The last word
Commentary on Tulsa life: The boys of summer.
Jeff Van Hanken’s son, Miller, stands in front of the Stan Musial statue outside the gate at Busch Stadium.
I was a kid: family in Illinois. Living modestly. Going to Chicago — a big deal. Going weekend skiing — in Galena, Ill.! — an even bigger deal. Best of all? First major league baseball game. In St. Louis, doubleheader: Cardinals versus the Phillies. Don’t remember who won. Remember the size of the stadium, Busch II; the huge numbers of people; the Phillies’ sky-blue uniforms (still not a good look); and Lou Brock.
I wish I had the ticket stub, but this is the age of the Internet, and it doesn’t take long to dig up a workable date: Aug. 4, 1974. Philadelphia at St. Louis. Let’s play two. A Sunday. Phillies win first game, 6-1, but Brock gets two hits and steals a base, his 69th. In the second game, the Cards explode for 11, blanking the Phils as Brock steals an unthinkable three bases. Brock finishes the year with a new record for stolen bases in a season: 118.
A couple of years later, family in Tulsa. Not sure whether we were visiting or had already relocated. The local club, the Oilers, is the AAA farm team for the big club, the Cards, who pay a visit. Grandparents take us, let us chase autographs after the game. I stand out by the bus, snag signatures from Gary Templeton and Reggie Smith. For several years thereafter, I work hard to perfect Smith’s awkward and unorthodox batting stance, bat held straight up and above the head as if trying to knock an apple out of a tree.
Then I go away: from Tulsa, yes, but also from baseball. I continue to play. I watch games, attend games. Later, as an adult, I take in games in Los Angeles, in San Diego, even make it to a World Series — 1998, Yankees blank Padres. But I go as an interested fan, not a devoted follower. That part of me seems to have left: part of the wonder/nonsense of childhood, I conclude. Even when the Cardinals win again — world champions, 2006 — I follow, but … something’s different.
This summer, at breakfast one morning, I decide to take a shot and push the box scores across the breakfast table to our 7-year-old son. My hope: that he’d take an interest in the stats. That the stats were centered on baseball? An afterthought.
We have fun. What’s an “RBI”? What’s an “SB”? What does “GB” mean? “GB” stands for “games back” — as in, how many games back are the Cardinals today? We got used to asking and answering that question because the Cardinals had a tough, bordering on miserable, summer. They lost their ace before the season started; most of their big hitters suffered through injuries or slumps, usually both. At the end of August, my son had no choice but to develop a new sardonic part of his personality: the ability to laugh at failure. How could he not?
The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games back in the wild card race; who even remembers how far back in the division? But then — as will be well recounted by now — the Cardinals didn’t catch fire exactly; they slow-burned their way into the playoffs. The final game of the regular season? Almost immediately called one of the greatest nights of baseball ever as the Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays broke the hearts of Atlanta and Boston fans by sneaking into the postseason on what would be, for some, the final at bat of the season: Do or die. The Cards did. And lived.
What a ride … that continued. In Texas, visiting family, we watched every out of Chris Carpenter’s herculean shutout that closed out the Philadelphia Phillies: they with their staff hanging with Hall-of-Fame arms. In the airport to and from Texas, my son wears his Pujols jersey: high fives from passing strangers. “Go, Cards!”
And then, my wife does something completely unexpected.
“You should go,” she says. “To the game. For his birthday.”
We make it: game 5, St. Louis, Birds battle the Brewers. He gets it. I tell wife he just keeps repeating, “This is awesome; this is so awesome.” Cards win, 7-1.
It gets better. Afterward, in the hotel, two giant men in suits step on our elevator. I say to my son, “You’re standing next to two very famous pitchers. And this one,” I point to my right, “is famous because he used to play for Tulsa.”
Ron Darling, play-by-play announcer for TBS, winner of a World Series game for the 1986 champion New York Mets, laughs and sticks out his hand. My son shakes it. John Smoltz also offers his hand. Darling then says, “Tulsa? They used to be the AAA club (for the Cardinals), right?” Yep, they did. “I thought so. Keith Hernandez told me that.”
Full circle. Was Hernandez in the parking lot the night Templeton and Smith signed my scorecard? I honestly don’t remember, but if you check the records, he certainly could have been: playing for Tulsa or St. Louis. Smoltz steps off, says goodnight, but on the next floor, after Darling has already stepped off but before he’s rounded the corner, my son yanks his ball glove and pen out, runs him down. Snags an autograph.
Stunningly, I’m writing this column the morning after the historic game 6 of the 2011 World Series — a contest that ended on St. Louis native David Freese’s heart-stopping home run in the bottom of the 11th. Tonight is Game 7: Whatever happens will be unforgettable, but for me, whatever happens is already encased in amber. For my son: box scores, handshakes, signatures? What do they all add up to? Maybe someday — maybe 10,000 days from today — he’ll begin to figure that out. And tell me.