Of the primary team spectator sports in the United States–football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer–baseball’s generational roots and family rituals run the deepest.
Parents (and grandparents) bring their kids to Major League Baseball (MLB) games to pass along the shared experience of watching their favorite teams–and the stars of the moment–take the field.
I have no statistics to support my theory. Just sixty years of personal baseball anecdotes to draw from watching my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–perform against an array of opponents in stadiums and cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix) across the country.
My personal passion for baseball remains intact in 2022, despite escalating ticket and concession prices, MLB’s all-to-frequent owner/player labor strife, lingering steroid controversy and cheating scandals, frequent umpiring blunders, and often-long-and-laborious games that stretch well beyond three hours.
Yet the game endures. Fans keep coming back to relive their personal traditions and–if the stars align–perhaps catch lightning in a bottle and see something truly magical they didn’t anticipate.
On Saturday evening, August 20, that happened.
Tom and I drove west from our home in Scottsdale to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Tom is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was less interested in this particular game than his more-competitive, die-hard-fan husband.)
I should digress to tell you that the Diamondbacks are rebuilding in 2022, while the Cardinals have assembled an entertaining team of older stars, clutch hitters, crafty pitchers, fielding phenoms, and talented youngsters. They are now in first place in the Central Division of the National League and appear to have gelled at the right time.
The final score on Saturday night? Cardinals 16, Diamondbacks 7.
There was more action–on the field and in the stands–in this one game than you might find in 10 visits to the ballyard. Dazzling defensive plays. Five home runs. A triple that cleared the bases. A grand slam in the ninth inning. A large, raucous crowd (at least half were rooting for the visiting Redbirds) on Mexican Heritage Night in the Valley of the Sun.
One especially obnoxious and inappropriate Cardinal fan screamed non-stop for three hours several rows behind us. We were relieved when security finally arrived in the seventh or eighth inning to remove him.
But, for my money, the magic supplied by a future hall of famer superseded all of it.
Albert Pujols, the Cardinals designated hitter (DH) and long-time first baseman, crushed two long home runs–his 691st and 692nd–into the centerfield bleachers. The most prolific hitter of the twenty-first century, forty-two-year-old Pujols will retire at the end of this season.
Albert, who wears number 5 on the back of uniform, currently ranks number five on the list of the greatest home run hitters of all time.
Behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696), Pujols hopes to pass Rodriguez and reach 700 homers before his last game in October.
As background, in 2022, Pujols returned to the Cardinals, the team he first starred with from 2001 through 2011, to tie a large red bow on his twenty-two-year career. He contributed repeatedly to two Cardinals World Series Championships in 2006 and 2011.
Many of us fans, who watched the game in the desert Saturday night, were in the stands to cheer for Albert in his final year.
When he approached home plate each time, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. A buzz filled the air; the atmosphere was electric.
I don’t think any of us dreamed he’d hit two home runs and two singles in this one game, becoming the oldest player since 1901 to go 4-4 in a major league game.
Tom and I absorbed it all from our seats in foul territory in the lower level of the right-field-corner (Section 109, Row 12, Seats 3 and 4) grandstand.
Albert Pujols had already hit his 691st home run in the second inning. Then, he came to the plate for the second time on Saturday night.
From the row in front of us, a boy no more than ten years old (wearing the jersey of another Cardinal great, shortstop Ozzie Smith, from the 1980s) stood beside his mom and dad.
From behind, it felt as if I could have been watching myself standing as the Cardinals played in the 1960s, or one of my sons rooting for the Redbirds at a game in the 1990s.
At any rate, I imagine the child hoped to capture a picture of Pujols, as the perennial all-star approached home plate to take his next at bat.
He snapped his photo. I snapped mine.
Seconds later, Pujols swung his bat. The baseball soared over the outfield wall.
We cheered, hollered, and high fived.
In that moment, I thought of the generations of baseball fans who’ve come and gone. They’ve attended games with their dads and moms, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins and neighbors, and husbands and wives.
To root for their favorite players. To cheer for their teams. To spend their money in the bleachers and grandstands on steamy Midwestern days and hot desert nights.
Remarkably, win or lose, we fans keep coming back to remember the past and celebrate the present.
And, on the best of those days, we’re lucky when we catch lightning in a bottle, see a little history in the making, and get a glimpse of greatness.