By Kris Freeman
One of my earliest memories was waking up in the hospital room after tonsil and adenoid surgery and hearing my pastor, Clayton Hall and his booming voice. I don't know what he said, but he brought me a tool set with a blue hammer and it was authentic with a wooden handle and iron tip.
So when I consider my memories of childhood, most of them center around trauma. Divorce of my parents as a young child was bitter. I can remember getting smacked in the mouth for talking too loud (and probably too much). My brother was kidnapped (and found) at White House City Park during a baseball game. We rushed home one night at age seven to beat a tornado from White House to Cottontown, only to have a tree collapse over the road before my dad got into the driveway of my grandfather's house.
Recalling a good memory takes effort, but I am thankful how adversity shapes me. But this is a good memory.
It was late October, 1982, and I was seven years old, playing in the floor of my Paw-Paw's house, just feet from the television. I remember the player tracking the ball, leaping to the fence and making the catch. I asked my dad and my Paw-Paw who the player was, and they answered Willie McGee of the St. Louis Cardinals.
His catch in that baby blue uniform helped propel the Cardinals to an eventual seven-game World Series victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. My recognition of McGee had deeper roots, however, as my first official baseball game was a Double-A contest in Nashville when a younger McGee played for the Sounds as a part of the New York Yankees organization. He was traded as a minor leaguer and joined another defensive superstar in St. Louis for the 1982 season.
Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee laid the foundation for a run of three World Series appearances in six years. It's pretty easy to develop a love for a team who played frequently on NBC's Game of the Week, hoisted trophies and were regular starters for the National League in the All-Star Game.
By age 10, I had thousands of baseball cards. The Cardinals were on top of the world, and the Mets were pond scum (yes, that's a thing. Google it for the story). I'm still mad at Don Dekinger for blowing the call that cost the Cardinals another world championship in 1985, when the team collapsed a 3-1 lead and lost to the Kansas City Royals.
I was a baseball player, a baseball fan, and had the rosters of every single Major League Baseball team memorized, and made edits by reading the transaction wire in the newspaper. So in 1986, my dad and step-mother loaded up our baby blue Buick with my brother and step-sister and headed to St. Louis for my first MLB game.
The trip almost never happened. We suffered car trouble and rode to St. Louis with no air conditioning. My dad made the best of a bad situation and few things I remember from the trip include my father taking my brother's Pound Puppy named Buster. He was brown and every Pound Puppy stuffed animal had a stub tail. Dad rolled up the tail in the window on Interstate 24 somewhere around Paducah and my brother screamed in the back seat until he took it down. Somewhere, Buster STILL has a notch in his tail. I guarantee it.
The hotel had a pull out bed, and I think that's where Dawn slept. We went to the Arch and rode that claustrophobic enclosure to the top. It was June 23, 1986, and we arrived at Busch Stadium on a Monday. Ace left-hander John Tudor was pitching, but the Cardinals were 29-37 coming off a three-game win streak at Philadelphia and already 17.5 games out of first place of the dominant and hated Mets.
I remember watching the Cardinals warm up in front of the dugout, gazing for that infamous "51" on the back of McGee's jersey. As the game started, a superstar backflipped his way to shortstop as he was introduced, and my dad would tell me the story of The Wizard being traded before the 1982 season from the San Diego Padres. That had significance, because it's the first time I remember my father telling me that he was born in San Diego and moved to Tennessee at a very young age and never went back.
Both my favorites would play a role in the win. The game went to extra innings, tied 1-1 after a brilliant pitching performance by Tudor. Barry Bonds struck out in the top of the 11th and Terry Pendleton led off the bottom of the 11th with a single. Andy Van Slyke popped up a bunt, but the Cardinals cycled back to the top of the lineup and Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith drew walks to load the bases.
Second baseman Tommy Herr stepped to the plate and singled to left field off Pat Clements, scoring Pendleton. My first Major League game was a walk-off win for the Cardinals, 2-1.
We went Tuesday also, and the Cardinals won 5-2. Coleman stole two bases and McGee one against famed defensive Pirates catcher Tony Pena and that wicked stance. Ray Burris got the win, but most notably, I remember closer Todd Worrell coming into the ninth inning and playing both pitcher and right field, as manager Whitey Herzog let him pitch to Mike Diaz who singled. Worrell then moved to right field, and Ken Dayley struck out Barry Bonds with the bases loaded to end the game.
We headed home on Wednesday. Listening to the game on our way out, the Cardinals again won on an extra innings, walk-off with a 2-1 victory as Herr drove in Coleman off Clements. The Cardinals swept the series, but the season bookended between World Series appearances in 1985 and 1987 would end in a disappointing 79-82 mark and third place.
In 1996, I got to see the Cardinals play again. It was my first game in 10 years and I was now dating my future wife, Jennifer. The Cardinals were part of a six-team exhibition at Greer Stadium in Nashville against the Indians, and Mike Busby surrendered a home run to Albert Belle that has never landed. The Cardinals lost the game, but more importantly, Willie McGee had returned to the Cardinals after playing with the Giants and the A's. It was Ozzie Smith's final season. That night, Ozzie scored on a double by McGee and came up limping on his way into home plate.
Royce Clayton started the season at shortstop and it was Ozzie's final season for the Redbirds. But, I got to see them play together one final time, and was inches away from getting their autograph in a mob of people after the game, when a security guard pushed me off a curb and I was lost in the mass, holding the Beckett magazine with Ozzie's picture on it in my hands.
The Cardinals have been a major part of my life. I became a sports writer and a broadcaster. I wanted to be Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee or famed announcer Jack Buck. My dreams were attached to their success. And I guess the point of all this is that our lives are shaped by little things which develop key principles that we never forget.
So, two days after Father's Day, let me share this.
I am glad when the Buick nearly died, my dad didn't turn around. I am glad the Yankees traded McGee and the Padres traded Ozzie. I am glad Tommy Herr can hit. I am glad Barry Bonds didn't know how to hit home runs yet. I am sorry that Pat Clements had such a bad week.
And I am glad my dad took me to first baseball game. I still remember the score. Not because of the Cardinals, but because I couldn't stop telling him about it after the game.
You know, we saw Willie, Ozzie and John Tudor. But the most important thing is that Dad was there.
Happy Father's Day. Thanks for taking me out to the ballgame.