On October 26, 2004, my dad and I sat eleven rows behind the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout for Game 3 of the World Series, the first Series game at Busch Stadium in 17 long years. That Fall Classic turned into one that will be remembered by one devout fan base (not mine!) as long as baseball stories continue to be shared. For my father and me, however, it was an unlikely get-together that involved two flights — one across the Atlantic Ocean — a pair of miraculous moments (by the same player), and a four-hour trip from Memphis to St. Louis . . . without tickets.
First, some back story. My dad grew up a Cardinal fan in Memphis, hearing tales of Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean from his father, a devoted but temperamental fan who insisted on turning a radio broadcast off if St. Louis fell behind early. (Dad would find a second radio.) I learned my own devotion to Cardinal baseball by listening to Dad’s tales of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock, then discovering the likes of Ted Simmons, George Hendrick, and Ozzie Smith as my baseball-card collection grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Cardinal baseball is not religion. But it has made for a powerful connection across three generations of men named Frank Murtaugh.
The 2004 Cardinals were loaded. They won 105 games, second only to the 1942 world champions in franchise history. Three of the team’s players — Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds — finished among the top five in voting for the National League’s MVP. By the Fourth of July that season, it was clear St. Louis had a good chance of returning to the World Series for the first time since the Reagan presidency. My dad (from his home in Vermont) and I agreed that we’d be there if the Cardinals made it.
Then the fates began playing with us. My parents were in London (Dad working on an exchange program for his employer, Norwich University) as the National League playoffs unfolded. They would fly back to New England — to Boston, alas — on the Monday between Games 2 and 3 of the Series. Dad boarded a flight to Memphis two hours after landing in Red Sox country. The next day, we drove north, almost the entire 280 miles to St. Louis under a steady rain. And we did not have our tickets to Game 3 yet.
What we did have was a significant connection here in Memphis, one of those guys who, without fail, “knows a guy” to close a deal. But we would have to communicate from the interstate with a cell phone that seemed to work only around mile markers divisible by five. This was before smart phones, long before I delivered my first text message. Two men driving to the World Series fueled by faith, friends we knew, and friends we didn’t know. The windshield wipers mocked our endeavor, a cruel, rhythmic wink from Mother Nature.
Our cell connection resumed in St. Louis and we pulled into our downtown hotel with our “bag man” (this is the closest I’ll ever come to a mob story) in the car directly behind us, tickets in hand. There were two handshakes — one for my dad, one for me — and three words: “Enjoy the game.” The rain ended 30 minutes before game time, Mother Nature conceding to a stubborn family pilgrimage.
The result broke our hearts, of course. Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox shut down the Cardinals on their way to a Series sweep and Boston’s first championship in 86 years. The highlight — for both of us — was seeing Musial throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Gibson. It’s the only time I ever saw my Dad’s eyes look like those of a little boy. Surrounded by heroes, both of us. I hugged Dad after the final out and we retired to Mike Shannon’s restaurant, where Red Sox and Cardinal fans were, somehow, drinking and laughing together. The sun would rise again.
That turned out to be the last World Series of my father’s life. He died of cardiac arrest the next September. As far as bucket lists are concerned, the two of us managed to check off an item no one can really schedule or plan. (Ask a Cubs fan.) I’ve considered the role of a higher power in the events that led to our October adventure ten years ago and tend to believe it had more to do with Edmonds than the Almighty. (“Jimmy Baseball” hit a game-winning home run and made a spectacular catch in centerfield to secure the Cardinals’ final two pennant-clinching wins.)
Fathers and sons go to World Series games. My trip ten years ago is unique only to my own family tree. But what a beautiful, radiant leaf on that tree. Dad and I had ten months to relish our World Series adventure in conversation, both of us knowing that eight hours in a car together was the real gift provided by Edmonds and his teammates. It’s an ironic twist for a third-generation Cardinal fan: my favorite World Series game will always be one the Redbirds lost.