Last week was a first. I’ve swam in the ocean numerous times. But last week was the first time I’ve ever been stung by a jellyfish. Ouch! We were in the water for only a few minutes when we all got zapped by one of those dreadful creatures. We made our way back to beachhead, nursed our wounds and complained about a day gone awry. Our legs had varying degrees of redness and the numbness took about 20 – 30 minutes to subside. And then we began to watch others have their turn. And then it became fun. It was sort of like a sporting event. We sat in our lounge chairs and watched uninformed fresh meat take their happy faces into the Atlantic Ocean. You could tell they were humming a song in their head. Probably Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah or Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. It would be only a manner of minutes and then the theme song would change to the soundtrack from Jaws. You’d see those same people running to the beach for survival. At no time did we tell them what they were in for. Early on, my dad said to my laughing brother, “where’s your compassion?” to which Lance responded, “I’m on vacation.”
Pretty soon, it became our favorite activity on the beach. Others were engaged in different activities. Fathers and sons were playing catch. Kids were flying kites. Teenagers were building colossal sandcastles. The energetic were running their dogs or biking on the hard-packed sand. And there we were, watching people get stung by jellyfish. In time, we placed bets on who would be next.
“OK, there are four newcomers over there to the left. I’ll pick the man with the white hat.”
“Ok, I’ll take the pale-skinned guy to his left.”
“Give me the lady in the blue swimsuit. I like my odds. She’s farther out than the others.”
“I like my odds. My guy has more body mass for a jelly fish to strike.”
It was such fun. Kind of like a poor man’s running of the derby. I felt like singing My Old Kentucky Home and sipping on a mint julep.
And it was educational. We learned a lot about the human race. As much as I hate to admit it, women tended to suffer the throbbing pain better than the men did. One burley middle-aged guy got nailed by a jellyfish and he was bobbing back to the lifeguard so fast he looked like a giant top-water jig. In contrast, one suffering woman, who had delivered a tribe of babies no doubt, she slowly walked to the beach and then casually looked down at what had just happened.
We also learned how to assess the strength of a relationship by observing how couples interact. For instance, we saw one lady who was out much further than her husband/boyfriend/friend. She got stung and we knew it. We saw her initial reaction. But then, she walked back to the beach, walked right past her companion, and DIDN’T EVEN TELL HIM. Minutes later, he fell victim to the same plague and let out a war hoop louder than the deafening sound of the ocean waves. For whatever reason, she decided not to spare him the same fate that befell her. One can only guess at the reasons. Maybe, like Custer, he had it coming. Or maybe, like my brother, her “give a damn” was on vacation.
Yesterday, Mark McGwire finally came clean and confessed to using steroids during the 90s. The return of McGwire to the news, after years of being out of the spotlight, has reminded me of the greatest game I ever saw.
In the summer of 1998, I was fortunate enough to watch McGwire hit home run #62, the line-drive shot that broke Roger Maris’ previous record for home runs in a season. As Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated that summer:
The home run is America—appealing to its roots of rugged individualism and its fascination with grand scale. Americans gape at McGwire’s blasts the same way they do at Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. "We have," Cubs manager Jim Riggelman said before Tuesday’s game, "a fascination with power."
That summer was magical. McGwire was on a torrid pace to break one of sports’ most coveted records and one of the longest standing ones. In the second half of the baseball season, we spent every summer night rushing to the television when McGwire came up to bat. If we were barbequing, we went inside. If out to dinner, we joined the rest of the patrons to catch what was going on. Regular scheduled programs were interrupted for a live look-in on the individual at-bats of McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Tickets became increasingly harder to come by as fans were flocking to the stadium in the hopes of catching a piece of history.
My wife at the time, Kris, knew how much I wanted to see a game at Busch Stadium and one day she called me and said, “Hey, I want to do something for your birthday. Can you be free Sunday night or Tuesday night?”
I told her I wouldn’t likely be free on Sunday evening and then she said, “Well, I might as well just tell you, I’m here at Schnucks and I’m trying to get two tickets for us to see a Cardinals game.”
