Behind enemy lines

Friday, September 23, 2016

I celebrated my 47th birthday last week, in enemy territory.

No, not Donald Trump's campaign headquarters. I can tolerate a lot, but not that.

I'm talking about Busch Stadium in St. Louis, home of those lousy, good-for-nothing St. Louis Cardinals. That's right: Not only am I a Democrat, but I'm also a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, my allegiance to the Cubs is much stronger than my political leanings. I might vote for a Republican on occasion, but I will never root for any other major league team.

Earlier in my newspaper career, I spent several years working in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. At that time, there were probably 25 or 30 employees in that department, many of whom were not originally from Arkansas. As you might expect, nearly everyone was a baseball fan. As you might not expect, though, about half of us were Cubs fans -- including a couple of Chicago-area natives. The other half, by and large, were Cardinals fans. Mostly, the Cardinals fans were nice enough guys, and the rivalry in the office was pretty good-natured.

One of my fellow Cubs fans was the Democrat-Gazette's deputy sports editor, Jeff Krupsaw. Krup, as we called him, is one of the most talented journalists I've ever worked with, and an awesome all-around guy. Even though I haven't worked with Krup in more than six years now, we have kept in touch. I saw him a few months ago at a funeral, and we talked a little Cubs baseball. Both of us follow the Cubs via MLB.TV, which provides access to every major league game.

Two weeks ago, Krup sent me a Facebook message about the Cubs' three-game series in St. Louis. Krup's off days are Tuesday and Wednesday (that's how it is when you're a sports journalist) and he suggested we meet in St. Louis to watch the Cubs and Cardinals play Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. He didn't realize that Tuesday was my birthday, but when he suggested the trip it sounded like a perfect way to mark the occasion. An added bonus was the fact that the Cubs had a chance to clinch the National League Central Division championship if everything fell just right. There was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to see that.

The Cubs started the series with a "magic number" of five to clinch the division, meaning any combination of Cubs victories or Cardinals losses totaling five would do the trick. Since they were playing head-to-head, a three-game sweep for the Cubs would wrap up the division title. When the Cubs won the series opener on Monday night, the magic number shrank to three and the stage was set for me to see the clincher.

The drive from Berryville to St. Louis was a breeze, and I arrived at our hotel just across the river in Illinois just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Krup got there a few minutes later, wearing his Cubs cap and jersey, and we were all set. We didn't want to deal with the hassle of parking downtown, so we decided to use an Uber driver. If you're not familiar with that, it's basically a service that lets individuals use private vehicles to transport people, similar to a taxi but usually less expensive. I had never used Uber, but Krup said he and his wife had used it occasionally and always had good experiences. Long story short, we waited about 20 minutes for an Uber driver who never showed, then wound up taking a minivan taxi that was probably the filthiest vehicle I have ever ridden in.

We got to the stadium about an hour before the first pitch. We got through the gate quickly and found our seats about eight rows up on the third-base line. I have to say, the stadium is very nice. The only thing I found objectionable were, of course, the Cardinals fans and the ubiquitous references to the Cardinals' 19 National League championships and 11 World Series titles. We get it, we get it. Hey, who won the World Series in 1908? Hint: It wasn't the Cardinals. Really, though, Busch Stadium is a fun place to watch a baseball game.

Tuesday night's game couldn't have started any better for us Cubs fans. The game's first batter, Dexter Fowler, lofted a fly ball that landed over the fence in center field and just like that it was 1-0.

Unfortunately, the Cubs didn't do much else offensively that night, while the Cardinals got a two-run home run of their own to tie the score at 2-2. Then, right after Krup astutely questioned the Chicago manager's decision to let the Cubs starter stay in the game, another St. Louis home run made it 4-2, and that's the way it stayed. So much for my birthday.

Still, it was a fun experience, and I felt confident about the next day's game with one of the Cubs' top pitchers scheduled to take the mound.

On Wednesday, we got up early and checked out of our hotel. Then we each drove our own cars downtown, paid $20 apiece to park a few blocks from the stadium, and walked the rest of the way. This time our seats were in right field, near the foul pole. Unlike Tuesday night's game, Wednesday's started horribly for the Cubs. Our first three batters struck out and it looked as if it might be a long day. But our pitcher was almost unhittable and eventually our offense came around. The Cubs wound up hitting three home runs in a 7-0 victory. Two of the home run balls sailed over the right-field fence not far from us. It was great to see the Cubs play so well, and certainly made up for the previous night's loss.

Although the Cubs were still one game short of clinching the division title, we knew it was just a matter of time. As it turned out, the Cardinals lost the next night in San Francisco to make it official.

I've been a Cubs fan since I was 13, and I've had the privilege of seeing them play in person several times. But I've never seen them play in person just a few weeks before winning the World Series. That would be a bit of a belated birthday present, but I sure wouldn't turn it down. The playoffs begin soon, and I'll be watching. Go Cubs!

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.