Of birds and Cardinals 


The Observer's photographer pal, a born and raised St. Louisian who bleeds Cardinals red, recently got the chance to meet his idol, the great Cardinal Lou Brock, during an event at the Clinton Center. His account of that dream-meeting is a humdinger:

"Why are they booing that guy?" my little sister asked. Sisters are stupid and watching a baseball game in a packed stadium in the July heat in St. Louis is miserable, but there was nowhere I'd rather have been. I rolled my eyes and smirked. "They aren't booing him," I said. "They're chanting LOOOUUUUU!" Lou Freaking Brock was coming to the plate. Lou was 40 then — old for a baseball player, and ancient for a base stealer — and the calls for his retirement had been loud the previous year. But Lou was on a tear that season. He'd go on to hit .304 over 120 games and end his storied career with a lifetime .293 batting average. But he'd only steal 21 bases that year, 1979, his last as a player. Twenty-one was a fraction of his 1974 single-season record (at the time THE record) of 118. That record inspired a special edition Converse sneaker, the "Lou Brock 118." I had a pair, which I wore to everything but church until I just couldn't stuff my growing feet into them anymore. The stadium was fuller than usual that day, not because the Cardinals were doing well, but because this was it: Lou was leaving the sport and any game could be it. We all wanted to be there.

Last week, much older and my 118's long gone, I got an e-mail from The Boss. My assignment: Photo op at the Clinton Presidential Center for the opening of a new St. Louis Cardinals exhibit. Special guest: Lou Brock.

Lou. Freaking. Brock. I read it a couple of times. I was gonna meet Lou. I didn't tell anyone, just in case it didn't really happen. When the day came, I fumbled with my gear at the security check point. Had I remembered the right lenses? Did I put memory cards in the cameras? The guard told me to wait by the metal detector for an escort, but I'd gone almost around the corner to see if I could see Lou. As I was escorted to the waiting area in the lobby where the rest of the press was gathered, I tried to hold back a little. There's a fine line between enthusiastic fan and psycho, and I was very close to stepping over it.

Then there he was: Lou. He walked toward me, much older than I remembered and wearing his Cardinals Blazer. He put out his hand, and I shook it. "Mr. Brock," I said, "I grew up in Busch Stadium watching you play." That was all I could muster. Words failed me past that.

We were taken to the exhibit, where reporters asked all the questions you ask a legend, which can be summed up thusly: "Tell us some stories, Lou." I loved every minute of it. The other photographers and I buzzed around each other, snapping away, looking for angles, expressions, something the other guy hadn't done. The questions tapered off, and I had turned to leave when a TV photographer sped past me and said, "Hey, you should ask him to sign your hat!" My hat? MY HAT! I was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals 2011 Championship hat! I whipped the hat off my head, then walked back toward Lou and thrust it toward him like a 10-year-old trying to get his glove signed. He happily obliged, and one of the handlers took our photo. As I stepped away to leave, I noticed a display he'd been standing beside the entire time. Inside: An original pair of Lou Brock 118's, just like my once-treasured pair. Only these were on display in a presidential library, with The Man Himself standing beside them.

Standing outside watching Junior play kickball with his cousins at our Auntie's summer retreat in North Pulaski County last sunny Sunday, we were startled to see a crowd of shadows flit over us: thousands of them, enough to gray out the sun for a moment. A few seconds later, a great, dark flock passed overhead at an altitude of maybe 75 feet, the mass of tiny birds folding in and out on itself like a porous liquid suspended against the blue sky. Even with the chance of getting a nasty surprise from above, we couldn't help but stand with mouth agape for a second as they flowed over the tree line, taking their crawling, hazy shadow with them.

The world, we thought, is so beautiful at times.




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