St. Louis: Bad food, bad drinks, bad weather, GREAT baseball

So the trip to St. Louis began with a whimper but ended with a bang, specifically an Albert Pujols game-winning home run. It's hard to judge a city when it's closed, as a good deal of St. Louis was on Sunday/Monday, but I can say for certain that I still don't want to live there, despite some pleasant neighborhoods.

We drove down on Sunday morning and spent the early afternoon traversing by foot through the Central West End, which has some tree-lined private drives with lovely turn-of-the-century brick homes. We found our way to T.S. Eliot's childhood home (pictured here), which was one of the more plaintive homes in the neighborhood. It was a balmy 94 degrees, so walking around wasn't really ideal. But the architecture and detail -- even on the slummier homes -- was gorgeous. We contemplated going to an open house, but instead just grabbed a streetside flier on the 2,000 square foot home, which was selling for less than we anticipated.

We drove to University City and poked around in a few shops, including the 7,000 square foot Vintage Vinyl. While the sign and the store name both would lead you to believe you've reached a vinyl mecca, there was no truth in advertising. Our local used record shop in C-U stocks as much vinyl, and the selection was far from great. I picked up a few back catalog selections for $4.99 or less, but found nothing that excited me. They did have a lot of CDs, but I didn't bother gnawing through the fat after finding next-to-nothing in the vinyl.

We headed back to the hotel -- an Embassy Suites on the river, just a mile up the bank from the Arch -- in the early evening. We debated going to dinner in The Hill, St. Louis' Italian blue-collar neighborhood known for having the best Italian cuisine in the Midwest, but decided against it since our prior research told us that a number of the restaurants would be closed on Sunday. Since we were staying on Laclede's Landing, St. Louis' tourist trap of bars and restaurants located near the sports complexes, we opted to try our luck there. Let's just say that after a long wait, the Old Spaghetti Factory sucked. I take full ownership of the guilt associated with suggesting the place. I had eaten there several (ten maybe?) years ago, and my memory of the place was skewed horribly. Which is not to say that we would have had better luck elsewhere on the Landing. We had a couple beers at a brew-pub there, and M found her selection undrinkable. All in all, it was a poor evening for taste buds, and we headed back to the hotel around 11.

The game wasn't until 3 in the afternoon, so the following morning we decided to drive out to The Hill to get a sense for the area. M found it much the same as Pittsburgh, on a smaller scale. Everything was closed, so we drove over further west to try some frozen custard from the legendary Route 66 hang-out, Ted Drewes. I tried a chocolate "concrete", their term for a cup of custard so thick that you can turn it upside down without worry. (Hmmm, not true if eating it while standing on the tarred parking lot on a 90 degree day.) It was delicious, but I have to say that Jarlings still owns my heart. Post custard, we decided that more walking was in order, so with an hour to kill we ventured to the 79-acre Missouri Botanical Garden, located in the city. M enjoyed the various sculptures as well as the diverse vegetation, and I found the koi in the Japanese Garden to be intimidating -- some of them easily the length of my arm.

We arrived at Busch Stadium an hour-and-a-half prior to game time, and after finding the shortest entrance line we headed down to the field level to snap a photo of Albert and watch the Redbirds take batting practice. The weekend's real surprise awaited us when we sought out our seats. We thought for $90 a ticket we had purchased some fine seats close to the field of play. However, we couldn't locate our section anywhere on the seating diagram on the Cardinals' web site. Turns out, that was for a good reason: we were sitting in one of the many new "party rooms". Each room seats about 30 people outdoors, plus features an air-condition room where you can also watch the game. The bonuses were abundant: 1) we were sitting under the second-deck overhang, in the shade; 2) the rooms were catered with barbecue chicken and pork, hot dogs with the works, nachos, and desert; 3) beer was poured for us by our room's bartender; 4) the food and drinks were free of charge; 5) there was no waiting in line to use the bathroom. By the time you figure that I drank six beers and ate a hot dog, a chicken sandwich, some nachos, and some pretzels, the price tag on the ticket suddenly seems like more of a bargain. Plus, the seats weren't too bad, down the first-base line in the outfield.

All in all, the ballpark is just okay. It looks very similar to many of the other new ballparks that offer a view. Our view from the first base side of office buildings in downtown St. Louis, left a little to be desired. (The view from third base includes the arch.) The stadium's new amenities, including better food, are nice and all, but they don't add to the stadium's aesthetic appeal. I suppose the change of scenery will wow those who weren't that into the old Busch's donut shape, but the old Busch was an excellent place to see a game if for no other reason than the concrete cookie-cutter really played up the "sea of red" and held in the sound, making for a loud and raucous affair.

