Every year I’m asked why our home opener is so revered. The truth is, every big league ballpark in the country has a special day, when the boys of summer make their way home from Florida and Arizona. The idea of spring baseball helps melt the remaining snow in the extreme north cities, and it just seems like the world is given a breath of fresh air when baseball finally arrives. All fans are excited about their team, whether they’re picked to finish at the top or are still in a rebuilding phase. Baseball is back, and most days, at 7:05, there will be a good option on the radio or television.
But somehow St. Louis makes our home opener extra special.
The entire city basically shuts down when Busch Stadiums' gates open for the first time. It’s no surprise that former Cardinal Ozzie Smith has been spearheading a movement to acknowledge opening day as a national holiday, because in St. Louis nobody is at work anyhow.
The day starts with festivities outside the ballpark: parades, concerts, tailgate parties, and more red paraphernalia than you thought possible. With front page coverage and every news channel locked into hot topics surrounding the team, anyone other than a baseball fan must be frustrated at the lack of news about life in the real world.
When the crowd is allowed into the stadium, the wagon gate opens to some of the most majestic animals created: the Clydesdales, pulling the beautiful Budweiser wagon with its polished brass and Dalmatian rider. The horses are meticulously groomed for the trip around the warning track, and their sheer size makes you wonder if they're real. Looking up at the huge beasts from the dugout, you can't help but take a couple steps back in case they choose another course.
The opposing team has to get tired of waiting around when the cars and trucks line up in the bowels of the stadium, each player with his name on one which will take a slow lap around the track, allowing fans an up close look at the new team. The fans yell out to their favorites and make them feel like they’ve already accomplished something. The first time I experienced this as a player I couldn't help but think how crazy it was and how out of control it would be if they were celebrating a team that won the whole thing. I've witnessed it from a distance and continue to look forward to being a part of such a parade.
As the players are introduced to the crowd, the best part of the day happens near home plate. A long line of distinguished guests shake hands with the players and coaches, wishing us luck with upholding the traditions of the organization. To think that Schoendienst, Gibson, Brock, Herzog, Sutter, Ozzie, and now, LaRussa are waiting to shake OUR hands is completely humbling. The first time I walked through that procession and shook the hand of the great Stan Musial, I began to truly realize why opening day in St. Louis is so special.
Tradition, history, legends, and a passionate fan base make this day, and this city, unique.