A neighborly weekend at the old ballpark

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It is 9:30 on a Friday morning. The first game of the series won't start for almost 10 hours.

But the man who calls himself "the Atlanta Scalper" is already on a street corner midway between the old courthouse where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and the old ballpark where Vince Coleman gave Jody Davis nightmares.It is already hot. It doesn't matter.

"I'll be out here all day," he says. "Even without Sammy Sosa. The tradition is always here.

"Today's gonna be tremendous. It's gonna be huge today . . . "

It's Cubs-Cardinals, on a summer weekend in St. Louis.

There is no more Classic Midwest Weekend than this.

That it happens only one summer weekend a year (barring a scheduling blip or, perish the thought, another work stoppage) is beside the point.

Look, there are other famous baseball rivalries. Red Sox-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. I have been in Yankee Stadium on a hot summer night when Yaz homered to beat Guidry, and I have been in a packed Dodger Stadium on a 90-degree Labor Day when a rookie named Don Sutton faced another future Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry.

All wonderful. No doubt about it.

But those are about baseball. This is about families and neighbors. They're here from Peoria and Springfield and Hannibal. They're here from Oskaloosa, Iowa.

"Big Cub fan," says John Stearns, no relation to the surly ex-catcher, here from there with his wife and 9-year-old daughter. "Half this stadium's gonna be Cub fans."

This is about Maria Chapman, 14, born here, wearing earrings with "St.L" on her right lobe and "Cards" on the left--while her dad, Matthew, who grew up in Park Forest, is in a blue T-shirt reading "This Old Cub."

"And yet," says Mary Chapman, Matthew's wife, "I married him."

Mary, a lifelong St. Louisian, is in red.

This is also about a downtown, St. Louis' troubled but, perhaps, resurgent downtown, that for a weekend is transformed into a veritable fairgrounds--complete with beer tents--by a national pastime.

You see it everywhere you look.

The park that surrounds the glorious Gateway Arch, which normally draws crowds dressed the way crowds dress for, say, Navy Pier, on these weekends is speckled with sane-looking people of all ages dressed in sometimes insane variations of blue and red. Crowds in the Museum of Westward Expansion, below the Arch, swell.

"It's going to be packed," says Jeannette Neuner, who, as a volunteer at the museum for 20 years, knows the patterns. She's also been to the games and says, despite the rivalry, she rarely sees nastiness in the stands.

"Not as much as I do with the Green Bay Packers at the Rams games," she says. "They'll take our heads off."

"This," confirms Cub manager Dusty Baker, a veteran of the Dodger-Giant wars, "is more cordial in the stands than what I'm used to. I see Cardinal fans sitting next to Cub fans, having a beer and talking."

There are inevitables that come with this territory. Heat is one of them. July and August in St. Louis are notoriously hot and humid; the Mississippi, which flows just east of the 1965 Arch, the 1845 courthouse and the 1966 Stadium, only cools people who jump in, which, it being the Mississippi, isn't recommended.

Nowhere in all of outdoor St. Louis is it hotter in summer than in Busch Stadium, built as a multipurpose (baseball, football, soccer) doughnut that only grudgingly admits oxygen.

The good news is this is the final year for the ballpark. (Cub fans, rejoice. The team's all-time record there, with three games to go: 139-189. Worse lately.) In more than one sense, it will be the end of an era. Not everyone is thrilled.

"I think we'll miss Busch Stadium," says St. Louis lawyer Mike Gewin, a regular with an appreciation for irony. "It's the last of what they used to call the `cookie-cutter' stadiums."

Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Atlanta all had them. All have been flattened.

"When they tore all the others down, we had a unique ballpark. So now we're going to have a newfangled ballpark like everybody else."

With an oldfangled name: Busch Stadium. And a gap for a breeze, if any. But still downtown, just south of the current ballpark.

So next year, and beyond, friends and families in blue and red will, on these sweaty but magical summer weekends, continue to enliven this district of great old buildings like the Louis Sullivan-designed Wainwright, now state offices. Maybe there will be a time, if loft-developers meet their quotas, that Pine Street and Olive Street and Locust Street will be graced by new restaurants and shops where uncertainty makes even "for lease" signs pointless.

"I've been working here two years," says Mark Reichert Jr., 21, "and I see a lot of construction going on. The attitude down here seems a lot better."

