Back in 1997, I was calmly sitting down on my living room floor when my lovely grandmother dropped a tidbit of neighborhood information. Her new neighbors were Bill DeWitt III and his family. To her, she saw a gentleman and his wife and two dogs. To me, it was the son’s owner just moved in down the street. Before thinking, I leap off the ground and raced down to the new home owner’s condo. I was pretty sure I had pants on but didn’t really check before I left the house. My time from condo to condo must have set records. This was the start of a great friendship and also the reason I had a chance to work the Manual Scoreboard at the Old Busch Stadium. Under the arches, in the space of a thousand or so terrace reserved seats, and as hot as any place could get in the heat of summer.
I worked on the board from 1998 until its closing hours in 2005. Yes, Roy Oswalt didn’t just turn out the lights on the old Busch. He shut down operation on the Manual Scoreboard as well. As you walk through the new Busch, you will see parts of the scoreboard. I put in a lot of the numbers you see on the National League side. The Seattle on the American League side is cracked. The pitching numbers represent the starters back on that day on the final game of the regular season. It is approaching 9 years since I last threw a number into the slots up there. I made great friends and lasting pals working the board.
As Jimmy Kleinschmidt, a local lawyer and professor of all things important in life, used to say, “I couldn’t believe they paid us to do this job.” We got to see 81 games a year for free and get paid. Sure, there was some sweat involved and a lot of sad nights, but the experience outweighed any hardship that could possibly get in the way of a memory. I got to see the start of Albert Pujols, the legend of Mark McGwire, the grace of Jim Edmonds and the true grit of Darryl Kile. Chris Carpenter and Scott Rolen made their debuts during that time. I saw many things during those eight years and few of them leave my head to this day.
A lot of things come to mind when I think of the board days, but here are a few.
*Hearing Big Mac hit the American League side of the board with his majestic batting practice bombs. I had a quick interaction with Mac when I was doing data entry for the Hall of Fame. He questioned if I worked there or not and even after I told him repeatedly that I did, he still didn’t believe me. He may not have been the nicest man in the world but he made hitting home runs seem like watching an action film from the 1980’s. Those scoreboard walls had dents from those BP bombs.
*Interacting with the media in the press box. I would come into the box soaking in sweat after clearing the previous day’s games off the board for a cold drink and would run into Jack Buck every day. One day, Buck simply said, “Is it hot up there or did you run down here?” He was the nicest guy I ever met with the smoothest voice. Al Hrabosky constantly warned us to not put a zero in upside down. Dan McClaughlin was doing the Pat Parris routine back then and was always on the move. Bernie Miklasz would stop and say hello as I told him how great his latest column was. Joe Strauss and Bryan Burwell never ran away from an honest conversation. It was all the free food you could eat and the stories flowed like the pink lemonade did after the game.
*I met one of my best friends on the scoreboard. Troy Siade. He was a sharp young Italian jokester who I knew for 2 years before cancer snatched him away from us at the age of 36. One of the best and most humbling experiences I ever had was the Cardinals letting us spread some of Troy’s ashes on center field where his favorite player, Jim Edmonds, played. His sister and family were there. We all signed a number for her before she left. That scoreboard was like family, and when Troy died, we all lost a piece forever.
*Speaking of Edmonds, he was so good in center field but also at knowing where to crank his batting practice bombs. He once hit 6 straight homers into the same spot in the right field loge. I caught three of them before letting someone else get a couple. The highlight of the scoreboard was his catch and walkoff home run in the 2004 National League Championship series in Game 6. The noise that crowd made that night shook the stadium.
*The scoreboard crew engaged in silly activities. We played catch behind the board, as if Tony La Russa was calling to the scoreboard for a relief arm instead of the bullpen. We had bags of ice that we pulled chunks from and fired at each other from opposite sides of the board during rain delays. There were foot races to the All Time Home Run Leader board when Mac was climbing towards #543. We had to pass the time during those days. I had friends, family and strangers up to the board.
*I remember being behind the board when Edgar Renteria hit a walkoff home run to cap off a come from behind win against the Cubs in 2003 I believe. Everybody left the board because the Cubs were blowing us out. Jimmy and I stayed to the end and have the memories to prove it.
*One time when the scoreboard crew left a 10 run number in a 7th inning slot just to rub it in to the opposing Cubs, Tony La Russa called up to the board and asked us to take it off the board. I never saw my supervisor act so official. “Yes sir, Tony.”
*I started writing about the Cards seriously during my scoreboard days. I would type out stories and hand them out to the crew before the game as a form of reading material. Seeing the game that close and often got the journalistic hunger brewing.
*The playoffs were the best. A few games to keep track of. We filled the number slots with fresh cold drinks and kicked our feet up. We stood outside with the fans during the entire 2004 playoffs, sometimes freezing half to death.
I will never forget staying after a game to clean the board and seeing the stadium go dark. I would stay after a 7 p.m. game and clean the board for the next day’s game and right around an hour after the last pitch, the lights would go out. I’d walk across the high rise World Series flag area, and sit down there just to take it all in. I stayed for an extra thirty minutes after the lights went out just in case I didn’t get to see the stadium so quiet again.
There was nothing like getting to the stadium around 4 p.m. and setting the board up. Saying hello to the same people every day. Seeing familiar faces. Watching batting practice and studying hitters before a game. Going down to the dugout when the players first came out and maybe getting a few words with them. Going to the press box and cooling off before game time. Some nights we had 20 games to keep track of at one time. It was a rush and one I won’t forget.
I am still good friends with Jimmy to this day and also have forged a close friendship with an usher turned Scoreboard captain named P.J. and we still talk about the experience.
The Manual Scoreboard is just something to look at these days but when I see it, I think of a story. Something that’s never leaving the head. A special time when grown men got to watch baseball for free. Those were the days.
*By the way, I named this blog the Cardinals Nerve Center because that’s what the guys on the scoreboard named the area around the sports ticker that printed off the score updates.
Thanks for reading and come back again. Follow me on twitter for instant doses, @buffa82.