Anthony Castrovince

Baseball, hot dogs and heat: A trip through our pastime

Castrovince: Baseball, hot dogs and heat

Baseball, hot dogs and heat: A trip through our pastime
ST. LOUIS -- It is 6 p.m. on Independence Day, and I'm standing below the Gateway Arch. I check the weather app on my phone to reveal the inevitable reality that it is 102 degrees outside. My guess would have been 122, but 102 works just as well. Once you're in triple digits, what's the difference?

In front of me, a five-piece band plays Southern rock. Overhead, a prop plane soars, leaving a vapor trail in its path. And just a couple blocks southwest, the defending world champion Cardinals have a game getting underway against the Rockies.

It is in this moment that I feel very American. And very hot.

I'm searching for the soul of a city and of a country and of a sport. My profession takes me to many a Major League team and town, usually to bother ballplayers, consult with skippers and write about why X club is or is not going to contend this year. But on this obnoxiously hot day in the "Gateway to the West," I'm more interested in the surroundings. I'm more interested in exploring what it means to be an American and a baseball fan on the Fourth of July, and I'm guessing the answer somehow involves beer.

Soon enough, I'll head to the ballpark. But for now I linger under the Arch to listen to the music and, by chance, the conversation of the two men standing to my right.

"It feels like it's cooling off," one says.

"Yeah, it's headed in the right direction," the other replies.

I check the app again. Still 102.

We Americans are nothing if not optimistic.

* * *

Making my way to the ballpark, sweat pouring out of places I never knew existed, I come across the Black family, from the Harrisburg, Pa., area. The father, Aaron, is walking one of his two dogs and wearing a Kansas City Royals t-shirt, which catches my eye. Turns out, Aaron and his wife, Maria, are heading to visit family in Eudora, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City, but they're making a St. Louis pit stop to take their twin 10-year-old sons, Jake and Justin, to a game at Busch.

"Our goal, before they finish school," Aaron explains, "is to take them to every Major League ballpark. We've done 14 so far, and we're going to hit Cincinnati on the way home."

At each stop along the way, Aaron arranges a mascot visit for his boys (Pirate Parrot was a particular favorite). But they've also met a couple ballplayers. There was this time in Chicago, when the White Sox were playing the Royals and Jeff Francouer gave Justin a pair of his batting gloves. Some depraved dude targeted the poor kid, stole the gloves right out of his hand and took off running. A Royals staffer saw the incident, and, minutes later, handed Justin a Mike Moustakas bat to make up for his loss.

"The Royals were really awesome about it," Aaron says.

We Americans are nothing if not considerate.

Well, most of us, anyway.

En route to the park, I stop at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. The woman to my right makes an excited announcement to her two young sons.

"Look!" she says, pointing to Busch Stadium up the street.

"That," the oldest says, "is so cool."

"I hope," the youngest says, "someone cracks one out of there!"

We Americans dig the long ball.

* * *

Approaching the park now, a man with a megaphone informs me and all around him that we must get right with God if we're going to find eternal salvation. That's all well and good, but, at the moment, I just need eternal air conditioning.

I get to the gate, and, even though it's the second inning, a line has formed.

We Americans sometimes like to arrive a little late.

As I circle the concourse, I note that at another gate, a line has formed to exit.

We Americans sometimes like to leave a little early.

The crowd is typical for this terrain. In the best baseball city in the States, they come large, they come loud and they come wearing red. Oh, sure, given the circumstances, there are a few American flag shirts mixed in, but, generally speaking, team pride precedes patriotism in the choice of attire, even on the most patriotic of days.

But I do find one particularly patriotic person walking toward his seat. His name's Leigh Christophersen, a 63-year-old Memphis resident who trekked up I-55 to soak in St. Louis and attend a ballgame he admitted has no interest in.

"I'm really more of a college basketball fan," he says somewhat sheepishly. "But what's more American than baseball on the Fourth of July?"

Leigh's what we in the business call a "money quote."

* * *

Now that even my sweat is starting to sweat, I decide to head to the cushy comfort of the Redbird Club section upstairs. The woman working the elevator has two fans blowing on her at full force, and I make mention of the 42,338 people willingly sitting through 102-degree heat on a national holiday when they could be swathed in central air.

"Not only that," she says in amazement, "but they paid to do this to themselves!"

We Americans are nothing if not adventurous.

Feeling hunger amid the humidity, I walk past the typical ballpark fare and head right to the Asian stir fry station, because our American freedoms include the freedom of choice, even on a day in which U.S. citizens are estimated to consume 150 million hot dogs.

This reminds me of something that happened pregame at Busch. Six ambitious souls willingly took part in a competitive eating contest that involved hot dogs two feet long, weighing 2 ¾ pounds and covered in chili, cheese and jalapenos. One of the participants was a terminally ill cancer patient who wanted to cross competitive eating off his bucket list.

You knew this already, but we Americans love to eat.

As I eat, a Bruce Springsteen tune plays between innings, and I feel like the "Boss" balances out the Asian food quite well. The stir fry is splendid, and it comes with a fortune cookie that reads, "A movie would be a great way to relax this weekend." I'm thinking the cookie is correct. But I can assure you I won't be watching "Heat."

I like the Redbird Club and the people in it. They strike me as sane, what with the availability of air conditioning and ice cream. The line for ice cream, by the way, is a dozen deep, and I spot a family of four enjoying two cups of chocolate Dippin' Dots (the ice cream of the present, in this instance). Mom, dad, boy and girl are all wearing pristine white personalized Cardinals jerseys with the name "Fish" on the back.

"You must be the Fish family," I say, ingeniously.

They come from Festus, Mo., about 35 miles south of here. Jason, Tina, Anderson and Allison are all huge Cardinals fans, even though 3-year-old Allison and 1-year-old Anderson are too young to know it yet. Anderson's first game was Game 1 of last year's World Series. And when the Cards came back in Game 6, he was at home, asleep in his mother's arms.

"Don't lay him down!" Jason instructed his bride. "It's good luck if you hold him!"

She didn't put him down, because we Americans are nothing if not superstitious.

We chat for a little while, and I feel a fondness for the Fishes. They seem to be the ultimate American family, representing all those ideals I was searching for. They are lovers of family, lovers of country, lovers of baseball and lovers of fireworks. And here in this 102-degree heat, they are lovers of air conditioning and ice cream.

And if that ain't America, what is?

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.