Reichert's job, as a Community Improvement District guide, is to walk nervous people from place to place downtown. "We'll walk you to your car or wherever you want to go."

So downtown remains a work in progress.

"It's coming up," says Randy Kunkel, manager of the Downtown Cantina, a Mexican restaurant with closing hours that flex according to events, "but it's going to take a while."

When thousands descend on the neighborhood for Cubs weekends, though, it almost--almost--feels as if the city is back. Fans overflow downtown hotels like the Marriott, where its sports bar, Pitchers, expands into the lobby and out onto a patio.

In the lobby, Melissa Holtmeyer and Morgan Lamke of Washington, Mo., sit, dressed in red and beer in hand, holding a sign that was, well, uncomplimentary to the blue team. They've brought it to games before.

"Oh yeah, we got trouble," Lamke say. "We got a couple of boos."

"But at the end of the game," Holtmeyer says, "we had a million best friends. Everybody wanted to take a picture with us. Everybody."

Across the street, near the fountain in Kiener Plaza, Joanne Shields of Romeoville and Jennie Martin and Tammy Schwenk of Chicago are anticipating their first Cubs-Cards weekend here.

"We've seen games at Wrigley, and we saw all the heckling Cardinal fans," says Schwenk. "And we'd like to do the heckling ourselves. Hopefully, we'll have cause for rubbing it in their face."

Schwenk, incidentally, is wearing a near-regulation Michael Barrett jersey.

"Oh, I love him," she says. "`Sweet Cheeks.'"

Sweet Cheeks?

"We came up with that when we were in Milwaukee."

Oh.

It's early in the weekend. With the night game Friday, a Saturday matinee and another night game Sunday night, there will be some time to enjoy the Museum of Western Expansion, take a paddleboat ride on the Mississippi (Narrator: "Continental Cement here supplied 65 percent of the cement used in building the Panama Canal . . ."), party at Laclede's Landing and/or, with the right clothes, maybe try one of the stylish new restaurants around the promising (but still a work in progress) Washington Avenue corridor.

But, for most, this will be a time to celebrate baseball. And life.

"We've met a lot of people from Chicago who come down here because they can't get tickets in Chicago," says Steve Adams, here with two brothers and a pal, all from Springfield. Three are wearing blue. One isn't.

"He decided that everybody was a Cub fan, so he was going to be a Cardinal fan," explains Pat Russell. "He was the oddity."

The oddity retreats only slightly. There is pride here, and tradition, and--new park or not--timelessness.

It's a beautiful thing.

"In all of sports," says Russell, "this is the biggest rivalry. You can take Yankees-Red Sox, you can take Bears-Packers--I'm always gonna take Cubs-Cardinals."

Postscript: The Cubs lost the Friday-night opener on a suicide squeeze, eked out a victory Saturday and, on Sunday, stunned the Redbirds on Neifi Perez' 10th-inning grand slam.

The three games were sellouts, so the Cardinals made out OK. Most fans were in red. Said Don Tufano, Cub fan from Chicago, scanning the Friday night crowd: "I'm either at a Cardinals game, or this place is owned by Target."

The losers: The Atlanta Scalper and his fellow resellers. "It's so hot out there, normal fans are selling their tickets for face value," Detroit scalper Robert Richardson said before Saturday's game, played in 102-steam. "They want face value just not to go. The market's going to go straight down." Same deal Sunday night, when fans who bought tickets for what originally was a day game ( ESPN mandated the switch) dumped them because they couldn't stay over.

And for everybody--Cub fans, Cardinal fans, scalpers, loft sellers: Wait till next year . . .

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A CUBS-CARDS WEEKEND IN ST. LOUIS

GETTING THERE

Interstate Highway 55 all the way. About 300 miles; figure 4 1/2 to 5 hours. A good option: Amtrak runs three trains daily between Chicago and St. Louis; the journey takes about 5 1/2 hours, and round trips run as low as $44 (all fares subject to change). Flying is another option but consider the time lost (and expense of) getting to and from the airports, through security checks, etc.

STAYING THERE

Plenty of downtown hotels await, at reasonable prices and within a reasonable walking distance of Busch Stadium--but when a Cub weekend collides with a big convention (not unusual), rooms can get tight and rates can soar to silliness, which makes it folly to even quote rates here.

