, she even gave THAT to us on the house! Instead of putting sour cream or (ugh) ketchup on the baked potato… he put the chili on top of the baked potato…. best decision ever! He enjoyed that so much that I had to take the picture as proof of his enjoyment.
This goes without saying, but I highly recommend checking out the restaurant at Cardinals Nation. Food quality and service are among the best in baseball. Besides, this was one of the few times I left a tip greater than 25%. Actually, I still have the receipt… I gave a near $13 tip on a $27 bill?!? I must have felt extremely generous, but the way I figure it… with the free food and MLB app coupon, I would have spent more than that.
Finally, I loved how a couple of the staff stopped in their tracks when they saw me pull out my sign when Amanda took a picture of Matt and I at the restaurant. They were very complimentary and congratulated me on accomplishing such a fantastic journey. Indeed, I had actually visited EVERY stadium and watched a game in each one. Even though the OFFICIAL end of my travels was the following day in Kansas City, I couldn’t believe how much support I got that last stretch. Having Matt there to finish off my tour was the icing on the cake, and I’m glad I got to share that with a good friend of mine. That besides… we weren’t quite done yet! Big thank you to everyone in Saint Louis. Also, thank you all for reading… and as I always say, I’ll see you at the ballpark!