November 2, 2011
It started with Game 5. I knew that the outcome of that game would determine whether or not I was going to my first World Series game. I knew what was at stake. If the Cardinals won Game 5, ticket prices to Game 6 in St. Louis would raise at least $100 because of the opportunity for the Cardinals to clinch at home. On the other hand, if the Rangers won, ticket prices would go down considerably. That night, I waited in anticipation for the completion of Game 5. At the start of the game, the cheapest ticket on Stubhub for Game 6 was $280 - a price I was not willing to pay easily. After Mike Napoli's game wining double in the 8th inning, prices dropped. Once the price was less than $200 just minutes after the final out, I knew I was going to the World Series for the first time. Finding someone to go to the World Series with me last minute was going to be tough. Understandably, no one at KU had the time or money to commit. My Dad wasn't sold on the idea either. But I knew I had an incredible opportunity in front of me - I wasn't about to pass this up.
The price was just right - never again will I be able to go to a cheaper World Series game (after factoring in transportation), unless it is in Kansas City. Even the most optimistic Royals fan knows that is still a few years away. Lucky for me, I had been emailing my friend Bob ("Big Glove Bob" for you Ballhawks) from Minnesota back and forth throughout the series. We had been contemplating going to St. Louis for a World Series Game - but the situation had to be just right. It was more than just right - it was perfect. I woke up Wednesday morning as excited as ever. Even though the weather was dreary, it finally felt like Fall temperature wise. I grabbed my stuff and high-tailed it to Kansas City. Bob and I were going to meet at his hotel across from Kauffman Stadium and carpool to St. Louis. He had just driven in overnight from Minnesota, so I volunteered to drive the four hours across Missouri to St. Louis. The car ride seemed to fly by - in part because I have driven to St. Louis multiple times over the past year and also because of the great conversation. As we came within 50 miles of St. Louis, I got the following news text alert: "Game 6 of the World Series has been postponed because of a rainy forecast". WHAT?! I knew there was a chance of some rain that night but I didn't think at all it would affect the game. I let Bob read it and our feeling of excitement and anticipation quickly turned sour. 245 miles into my trip, I received news that Game 6 had been postponed.(Google Maps)
We pulled into a nearby McDonald's and explored our options. I wanted to just keep going and find a cheaper hotel in the suburbs of St. Louis - but unfortunately that wasn't an option. Bob's belongings and important medications were still at the hotel in Kansas City, and he was due to check out in the morning. As disappointed as I was, I knew there was no choice. I kind of laughed it off actually, because I knew it would make for a good story later on. Game 6 would have to wait another day. We turned around and drove what seemed like the longest three hours West into Kansas City. Bob graciously bought me a hotel room so I wouldn't have to drive the additional hour each way to Lawrence. He also volunteered to drive the next day - so in actuality, the postponement wasn't too big of an inconvenience. After a long day of driving 450 miles for nothing, I checked into the Holiday Inn Sports Complex hotel. I was already in a pretty disappointed mood, so what happened next certainly didn't help. They put me in a depressing room in the corner of the basement. I opened the door to a less than pleasant surprise. The beds were unmade, lights were on, and there was urine in the toilet. It appeared as if someone was staying there but just stepped out for the moment. Great- this day was getting better and better. The front desk staff gave me another depressing basement room, along with a free mediocre breakfast. If you ever go to Kauffman Stadium and need a hotel room, I advise you to avoid this one.
Everything that happened Wednesday was quickly put in the past. It didn't matter what happened. I knew there was going to be baseball on Thursday night. I knew that I would potentially be going to the greatest sporting event of my life. Bob and I left Kansas City around 11:30am and arrived in downtown St. Louis at 3pm. We grabbed a bite to eat before heading to the ballpark. We stopped on the way to take pictures in front of the arch and the festive red fountains. It was so neat to be in a city during the World Series. Of the more than three hundred games I have attended in my life, none of them have really meant anything for the home team in terms of playoff positioning. So you can imagine how excited I was for this change of pace. The World Series is the culmination of almost 2,500 baseball games. I couldn't believe I was there.
