The wagon gate.
If you’re a Cardinals fan, you know what that is, what it means. How it signals more than just the opening of the baseball season. It’s the beginning of a time-honored tradition in St. Louis, spanning generations.
When the Busch Stadium operations staff gives the go-ahead at 6:45 PM on Sunday to open the portion of the right field wall, the Budweiser Clydesdales will begin their famed stomp around the warning track. Camera phones will flash, fans will clap in unison, others will put their arms around each other, cheering and smiling, taking a sip of a cold, frosty one. And a flood of memories will pour into our minds.
Like the times you held your dad’s hand as he walked you through the concourse, finding your section. The entry way that led to the bright light of the ballpark, illuminating the field, green and perfectly manicured. Hearing the shouting of the vendors, sharing a bag of peanuts, a tray of nachos, tearing off a piece of pretzel, squeezing mustard on a hot dog.
That night you saw Ozzie’s backflip for the first time. Bob Gibson, going the distance. Red Schoendienst’s great hands at second base. Lou Brock, controlling the game by taking a lead off first. Whitey Herzog, running out of the dugout to argue a call. Bruce Sutter’s split-fingered fastball. Tony La Russa’s dark glasses.
And then they appear, in real life, waving and wearing red jackets, just like Stan Musial and Jack Buck did it. The Hall of Famers are an important part of the Cardinals experience because they tie together the championship eras. At some point in your life, the Cardinals have won a World Series: 1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, 2011. It’s a staggering amount, really. The world championship flags wave high above the wagon gate, a reminder to those inside and outside Busch Stadium that the history is rich…and the standards are high.
Opening Day in St. Louis is about the reaction and enjoyment of the current players, as well. Dexter Fowler will experience his Ford ride around the track for the first time, before he faces his former club. Then his current teammate, Yadier Molina, will make the trip for the 13th time and is certain to receive one of the day’s loudest ovations. Someday, Molina will wear a red jacket. But until then, he’ll don the crisp home whites and shake the hands of the legends. He’s in “the club,” as Gibson once put it to La Russa in 2006. You can’t be admitted until you win a title.
For Jose Martinez, Opening Day in St. Louis will mean something a little bit different. The 28-year-old career minor leaguer, after 887 affiliated games with the White Sox, Braves, Royals and Cardinals organizations, will start a season on a major league roster for the first time. When the wagon gate opens, keep your eye on Martinez.
“Words can’t explain,” Martinez told me. “A lot of stuff comes into my mind. A lot of people who tell you you’re not going to play in the big leagues. You’re not going to get more than two or three years in the minor league system. When you go through that, and you go over them…in that moment, you always have some memories. You’re telling yourself: ‘You can do this.’”
Well, Jose, meet your 3.5 million new friends. Starting Sunday night, they’ll be right there with you. It’s been that way for 125 years.