Except for a press box jammed with folks who might not make it back for another game all season, opening day is the best day of the year. The answer is simple.
The Red Coats are coming.
While they win some and they lose some, as far as openers go — the Cardinals never drop the ball on the pregame ceremonies.
The New York Yankees, baseball’s most iconic franchise, are renowned for their old-timers’ day in the mid-summer when Yankee greats from all eras are brought back. The Cardinals do the same thing but about three months earlier.
Cardinals who are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and others who are in the prestigious Cardinals Hall of Fame are invited back every year to lead the motor cavalcade around the outfield and then to home plate.
All are wearing red coats. And smiles. But not as prominent as the smiles on fans’ faces and yes, even on those of hardened reporters who have seen 41 home openers. People often ask me which Hall of Famer I am most looking forward to seeing every opening day. My answer is all of them. Together. I covered every one, either when they were playing or managing with the Cardinals.
I refuse to take any sides.
I would hope that all of them could come back every year. I know that is unlikely. Every time I see the group, I wonder if this will be the last instance I will see that same group on the same field at the same time.
We thought it would never end. There was always Stan and Red. The highlight of the day was when Stan would be driven in via golf cart from the right-field wagon gate. If you didn’t have a lump in your throat when you saw that ride every year, then you didn’t have a pulse. Or a throat.
I remember in 2011 in the upstairs suites afterward when Stan, then 90, said he wanted to live to be 100. He missed by eight years and the opening-day festivities weren’t quite the same anymore.
Then, Red Schoendienst turned 95 on Feb. 2, 2018. He didn’t make it to opening day last year for the first time because of health issues. He never had said he wanted to live to be 100 and, in fact, he died only a couple of months after watching the national anthem being sung on television that day at the opener — performed by his daughter, Colleen.
But we still have Gibby and Ozzie and Bruuuuce and Whitey and Tony. And Lou. They don’t need any last names.
Brock just needs better luck. He’s had a leg amputated, he’s had cancer (multiple myeloma). And now he has to wear a sandal on his swollen right foot, the result of a blister that popped when he had to evacuate his hotel in Jupiter, Fla., a few weeks ago. He was pushing his chair as he exited his car Friday. But he was there and the cheers were as loud as if he had just stolen No. 105.
The other red coats numbered national Hall of Famers in waiting (hopefully) Ted Simmons, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Ray Lankford, Tim McCarver, Jimmy Ball Game and, of course, Mike Shannon. McGee pulled off the fashion double by wearing his red jacket over his white uniform, replete with red baseball cap.
If the ceremony had been held the day before, as scheduled, all 16 Red Coats would have been on hand, but Joe Torre, a National Hall of Famer and Cardinals Hall of Famer, and Cardinals Hall of Famers Mark McGwire and Chris Carpenter had other commitments Friday.
No other ballpark really has something like this.
“It’s not the ballpark,” McCarver said. “It’s the people they put in the ballpark. It just screams the message, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for us.’ ”
Brock, talking about the mix of past and present stars, said, “I want to say we’re growing old. But, in a sense, we’re not.”
La Russa has ridden around the track for the last few years, after being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he was there at home plate to greet the Hall of Famers for 16 years as Cards manager.
Opening day here, said La Russa, “shows the depth of the history of the Cardinals and the way the organization honors the past. It makes sure it connects the past with the fans. I remember being in uniform all those years and you saw the Hall of Famers and they’re looking at you like, ‘Do you know what you’re responsible for here?’ The players feel it.”
In the previous 40 home openers I’d covered since 1979, the Cardinals had won 21 and lost 19. Each had its distinction but the 1979 opener featured a rarity in that the Cardinals pounded Philadelphia ace Steve Carlton — the one that got away — in an 8-1 romp as Simmons homered.
John Denny pitched a five-hitter in a tidy 2 hours 6 minutes and nobody much noticed the three replacement umpires who worked the bases while Paul Pryor, a veteran who had broken lines, worked home plate during the umpires’ strike.
Some of the other noteworthy openers:
1980 • Another complete-game win by a Cardinals pitcher as Pete Vuckovich held the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates to three hits in a 1-0 victory achieved in — are you ready for this? — 1 hour 51 minutes. The Pirates had runners at second and third with nobody out in the ninth. But then the cunning Vuckovich fanned Tim Foli, one of the toughest in the league to strike out, Dave Parker and Willie Stargell in succession.