After walking through St. Louis' version of "Occupy Wall Street", we arrived at the Center Field gates 30 minutes before they were scheduled to open. The atmosphere was electric. We were right behind the set of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and nearby another stage where a pre-game pep rally was underway and the Budweiser Clydesdale horses marched by. Leiming Tang, another ballhawk and friend of mine from Kansas City, surprised me by showing up at the Center Field gates a few minutes later. I was glad to see he made it out for his first postseason game as well - even though it meant having another ballhawk in the park. I spent the remaining time before the gates opened talking to these three older women who were passionate about their Cardinals baseball to say the least! I loved their spirit. The two 60+ year old women had paid hundreds of dollars for standing room only tickets. They didn't care where they were in the ballpark - they were just happy to be there! The fans in St. Louis were amazing.
When the gates opened, we all headed our separate ways. Bob and I had already committed to buying separate tickets. His ticket was in the lower level by the right field foul pole, and my ticket was in the upper level behind home plate. I grabbed my rally towel at the gate and quickly hustled over to the corner spot just along the left field foul line. After visiting Busch Stadium a month earlier, I knew this was the ideal place to ballhawk. Not only were baseballs hit into this section pretty frequently, but it was also one of the last sections to fill up with fans. If there is anything I have learned from two years of ballhawking, it's to go where the fans aren't. The move quickly paid off. A Ranger hitter lined a ball off the warning track into the empty section less than a minute after I arrived. I walked over and picked it up for my first ever postseason baseball.
About 15 minutes later, I made the best catch of my life! I hardly ever catch batted baseballs on the fly - which is no surprise considering I have never played a single inning of baseball in my life. A Rangers' batter hit a ball that was tailing away from me. Thankfully, the section was still pretty empty because it gave me room to range five or six steps to my right, jump up and make the difficult backhanded catch. It all happened so fast! I got a pretty good cheer from the fans, but it was short-lived because I had my Texas shirt on. Soon after that, the section began to fill considerably. Toward the end of batting practice, I had no room to move. I was still against the railing foul territory just beyond third base. All of a sudden another Ranger hitter NAILED a line drive in my direction. I had very little time to react, which was fortunate because I didn't need to move at all. The ball smacked into my glove just in front of my face. Just like that, I had secured my 324th and final ball my 2011 season. I was glad to make the catch, but it hurt like hell. My left hand was numb for the next ten minutes or so.
From a ballhawking standpoint, I had a huge goal for this game. I wanted to come away with a commemorative 2011 World Series baseball - no easy task. These baseballs were only going to be used during the game, so anything I caught during batting practice was just for fun. The chances of me getting a World Series ball were dismal. My best chance for getting one would be via the third out ball - something I have relied on all season to get me 53 game used baseballs. But how was I going to be able to stay behind the dugout just for an opportunity to get the baseball? Surely there would be no empty seats in a World Series game. This game would be the exact opposite of what I was used to at Kauffman Stadium.
After batting practice, I hung around the sections behind the visiting dugout by third base like normal. I took pictures of all the hoopla and watched my favorite baseball reporter Tim Kurkjian do a report in front of the dugout. The excitement grew as Busch Stadium erupted when FOX went live on the air. After the national anthem, I found a seat on the aisle about ten rows behind the Texas dugout. I wasn't expecting to be their long. I was just hoping they would remain empty for the first inning so I could get just one shot at a third-out ball. Just one out in the game, the people showed up to claim their seats. No problem. I was prepared to conclude my 2011 ballhawking season right there and just go upstairs and watch an amazing game unfold. But as I neared the top of the section, five empty seats stuck out like a sore thumb. I decided to take the empty seat on the aisle and hope I would be able to stay for at least the first inning.