We didn't have much reason to test out the new acoustics until the 7th inning. Jason Marquis had held the Astros to just one run up until then, despite doing his best to frustrate me (back-to-back hit batsmen that led to the Astros lone run, more flyball outs than groundball outs, a fielding miscue). But Roy Oswalt responded by tossing six shutout innings. We collected seven hits against Oswalt, but couldn't come up with a timely hit with runners on. Pujols had the best swing on Oswalt, absolutely crushing a pitch to dead center on a line, but Willy Taveras snatched it up at the track. In the 7th, we got things going with lefthander Trever Miller into the game in relief of Oswalt. With two outs and a runner on first, John Rodriguez earned a walk in front of Pujols after falling behind in the count 0-2. Phil Garner went to the pen again, lifting the lefty for righthander Chad Qualls, who surrendered a game-winning home run to Albert on a 2-0 count. The towering fly ball barely snuck out, landing in the second row of the left field seats. It was the 11th time this season that Pujols has hit a home run to put the Cardinals in front.

Other observations from the game:

1) Watching Adam Wainwright pitch was a thrill. His stuff looks electric, as they say. According to the gun at the stadium, one of his fastballs hit 99mph, which had to be wrong. He usually throws 93-94. He's going to be filthy next year in the rotation.

2) Izzy actually pitched well in the ninth, although his defense, namely Juan Encarnacion, nearly let him down. Nothing about yesterday's game made me appreciate Encarnacion any more than I did going into the game. In the ninth, he was slow in getting to a Texas Leaguer that dropped in between him and the second baseman, and he dropped a foul fly ball that also should have been an out. He did hit a double earlier in the game, but it was more luck than anything. He beat the pitch into the ground just a few feet from home, but managed to swing hard enough to hit the ball past the third baseman down the line. Hardly a "he knocked the hell out of it" double.

3) La Russa needs to get control of his "hit and run" reflex. He does it as much if not more than any other manager, and over the last week it's backfired on him numerous times -- sometimes with Pujols waiting in the wings. Yesterday, he tried the hit and run with no one out and Gary "I'm hitting .179" Bennett at the plate and So Taguchi on first, and of course Oswalt struck out Bennett and Taguchi was out at second. Yes Bennett is slow and a ground ball probably means a double play anyway, but I'd rather take my chances to that end rather than forcing the situation with a lousy contact hitter and a great pitcher. Save the hit and run for one out, runner on first, with the slap-hitting Aaron Miles at the plate and a good-hitting pitcher (Marquis) on deck.

4) Edmonds was out again yesterday with some sort of stomach problem (varying sources differ on the ailment). I have to say, I don't mind seeing So in center. His defense lacks the occasional wow factor you get with Edmonds, but he makes the routine plays and has been steadier with the glove and arm this year than Edmonds with his bum shoulder. Not to mention, Edmonds is a glorified singles hitter this season. His shoulder has got to be killing him, because his power is zapped. He's collected just two extra-base hits in the month of May and is slugging .379 on the year. Ouch, indeed.

More Cardinals talk later in the week, as Anthony Reyes takes the mound tonight for his second start of the season in place of the injured ace. M and I talked about staying an extra night in St. Louis to watch him pitch. But alas, we've got more trips planned for later in the summer, including a game at PNC in Pittsburgh featuring the A.L.-leading Detroit Tigers (geesh, that sounds weird). So, money needs to be saved for now.


Listmaker said...

i really don't like the cardinals but your exuberance might just change my mind yet.

thenoiseboy said...

Out of curiosity, what don't you like about them? Is it the bland, business-like tag that the media has attached to them? Is it La Russa? Is it the "best fans in baseball" crap? I find lots to love about a small-market team that's been a winner for most of my life (uh, early-'90s excluded).

Listmaker said...

numbers 2 and 3.
i've hated larussa ever since he was with the white sox.
and the fans really irritated me when i was at 2 games in st. louis in '01. but those are two big reasons, i suppose. and they do have 9 ws wins - enough is enough.
love the jerseys though.

thenoiseboy said...

Oooh, I'd love an essay on the fans front. STL fans aren't generally assholes like Cubs fans (or Yankees fans, I s'pose). But I've heard them called hicks (which many are) and rednecks (which many are). But I've struck up conversations with plenty of them -- both at the park and online -- and they at least seem to be passionate, opinionated, and fairly intelligent when it comes to discussing the sport. That said, there are plenty of exceptions.

I think the whole "best fans" argument is just ridiculous, regardless of the team in question. Who cares? The fans aren't competing against each other -- the teams are.

Listmaker said...

yeah, i don't know. maybe it is the whole best fans thing. i'm so sick of the "just get a player to st. louis and he'll never leave" party line.

i do remember heckling mcgwire and being given looks like i had killed santa claus. but yet, no one would say anything back. it was all so polite and smug in a midwest kind of way.

greymatter said...

My sister is once again singing the national anthem at a Cardinals game in July with her choral group from Paxton. I believe it's against the Braves. I really enjoyed my experience at Busch Stadium, and am curious what to make of the new place.

Vintage Vinyl was a yawn, I agree, but I 'm glad to see that it's still around. I like to give local music stores the benefit of the doubt, seeing as how I work at one myself.

If you haven't eaten at Blueberry Hill , which is down the street from Vintage Vinyl, it's pretty decent. Good ambiance, decent burgers (Farren's are far better, but hey, not much compares) and occasionally bands play there.