Best bet is to shop around, and do it early. Among the closest to the ballpark (and this won't change when the new Busch opens for business next door next year): the Marriott, Westin, Millennium and Drury Plaza. Nearly as close, and popular with ball fans: the Adam's Mark. Nicest of the downtown hotels but a couple of blocks farther (which can seem like a lot in the St. Louis heat) is the newish Renaissance Grand; alongside is the Mayfair, a pleasantly historic (or clean but dowdy, depending on your taste) Wyndham property that sometimes has the fairest prices around. Near both: that Omni Majestic, which wears its age well. If you're a fan of Hilton and Radisson, they also have hotels within walking range; a bit farther north (and closer to the Laclede's Landing nightlife district) is a pleasant Hampton Court. The Hyatt, at the Union Station mall, is handsome and handy to the mall's T-shirts, burgers and beers but, for the weary, a cab ride from the ballpark.

DINING THERE

St. Louis is a pretty good restaurant town, though many of its more interesting choices are in neighborhood pockets away from the center of the city. (Most famous pocket, thanks largely to Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra, is The Hill. Lots of choices; Dominic's is a dress-up classic.) Near the ballpark, Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood mixes memorabilia (look for the autographed shot of Lou Brock in a Cub uniform) with pricey entrees; the bar area, more casual, features burgers. Steps away, Deardorf & Hart's sounds like a sports hangout, but it's really a no-nonsense expense-account (but good) steak house. Downtown Cantina is a cozy favorite of downtown workers looking for a little Mexican spice. Laclede's Landing is mostly fun-type food and drink; Jake's Steaks adds some flavors (Mexican, Cajun, Southwest) to the standard mix represented well by Hannegan's Restaurant and Pub. Not a big fan of the chain, but there's lots of baseball stuff at the TGI Friday's outlet near Shannon's. If you're staying near the Renaissance Grand, KitchenK is a good smart-casual choice, especially for lunch (try the burrito). Tony's (since 1946) remains St. Louis' choice for that perfectly elegant blowout (a baseball connection: Harry Caray was a regular); but foodies looking for something more contemporary could try pan-Asian/fusion Red Moon (great Peking duck eggrolls) or, at downtown's edge and highly recommended by friends (and with a creative menu that defies category), Eleven Eleven Mississippi.

IF YOU COULD HAVE ONLY ONE MEAL

It's not the best restaurant in town, or even downtown--but for out-of-towners in St. Louis for a ballgame, Charlie Gitto's (5226 Shaw Ave, 314-772-8898) has all the essentials: toasted ravioli (a local thing, good when it's good), sports stuff on the walls, congenial servers, honest prices for Italian comfort food and, being only a couple of blocks north of Busch Stadium, proximity.

KID-FRIENDLINESS

Terrific. If it's not too hot. Pair a ride up the Arch with Cubs-Cardinals baseball, and you're a hero. Of course, if they don't like heights and baseball, you may have to adjust . . . and there are good things.

YOU SHOULD KNOW

Next to the ballpark: the Cardinals Hall of Fame and the International Bowling Museum, together in one air-conditioned building (combo tix available) and best enjoyed by folks who still revere Stan Musial and Don Carter.

The ultimate postgame treat: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. You'll need a car and directions, but this place rivals Musial and Bud in the hearts of this city.

The Budweiser brewery tour (not too far from the ballpark) is a good one, at a good price (free). . . . Six Flags is southwest of town on I-44. Alternatives for families (and way cheaper): Grant's Farm, same direction, free, lots of animals including Budweiser Clydesdales (it's a Busch property); and if it's not too hot: The St. Louis Zoo is one of the best. Free, except for some special stuff. . . . And yes, there is a casino downtown, in a boat at Laclede's Landing.

INFORMATION

St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, 800-916-0040; www.explorestlouis.com.

-- Alan Solomon

- - -

ST. LOUIS

Population

332,223

Claim to fame

In the shadow of the Gateway Arch, a storied fan rivalry unlike any other is renewed in one of America's great baseball cities.

Nearby

Historic St. Charles (Mo.), Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center (Hartford, Ill.), Cahokia Mounds (Illinois) and Hermann, Mo., wineries.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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