“Kris, that would be awesome but I’m pretty sure they’re all sold out.”
“Well, the lady here says she can get us two seats but the only catch is that she doesn’t have two seats side-by-side. She has individual seats but the seats are one row in front of the other.”
Through the phone, I could hear the Schnucks’ customer service representative say, “Now honey, I can’t promise you these tickets will be here in the next few minutes. They’re going fast.”
I told Kris, “By all means, grab them.” And so she did. We had tickets for a game the following week, on Tuesday, September 8, 1998 against the Chicago Cubs. Friends of ours had tickets the day before, a game in which Big Mac hit the record-tying home run in the first inning. I nervously watched the rest of the game hoping that he wouldn’t hit it number 62. Fortunately, he only got one that afternoon.
The following day Kris and I made our way to St. Louis. When we were on the Metro Rail, the conductor said, “Mark my word, folks, today Big Mac will hit #62”. The atmosphere outside the stadium was electric. We found out that tickets were selling for $400. Kris was tempted to sell hers and I told her if she did, I’d meet her after the game!
We got to our seats and we were near the left-field foul pole. There were nine-seats in our rows, and Kris and I had the middle seat in both. The guy next to me said, “Now, I don’t normally do this but if Big Mac breaks the record tonight don’t be surprised if I give you a hug. We’re all family tonight.”
There was a buzz in the air when the game started. The Cardinals were playing their hated rivals, the Cubbies from Chicago, with people all over the world watching the game. Roger Maris’ family was at the game, seated near the Cardinals dugout. Flash bulbs were going off every time McGwire came up to bat.
In the bottom of the 4th inning, McGwire turned on a first-pitch fastball from Steve Traschel and sent it just over the left field wall, right below where we were seated. The record home run was his shortest shot of the year, traveling 341 feet. Pandemonium ensued. While McGwire circled the bases, people were jumping up and down. Strangers hugged and high-fived each other. They stopped play for around ten minutes or so and I ran out to the concourse to snatch up a few souvenirs from the vendors. Baseballs marked, “I Was There” were selling for $20. After the game, Commissioner Bud Selig was on hand to honor the historic achievement. When we left the stadium, commemorative editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were already for sale. (That night also happened to be the first major league game of J.D. Drew, who now plays for the Boston Red Sox. He came into left field and had his first two at-bats that evening.) We stayed in St. Louis late into the night to take in the celebration before eventually returning to Columbia.
I couldn’t imagine a better birthday present for a sports fan, especially one who had cheered for the Cardinals since childhood. I told Kris it would be equivalent to getting her much coveted tickets to see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform live in some fantastic venue.
It was an unforgettable night in the history of sports.
Last week Caleb and I caught one of the better games of the Missouri-Kansas rivalry. The Tigers won 41-39 on a last second field goal. Outside the stadium before the game, we even met a Missouri Tiger priest who drove a Kansas City Chiefs hearse.
The game was also notable because the Tigers wore some some new unis from Nike as part of their Beast Mode Combat series. Here is a snap I took of Blaine Gabbert handing off to Danario Alexander on an end around.
Three men walk into a bar – a Mizzou fan, a Kansas fan and a Nebraska fan. Sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it? Monday night was, in fact, a joke, a very bad joke. For my birthday, I was given excellent tickets to see Bruce Springsteen in St. Louis on Sunday night. As you can imagine, I was quite thrilled with the gift as this was another item to check off on my “bucket list” of all things Americana. A few weeks before the concert, I learned that The Boss would be playing the entire Born to Run album in St. Louis and the Born in the USA album in Kansas City on the following night. Given that I’m a child of the 80s, I sold my tickets on StubHub and purchased good seats in KC. So far so good.
