I visited my brother, JR, in St Louis, Missouri last year. It was my first visit to St. Louis. After he picked me up from the airport we settled in for a weekend of golf and hanging out.
Our planning wasn’t the greatest. My visit occurred while the St. Louis Cardinals were playing baseball in another city. “No worries,” said my brother, “We can take in a Grizzles game”. The Gate Way Grizzles is a baseball team in the Frontier League. The Frontier League is an independent baseball league. The teams are not feeder teams for Major League baseball. They advertise ‘affordable family fun.’
It was a perfect night for baseball; cooler after a very hot day, cloudless with only the slightest breeze. The stadium was new and beautiful. You could see the sun set over the St. Louis arch from the stands. There was a short cinderblock wall separating the stands we were sitting from the bull pen for the Grizzles. It was a family friendly event. There were kids everywhere. JR and I found our seats and settled in for the game. The announcer offered fans a taste sensation: The ‘Best Burger in Baseball’ (trademarked). What is the secret of the best burger in baseball: two all-beef patties, lettuce, onion, tomato tucked in between two honey glazed doughnuts. “Ugh!” I said to JR, “you’ve got to be kidding.” Just then, a young man sitting in front of us swung around with a burger in hand. “Mister, you gotta try one of these, they are great!” Like so often at a baseball game, a conversation ensued. The young man eating the best burger in baseball was Jim. He had his two daughters with him at the game, probably to give Mom a night off. The kids were precious and they were eating ice cream (another sign that it was Mom’s night off). Jim was an electrician in the Air Force. My brother is a civilian contractor at Scott Air Force Base so they soon started talking shop. I was watching the pitchers warm up. I noticed Jim’s girls. The eldest sat next to her Dad. She had finished her ice cream. While her Dad talked to JR she bent over and took a bite out of little sister’s ice cream cone. You could see the youngest daughter didn’t like it when her big sister helped herself but she did not protest all that much. I guessed she probably had to put up with this at home. The younger girl was small for her age. I guessed she was about 7 and her sister was 10 or 11. She was slight with boney shoulders in a sun dress a little too big that probably was a hand-me-down from her sister.
JR and I sat about 5 rows from the right field wall. On the other side of the wall was a bench for the 5 pitchers who were waiting for a turn on the mound. They warmed up their arms and signed autographs for the kids who asked for them. I remember one of the pitchers really acted like he enjoyed the kids. He smiled and laughed with them as he signed his name to an occasional glove, hat or program. Jim’s girls had run down to the wall to talk to the pitchers.
During the game, a couple of foul balls looped our way but fell short and landed in front of the bull pen. Sometimes the foul balls would launch off a players bat into the perfect black sky. Other times the foul ball was a screaming line drive that bounced outside the first base line and came to a halt near the bull pen. Dozens of kids would run down the aisle to the bull pen bench to plead for the ball but the players would smile and toss the ball to the ball boy running out from the dugout. I figured the league wanted to keep costs down and was re-using all the balls that were hit foul.
My brother and Jim kept up the conversation as the game wore on. Each time a foul came to the bull pen the kids would run down and the players would smile, say “no” and toss the ball to the ball boy.
It was getting late in the game. Jim had to break his girls up a couple of times because they were bickering. The younger girl was tired and probably bored. Another foul ball skittered into the bull pen. After a night of politely telling the kids, “No” when they asked for a foul ball, there weren’t many children who went up to the bull pen for the ball. The little girl in the seat in front of me, Jim’s youngest daughter, was the only kid who went down to the wall. The pitcher I mentioned earlier turned when the little girl tapped him on his shoulder. I guessed he was going to try to ignore her or maybe he would smile and say, “No” just a politely as he had done about 500 times so far during this game. When she tapped his shoulder he turned and smiled. He had the baseball in his hand, the ball that had been tipped off the hard hickory of the bat and had danced across the dirt and grass into his glove. Then I saw it. The ball boy was trotting out from the dugout and the pitcher smiled at the little girl. He had his back to the ball boy and he held the ball in his throwing hand. He firmly dragged the ball along the top of the cinderblock wall as he kept his smile on the girl with the boney shoulders in the hand-me-down dress.
When the ball boy got to the pitcher, he turned around and stood up. He showed the ball boy the ball. He said something that I couldn’t hear. The ball boy looked at the ball and shrugged his shoulders. He trotted off without the ball. The pitcher smiled at the little girl and gave her the ball that was too damaged for use in a game.
Can you imagine the smile on little sister’s face as she triumphantly walked back to her seat? Her Dad took the ball and examined it. “Wow”, he said, “a real major league baseball.” He gave the ball back to his daughter and she held it with both hands as she showed it to her big sister.
The crown had thinned out by then. The game was almost over. The Grizzlies had lost by only a run or two but for a little kid in a seat on the right field side, it was a heck of a game.