The first inning was thrilling. Texas got on the board early with a run in the top of the first. Lance Berkman answered with a 2-run home run to put the Cardinals up 2-1 and send the record crowd at Busch Stadium into a frenzy. At this point, I didn't really care about ballhawking. I was happy to be there as a fan in this incredible atmosphere. However, I was still in seats behind the Texas dugout, so there was no reason not to try for a World Series ball. In the second inning, three Cardinals fans asked if these seats were taken. I said no. It turns out that these fans were in Standing Room Only and decided to take a chance on these seats like me. I felt bad for all of the fans in Standing Room Only. The Cardinals sold hundreds more SRO tickets than they had room for - and I heard the stadium staff was very strict about where you could stand and not stand. I was glad I spent the extra $20 for a seat. That way, I was guaranteed a spot no matter how late I got there.
The three fans next to me correctly guessed that I didn't belong there either. We were all extremely lucky. By the fourth inning, all five seats were still unclaimed. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "Can you believe this? We're probably sitting in the only empty seats in the stadium". He and his friends were already drunk and probably didn't appreciate the circumstances as much as I did. These seats, if put on Stubhub, would have sold for at least $1200. The fact that I sat there for the entire game still surprises me today. It was just a continuation of my incredibly lucky 84-game season. The one-day rain delay was the farthest thing from my mind. Hell, I would have sat through a monsoon just to be there.
Each inning, I was able to put myself in position for a third out ball. Coming into the day, I thought I would have one or two chances for a World Series ball. But I ended up with at least ten quality chances in Game 6. Later in the game (in the 7th inning I believe), a Cardinals player fouled a ball of dugout railing. Rangers coach Gary Pettis walked onto the warning track to retrieve the ball. Luckily, I was already waiting in the top three rows because there were two outs and the crowd was standing and cheering, making it possible to easily fit in. I called his attention and politely asked for the ball. I was the ONLY fan in my section asking for the ball, and I was wearing a Texas shirt with bright yellow sleeves. I had this one in the bag right? Well, he slightly started his motion to throw the ball to me, but yelled "Kid! Kid!" He looked one section over and found a kid to throw the ball to. On any day in the regular season, I would not argue this. Kids should almost always be the first choice of players and coaches to throw a ball to. But this one was disappointing because it was a game used World Series ball! It would have been great to have. But I didn't dwell on it for more than a couple minutes because I was right in the middle of an amazing World Series game.
The first few innings were sloppy by both teams. Each team committed a few critical and boneheaded errors. But it just made for a more exciting game. The Rangers and Cardinals traded runs and it quickly became the ultimate back-and-forth baseball game. I was rooting for the Rangers to win, because I wanted to be at the clinching game. I wanted to be able to say "I was there" when a team won the World Series. As the 9th inning rolled around, the Rangers had a 7-5 lead. I was getting excited thinking of all the potential possibilities with my amazing seats. I would be close enough to see the World Series trophy if they brought it out, I would be close enough to taste the champagne the players would spray on the fans, and I would be close enough for any potential equipment the players tossed into the stands. Plus, there were a surprisingly good number of Texas fans in attendance - making it more exciting.
Big Glove Bob was able to secure a seat by the Texas dugout in the 9th inning. He was thinking the same thing I was in terms of postgame celebrations. I decided to try for one last World Series ball from the home plate umpire. I didn't want to risk leaving the sections into the concourse because I didn't have a ticket, so I skillfully maneuvered my way three sections over by the umpire tunnel. A nice usher overlooked the fact that I was standing in the aisle for the first two outs of the bottom of the 9th. As the second out was recorded, a couple of Cardinals fans left. I assume it was because they didn't want to see the Rangers celebrate on their field. Wow. I was so close to seeing a championship in person! I was in a great position to try for an umpire ball from Gary Cedarstrom and then make my way over quickly to the Rangers' dugout. Rangers' closer Neftali Feliz faced David Freese with 2 outs, 2 runners on, and the Rangers leading 7-5. Texas was one strike away from winning it all when Freese hit a fly ball to right field. The stadium seemed silent as the ball was in the air. This was it. I watched Nelson Cruz run toward the ball at the warning track. Once I thought Cruz caught it, I put my head down and walked down a row to get in better position. Then the stadium erupted. Cruz had come within inches of catching the ball and clinching the World Series. But the ball bounced off the wall for a game-tying triple. Words cannot describe how I felt at the time. Words cannot describe Busch Stadium's reaction. It was unreal. The Cardinals still had hope. I was speechless that St. Louis came back to tie it in the 9th. What a comeback.
