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An Early Opening Day




Have you ever experienced an entire weekend in which almost everything that happened to you had nothing but positive overtones and the few things that weren’t positive were still overshadowed by the good stuff? Well, if you have, you’ll understand why today’s entry isn’t about my beloved Kansas City Royals opening up the 2005 season in Detroit at noon. If you haven’t, I hope such a weekend is on the way for you, and that you’ll take the time to read this anyway. After all, I’ve been feeling like exuberantly shouting my story off the top of a mountain so all could hear it. Heck, I’d probably talk to total strangers who couldn’t care less if they knew what I was talking about in the first place.

Incidentally, talking to people I don't know was the theme of the past two or three days, especially if you count Friday when I toured some apartments and, a day later, turned in my application for what would be my first-ever apartment. All of which was pretty darned exciting stuff, but little did I know that taking the next step towards total independence would be the thing that would put the smallest smile on my face over the course of Saturday afternoon.

As I’m sure all of you KRB regulars remember, I’ve been writing little bits and pieces about not only the Springfield Cardinals playing their first games this past weekend against their defending National League Champion parent club, but also that I picked up a job as an usher at Hammons Field for this season. Even though I was essentially a nervous wreck Friday evening after my day of looking at and deciding on an apartment, preparing for a date that ended up being doomed from the start, and really freaking out over the unknown situation I’d be stepping into the following day at Hammons, my nerves really began to calm down after I set foot in the stadium at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

First of all, there’s just something soothing to me about the first five or ten minutes of being in any ballpark, soothing in a way I can’t even begin to describe logically. I knew there were other Cardinals employees all around me, some working in food service, others in the front office, and others such as myself decked out in grey polo shirts and khaki pants – the event staff’s uniform. All of them were strangers, but yet I didn’t feel like they were strangers. I’m sure there was a very cool breeze up on the concourse level, but I didn’t feel it. And I can’t remember but a few things that were said during our pre-game staff meeting, as I was just mesmerized by the field, trying to gain a true grasp of the history that was about to be made later that day. In other words, the first few minutes of being in a baseball stadium – especially one right in my backyard – have a way of making the entire world go away, and all of my problems disappear for a few moments as well.

However, the world certainly wasn’t going to stay away for long, as the stands would soon begin filling to capacity about an hour-and-a-half before the scheduled start time of 3:10 p.m. The (approximately) three hours we had to prepare for 10,000 very-excited Cardinals fans surprisingly proved to barely be an adequate amount of time. Before I knew it, I was standing by my “post” on the sun-covered concourse level at section A, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with a very nice older gentlemen named Gordon who was in charge of section A-1, which, before that day, I only knew as a very popular steak sauce. The cool breeze whipping my shirt around and became more and more prevalent as I began to see a sea of red visors, red caps, red shirts, and even a red cowboy hat march up the stairway leading to the seating. I took a quick glance down the steps of my aisle, which was splashed in sunlight. I knew I wanted to go down there very badly. Not because I was starting to get really, really cold thanks to the aforementioned and resilient cool breeze, but because I wanted a place to hide. Half of a NBA arena was emerging out of nowhere … and many of them were headed straight for me.

Talking to people I don’t know very well has never been a major problem for me, but I feared the questions this particular set of people-I-don’t-know would have, terrified of not knowing the answers. After all, wearing That Shirt with EVENT STAFF embroidered directly below the Springfield Cardinals logo says only one thing to the people entering the stadium, and that’s, “Have a question? I can lead you to the right place politely, quickly, and capably.” As I’ve learned, a part of ushering is finding someone else who might have better information if I don’t. Not knowing what’s going on isn’t acceptable.

Although the queries of most of the fans were very reasonable (many just wanted a reassurance of where exactly they were sitting so as not to feel lost), other questions had me succeeding “politely,” but certainly not “quickly” and definitely not so “capably.” For example, sitting here now, I know that I repeatedly sent people with a certain ticket level to the wrong place, wrongly informing them to go to the second level when their seats were actually only a few steps away from me. Admittedly, mistakes were made, I learned from them, and was pretty anxious to get things started.

I anticipated HF becoming one gigantic house of good times during the pre-game ceremony, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. It’s important to understand that what made Saturday’s game such a big deal in the Ozarks was that the heroes (baseball or otherwise) of almost everyone in attendance would be in attendance too. For the kids, Fredbird, the Cardinals mascot, did his usual crazy antics on the field, the dugouts, and in the stands. A legendary singer in Andy Williams successfully crooned our National Anthem for the older fans of great music. For the older Cardinals fans, former Cardinals great Red Schoendist sat during the festivities next to John Q. Hammons, the man who made this past weekend possible. And Stan Musial, a frail man who’s now just a shell of the amazing Hall of Fame player he was, was able to captivate the eyes, minds, and hearts of men and women young and old. His contributions? Tossing the ceremonial first pitch better than most in the same situation, playing a sing-along version of Take Me Out To The Ballgame on the harmonica, and, most importantly, standing in the left-handed batter’s box and swinging an imaginary bat at an imaginary ball. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to think of a scenario where Stan The Man could still line a single back up the box, even today.

As Saturday’s game got underway after the players from both squads were introduced, things calmed down considerably. There were fewer people asking, “Where’s my seat?” or “Where’s the nearest restroom?” I think the primary reason for that could be seen on the faces of everyone there, especially when I’d jog downstairs to the bottom railing just to keep an eye on the crowd after every half inning. I’ve never seen a happier bunch of people, especially for a game that ended up featuring no home runs, no real exciting plays, and a relatively uneventful 4-3 St. Louis Cardinals victory. No matter where I looked, I was able to find at least nine people out of every ten with a gigantic smile on their faces.

Every person I had the awesome privilege of speaking with was incredibly cordial, engaging, and in a good mood. Some, I found out, were at the stadium for the first time, awed by the nicest video board in the state of Missouri among other things. Others were there to see Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols play in person. And one woman even approached me, expressing how much having a state-of-the-art facility that houses a Cardinals farm team means to her and her family. Getting teary-eyed, she told me that her father and grandfather – both big Cards fans – would’ve picked up so much joy from knowing their team played in their hometown, even if it was just for one weekend in April. Unfortunately, both have passed away, and never got the opportunity.

Wrapping up my duties after Julian Tavarez struck out the side in the ninth inning for the save, I was once again downstairs to not only shoot the breeze and get to know some more folks, but also to visually encourage people to leave the stadium as soon as possible. Saying my see-ya-laters to Bob and Danette, a very nice couple who enjoyed the game from the sun-splashed front row, I spotted several Springfield players signing autographs for anyone who wanted one. At this point, I, along with everyone else don’t know one Cardinal from another, but that certainly didn’t stop the autograph hounds. Kids were lined up along the railing, leaning over it begging anybody wearing a red cap, sunglasses, and spikes to pleeeeease scratch his name on a program or hat. As is par for the course with minor league baseball, everyone who asked for an autograph got one, which is every bit as beautiful as the sunny, 64-degree day the players who signed just competed in.

Before the game started, all of us were instructed to have fun so the guests in our “house” would have fun as well. While I did my best to execute the plan my supervisors set for all of us to accomplish, I couldn’t help but think our guests, the fans, were stealing some of my thunder. Seeing the laughter, the toothy grins, and the baseball stories being shared had an effect on me. Those fans caused me to have the time of my life. Saturday, April 2, 2005 reinforced what the heart of baseball really is. It’s about family. It’s about stories. It’s about friendship. But most of all for me, it’s about enjoying the time I’m going to have talking with and getting to know the baseball fans I’ll be helping out this year. For the time being, however, those strangers are some kind of perfect.
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