On Monday, my brother and I left for Kansas City and went to the Power and Light District across from the Sprint Center. We went into a packed Johnny’s Tavern and sat at the bar awaiting our table. Concertgoers were everywhere, listening to Springsteen songs and awaiting the start of the show. We chatted with two guys at the bar, one of whom had been to nearly thirty Springsteen concerts and the other about twenty. In their fifties, these guys knew all the lyrics, the concert history and the set lists so far. And they were Nebraska fans. Mike (from Phoenix) and Bob (from Lincoln) had just watched the Cyclones beat their beloved Huskers on Saturday. They had seen the Boss perform in St. Louis on Sunday. And now they were finishing out their extended weekend in Kansas City with another concert before heading home.
Mike was hoping to hear Springsteen play a favorite song. “Wish me luck. I’ve been to his concerts since 1975 and I’ve yet to hear him sing ‘Kitty’s Back’ live. That one means a lot to me.” Troy and I had good seats already but Mike and Bob had even better seats and two extra tickets nearby. They swapped out tickets with us so that we would end up being to the immediately left of the stage in the lower bowl. Then they were going to sell our tickets to someone who was coming to the bar a bit later.
We shared a table and supper, eventually being joined by a Kansas fan – I can’t believe I’m admitting this – because space was limited and we were all Springsteen fans. A few minutes later, and just minutes before they were going to let the general admission fans into the Sprint Center, Bob came back to the table with some dreadful news: “You’re not going to believe this but the show has just been canceled. A family member of Springsteen has died.” We thought he was joking. But soon, the news spread throughout the bar and the faces of those who had been standing in line across the street removed any doubts. Everyone began searching for more information on their PDAs and we eventually learned that, tragically, the assistant tour manager and a first cousin of Springsteen was found dead in his hotel room late in the afternoon.
Troy came back from the bathroom and said a guy was telling him that he paid for a close friend to fly in from San Diego. She was dying of cancer with a few weeks to live and she wanted to see the Boss as one of her “bucket list” items. We later read that a teenage girl flew in from Alaska for the concert and another family traveled 4,000 miles from London so they could hear Bruce perform this particular album (Born in the USA), which was to be the last time on this particular tour with The E Street Band.
Bob from Lincoln came back from the bathroom and said, “Shit. To add insult to injury, not only do we not get to see the concert but the television above the urinal is showing a replay of the Huskers getting beat by Iowa State. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Despite our disappointment, we understood the situation and still managed to enjoy the evening. We listened to some good tunes. Met some neat guys. And Bob the Husker surprised everyone by picking up the tab. The night will not be forgotten. I will remember it as the best concert I never saw.
Caleb, Lance, Noah and I watched the Missouri game last night. Despite the outcome, it was great fun. It was reminiscent of the last year’s game against Kansas at Arrowhead. We lost that riveting game while snow flurries were coming down; this one took place in a hard, driving rain. Decked out in our ponchos, we stood up all four quarters. Because of a power outage, the game was ‘old school.’ The new scoreboard remained off and they didn’t have a public announcer talking between plays. There wasn’t the constant barrage of pre-recorded music and advertisements. Sara Evans sang the National Anthem but because the stadium speakers were off you couldn’t really hear the song.
The evening started promising enough. I cooked some chili in the morning and came home from work with the smell of dinner in the crock pot. We then watched the first half of the Cardinals and Dodgers playoff game before heading out to the Missouri game. Halfway through the first quarter I received a text message that said:
Cardinals lost 3-2. Holliday dropped the third out. Hit him right in the nuts. He looked like Duncan out there. Can’t believe it.
Then the Tigers had a second half collapse and the Huskers scored four touchdowns in the final quarter to win the game 27-12. It was a rough day for Missouri sports fans.
This has been a wonderfully mild summer here in Missouri. I can’t remember a time when the grass has been this green so late into the year. And it gets better. Today begins college football season and all the pageantry of game day Saturday: tailgate parties, marching bands, stadium nachos, armchair quarterbacks in the stands, team mascots, school fight songs and university flags. And of course, the chessmanship of the game.
To celebrate the occasion, here’s a photograph I took at the Cotton Bowl two years ago.