Back to the ballpark: returning to Busch Stadium

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  • Grandpa Gerald "Jerry" Velpel

  • The view from the press box at Busch Stadium offers a view of "almost every inch of the home field of the St. Louis Cardinals," according to writer J.J. Wilson.

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For all the excitement that came with traveling to Busch Stadium for an Illinois baseball game, I find myself tossing around the same thought in my head as the game finishes.

This place was supposed to feel different this time.

From my cushy chair in the press box, I can see almost every inch of the home field of the St. Louis Cardinals — a sight my grandpa would have loved to see again.

I can see the “Big Mac Land” sign, fully restored since I watched Albert Pujols’ home run knock out the “I” in 2009. Below, I spot the on-deck circle, where I still cringe at the thought of a foul ball ending Juan Encarnación’s career in 2007. If I lean enough to the left, I can almost make out the spot on the dugout fence I used to see Tony La Russa lean against in the summertime.

All of this, and here I am, staring at the Gateway Arch, not even sitting in my chair. Maybe because I’ve been sitting and watching Illinois and Missouri go at it for the past two hours. Mostly, though, it’s nerves fused with some other inexplicable feeling that bounces between sorrow and shame.

Three summers ago, Grandpa and I sat out on his indoor patio, watching the same field on his small box TV screen as warm air slid in through the open windows. About twice a year, we would drive down to the ballpark, usually with my dad, my uncle and my cousin. We always tried to go more, but the alternative never bothered me.

He would drink a Bud Light wrapped in a Cardinals coozie, I would sip on a red can of Coke. Together we would let our afternoons slip away to the sounds of the crack of the bat and strike calls.

Not long before this particular afternoon, I had decided to study journalism after high school. It was a massive life decision I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, but Grandpa and I hadn’t spoken a single word about it.

I remember leaning back in my chair and saying to him, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I got to go there and cover our Cards?”

“Yeah,” he answered, taking a sip from his can. He coughed into his fist and cleared his throat, as he often did, then added, “When you get there, you’ll have to take me up to the box with you for the games, though.”

He smiled, and I smiled back.

“Deal,” I told him.

The memory of that talk plays though my head as we ride the elevator down to the field. It’s quite possible that, that talk pushed me toward sports journalism. And now, three years later, I’m stepping into the media offices on the ground level at Busch Stadium.

I haven’t been back to Busch Stadium since Grandpa passed away almost two years ago. I like to think we just got busy. I went off to college, my dad and uncle worked a lot, and my cousin got married, and it was all a viable excuse for not buying tickets. Only, I knew what returning to this ballpark would mean.

At his visitation, they played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as friends and family dispersed. But afterward, I stopped wanting to go. Though I kept up my continual Cardinals support, my team spirit was reserved, my dedication limited. Plainly put, I fell out of love with Major League Baseball.

By now, we’re right in front of the field, and my stomach drops. Each game without Grandpa has felt a little more lonely than the last. Each pitch has made him being gone more real. And for an instant, I worry my next, heavy step will cause him to slip away from me forever.

But I don’t stop — not once — on my way to the Cardinals’ home dugout, where the Illini players wait to field our postgame questions. I follow the dirt track past home plate without even looking at it and do my job. Because feeling anything would remind me of the man who isn’t with me.

It isn’t until interviews are finished that I finally steal a moment for myself, to process everything around me and to let the pain hit me. And so, I wait for Busch Stadium to leave my heart and for the last chip of reality to finally settle into place.

It never does.

I wander nearer to home plate and look out at the scoreboard. Perched atop are two red Cardinals, one on each side of the analog clock, and seeing them brings a smile to my face. Two Cardinals, together for baseball, much like a grandpa and his grandson, never alone and never apart.

My next steps aren’t as heavy. They’re lighter than most I’ve taken in the past 21 months. Turning to leave the field, I recognize that Busch Stadium still doesn’t mean to me what it once did. I’ve reassessed its value.

It isn’t just some place Grandpa and I both cared about. And it isn’t just the home of the Cardinals. It’s a place to celebrate life lost and life yet to come. It’s a place where a grandfather and a grandson can always watch baseball.

It’s our place. 

J.J. is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Wilsonable07.