ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — A reduced capacity inside Busch Stadium and a steady light rain throughout the game did little to wash out the enthusiasm of Cardinals Nation across downtown St. Louis on Thursday afternoon.
Patios were filled, bars and restaurants were hopping and tailgates were plentiful as Cardinals fans welcomed their Redbirds back with open arms—and with a cold frosty one raised high.
Not perfect weather for it, but nevertheless, a great set-up for Cardinals fans to be able to come watch the action adjacent to Busch. Limited capacity inside, but the party extends across the street seamlessly on Opening Day in St. Louis. pic.twitter.com/UV2jNzJYaU— Brenden Schaeffer (@bschaeffer12) April 8, 2021
Because of limitations still in place for the number of available seats in the Busch Stadium press box as the new season begins, I wasn't inside the building for the Cardinals emphatic 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in Thursday's home opener. So it goes in a lingering pandemic.
But that change in pace for this particular home opener presented me with a unique opportunity. From just outside the ‘House That Yadi Built,’ I took it all in as the lifeblood of a city returned to its glorious perch. As I found myself walking the perimeter of the ballpark, soaking in the sights and sounds of baseball in St. Louis, I had the realization.
We've officially reclaimed the way baseball in St. Louis is supposed to feel.
The pandemic has been an inclusive peril upon us all. It wouldn't be going out on a limb to venture that every person you passed on the streets around the ballpark Thursday had been individually impacted by the influence of COVID-19. The last year has been difficult for many.
After the initial shutdown in March 2020, baseball trudged forward, eventually, for a few months last summer. The games were a nice respite from the day-to-day gloom that has so frequently accompanied the reach of this virus. But everyone agreed: this wasn't America's pastime as we knew it. The fans are woven into the very fabric of the game. Without them, some part of the 2020 MLB season was always destined to ring hollow.
Though only a fraction of the fans were welcomed back into the park on Thursday—13,328 was the recorded attendance—their presence had a veritable impact on the game.
Adam Wainwright found himself in an early jam. The bases were full of Brewers with two outs in the first inning, and the veteran pitcher had fallen behind in the count, 2-0 to Lorenzo Cain. As Yadier Molina retreated back toward the plate following a quick visit to the mound, the crowd--those inside the stadium and those across the street outside Ballpark Village--suddenly began to rumble, swirling into a prolonged cheer of support for Wainwright ahead of the next pitch.
“I remember saying, audibly, I needed that,” Wainwright said. “I took a big breath of fresh air. I like to smell my glove, just to get that good baseball feel. Kinda re-center. And the crowd started going crazy. I did need it. I did. And they gave me exactly what I needed at that moment.
“We were able to make a good pitch there on 2-0. It was 2-0, bases loaded with Lorenzo Cain, a very good hitter, a very good baseball player up to bat... That was a turning point in that at-bat, to get it back into the count. We got it to 2-2 after the next pitch, too, so they kind of re-focused me, for sure. It’s so nice to have the fans back, it really is.”
The fans scattered throughout downtown who couldn’t find a ticket for Thursday were no less invested in the action.
Talking to a patron at Kilroy's a few blocks from the ballpark, he noted that the liveliness of the crowd on the open-air patio took him by surprise. But why should we have been surprised? After a year away from the traditions of Opening Day, the city proved more than ready to embrace its favorite unofficial holiday.
The man with whom I chatted identified himself as a friend of the owners of Kilroy's. Like Wainwright in his first-inning moment of need on the mound, the man said that the baseball bar—which has struggled during the pandemic, as it typically opens only during Cardinals home games—really needed this day.
Didn't we all?
"Long overdue," said another man, a worker at Kilroy's, about the return of baseball and all it embodies for downtown St. Louis. Through the walk-up window at the side of the establishment, he slid me a cheeseburger and an unexpectedly delightful side of potato salad. "Long overdue, for sure."
Over the past year, both the team and the city have so desperately missed the crowds in downtown St. Louis. Like Nolan Arenado on a long drive to left field, Cardinals fans came through in their home debut on Thursday.
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