The stadium was still buzzing in the top of the 10th inning. I returned to my seat behind the Rangers' dugout very happy not only because of the Cardinals' amazing rally, but because I was seeing extra innings in the World Series! The buzz was quickly silenced when Josh Hamilton lined a 2-run homerun to right-center field. The thoughts of post-game celebrations and the World Series trophy came back into my head. I thought there was no way in hell St. Louis could overcome this one. All Texas had to do was close out the 10th and they would be World Champions.
In the middle of the 10th inning, I once again headed over to the umpire exit three sections over. This time, however, Leiming Tang had the same idea. Now I had some considerable competition. We both stood halfway in the aisle and didn't talk to each other at first. I was concentrated on the game and didn't want to give away to the usher in front of us that we didn't belong there. However, during the pitching change, we started talking and the usher noticed. She was very polite and apologetic, but told us we had to leave. No big deal. I ventured over one section to the left and found four empty seats. I assume they were probably taken by Cardinals fans who left the game early thinking Texas had it in the bag. I feel sorry for them. So here I was, in the same situation as the previous inning. Texas was one strike away from being World Series champions for the second time. And they blew it. Lance Berkman hit an RBI-single to tie the game AGAIN and send Busch Stadium into an absolute frenzy. The comeback in the 9th was absolutely crazy, but for it to happen two innings in a row was nothing short of remarkable.
I texted Bob and told him about the empty seats I was in near home plate. He got there in time for us to watch the 11th inning. We exchanged stories about what had just transpired, but I was just in absolute shock more than anything. I haven't seen many comebacks in person, and the ones I have seen had not even a fraction of the importance this one had. Bob was already calling the game an "Instant Classic". That's when hit me - I would be a part of history if St. Louis found a way to win this game.
Texas couldn't score in the top of the 11th. As always, I was rooting for extra, extra innings. It didn't matter that I had been in the seating bowl for more than six and a half hours without getting food or going to the bathroom. I was having the time of my life and I was not ready for it to end! David Freese, on the other hand, had different ideas. The hero who already had tied the game with that amazing triple in the 9th inning did it again. On the sixth pitch of the 11th inning, he blasted a walk-off homerun onto the berm in center field. Game over. I had just seen one of the greatest comebacks of all-time.
The St. Louis Cardinals lived another day. There would be a Game 7! Bob and I looked at each other in disbelief. We headed out of the stadium rather quickly because it was nearing midnight and we had a long drive ahead of us. The streets of St. Louis felt like a giant party after the game. It was absolutely nuts! People were cheering and celebrating well into the night. We must have high-fived a hundred people on the way to the car. I felt so happy for the city of St. Louis. As we drove toward the Interstate with Busch Stadium in the rearview mirror, we started listening to post-game reaction on the radio. Nearly thirty minutes later, Busch Stadium was still full of thousands of fans celebrating one of the most improbable wins in baseball. But then again, this has been the style of play for the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. If any team was going to make this come back, it had to be the team that made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season after being back 10.5 games toward the end of August.
For most of the drive back to Kansas City through the night, Bob and I listened to post-game reaction on the radio. Fans and radio hosts called Game 6, "The best game in St. Louis sports history", "The greatest comeback in World Series history", and "One of the most exciting finishes ever". I honestly think that of the thousands of MLB games I will see in my life, this will end up being the best one.
Garrett Meyer is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com.