1982 • The World Series championship year but the home opener was a four-error 11-7 loss to Pittsburgh although newcomer Lonnie Smith drove in five runs from the leadoff spot. And made one of the errors.
1984 • Ozzie hit a three-run homer off Pittsburgh’s John Candelaria to key a 4-1 victory.
1985 • Smith hit another opening-day homer to help Bob Forsch, who pitched another complete game on opening day. In 2 hours 9 minutes.
1986 • The year after Smith played the entire 1985 National League championship season with a torn rotator cuff, he and his son arrived in tandem on the field as Smith prepared to do his patented back flip — and then turned it over to his nearly 4-year-old son O.J., now known as recording artist Nikko Smith. John Tudor beat Rick Sutcliffe and the Cubs 2-1.
1989 • McGee, who still draws the loudest cheers, singled home the game-winner in the 11th to beat Montreal 6-5.
1993 • McGee had two hits in a 2-1 San Francisco victory — and McGee was playing for the Giants. Booooo. But, not really. He still is cheered wildly.
1995 • Another umpires’ strike and replacement umpires in play but this game lasted 3 hours 1 minute. St. Louisan Scott Cooper, playing his first game at Busch, knocked in four runs in a 7-6 win over the Phillies.
1996 • La Russa’s first home opener was a 10-inning loss to Montreal. Smith started at shortstop in his final year but it would be a contentious season between the two future Hall of Famers.
1997 • Some 47,592 folks went crazy at Busch as McGee pinch-hit the game-winning homer in the ninth inning.
1998 • “Big Mac” hit a grand slam off Los Angeles’ Ramon Martinez in his first opener as a Cardinal. And then he blasted 69 more homers, including one in each of the first four games.
2000 • Darryl Kile beat the Cubs 7-1 in his first game as a Cardinal. He would die in Chicago just more than two years later.
2001 • Albert Pujols hit his first Busch Stadium home run in his first game there. The Cardinals scored in the ninth to edge the Rockies 3-2.
2002 • Matt Morris, who made a first-pitch toss here Friday, threw seven innings of one-run ball against Rockies in a 10-2 win.
2006 • First home opener at Busch III. Pujols (surprise) homered. Pitcher Mark Mulder (big surprise) homered. The Cardinals beat the Brewers 6-4 as St. Louisan Ron Kulpa got to umpire home plate in Busch III’s lidlifter.
2007 • Chris Carpenter started the opener, lost 6-1 to the Mets and never threw a ball the rest of the season (elbow surgery).
2010 • Adam Wainwright threw eight scoreless innings, Pujols homered in 5-0 win over Houston.
2012 • Wainwright, after missing all of 2011 because of elbow surgery, allowed four first-inning runs to Chicago in his first game back. The Cubs won 9-5.
2013 • The Reds scored nine in the ninth, seven off Mitchell Boggs, to win 13-4. Boggs would not be the closer much longer.
2016 • Jeremy Hazelbaker (remember him?) had four hits in his first game as a Cardinal as the locals beat the Brewers 10-1.
2017 • Randal Grichuk drove in three runs in the eighth and ninth as the Cardinals overcame the Cubs 4-3 in the first Sunday night opener at Busch.
When you saw the first wave of red coats Friday — the National Baseball Hall of Famers — you remembered their ages. The six ranged in age from 64 (Ozzie Smith) to 87 (Whitey Herzog). Bob Gibson is 83, Lou Brock will be 80 this summer, Tony La Russa is 74, Bruce Sutter is 66. Torre will be 80 next year.
You hardly can help but wonder if we’ll see them all at the same time on the same field at the same time again.
La Russa admits he thinks about it “as you start to get older. I was really looking forward to seeing all 16 (Red Coats).”
Gibson said, “I never think about it. I’m happy to see them. But every time I pick up the paper, there’s something going on that’s not good.”
Stan doesn’t hop out of the golf cart anymore and pantomime one of the world’s most famous swings. Red isn’t there either wearing the jacket to match his name and hair.
Gibson has been a National Baseball Hall of Famer longer than the rest.
He thought a moment the other day and he said, “Then I’d better come every year.
“Yes, I’m coming every year.”
One can only hope.