Caple: Yeah, St. Louis is a city
More than barns, it has its own charms and is way big enough to host the All-Star Game
Not all that much farther than an Albert Pujols home run from here, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began the toughest road trip in American history that did not include Crash Davis and a non-air-conditioned bus full of flatulent minor leaguers.
St. Louis is where the Lewis and Clark trail, Route 66 and the Mark McGwire Highway intersect, where the national pastime and a great American beverage reign, and where the Department of Homeland Passion level is always at vibrant Cardinals red.
So it stands to reason that St. Louis is hosting the All-Star Game this week. What is amazing is that baseball took so long to bring the "Midsummer Classic" back to this city. St. Louis last hosted the game in 1966, so long ago that not a single current All-Star had yet been born (Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield entered the world three weeks later).
And St. Louis fans are delighted to show off their city again.
"It brings people downtown to a rebuilding city," resident Peter Labeaume said. "I think the national view of us is that we're just a small town. People think of barns when they think of us. When I talk to people outside of St. Louis, they say, 'St. Louis, is that a city?' Yeah, it's a city. People just have this perception of St. Louis that it's a small Midwestern area."
"We have all the amenities of a bigger city," said Anne Thiese, another St. Louis local. "We have restaurants and the arts and theater and great stuff to offer that every big city like Chicago has, but we have the feel of a smaller town. We have the people with great neighborhoods and parks."
When St. Louis last hosted the All-Star Game in 1966, the Cardinals had just moved into Busch Stadium, which was considered state-of-the-art back when people considered circular, multipurpose, cookie-cutter stadiums fabulously cutting edge.
Asked for his impressions of Busch Stadium that year, Casey Stengel famously replied, "It sure seems to hold the heat well." Which was one of the nicer things people said about the place over the years, though I always kind of liked it. After they spruced it up in the mid-'90s, it certainly was much superior to the other multipurpose stadiums built in the same era.
Three seasons ago, the Cardinals moved out of old Busch and into new Busch, which Labeaume says is not just better, but "extremely better."
"Everything that you can see inside is better," he said. "Any seat is better. The view in the outfield of the Arch and the capitol is fantastic."
Like all the newer ballparks, new Busch is undeniably attractive. But along with all the modern amenities, it has one major drawback. A minimum standard for new stadiums is that that you should be able to circle the entire concourse and be able to see the game from almost every step, yet Busch affords few views of the field from most of its concourse. The concessions selection doesn't seem that creative, either, especially compared to its cross-state counterpart in Kansas City.
Still, there are few better atmospheres for actual baseball than in St. Louis, where so many fans wear Cardinals red that to show up at Busch Stadium in a different color is comparable to attending a wedding in blue jeans and a stained T-shirt.
There are multiple team stores to buy merchandise, but I'm not sure why since it's unclear whether there is a single fan in the city who doesn't already own a Pujols replica jersey -- home, away and alternate top.
St. Louis fans love their Cardinals so much that they have outdrawn the Yankees over the past 25 years, even though the population of the Gateway City barely matches New York's homeless total.
Of course, when visiting St. Louis you should remember the city is so much more than baseball. There also is beer.
About half of all beer drunk in the United States is brewed by Anheuser-Busch (which was taken over by InBev last year). That's roughly 24 billion pints per year, or about 80 pints per American. Not all of it comes out of St. Louis, of course, but a lot does. And a tour of Budweiser's home is a must for every sports fan. You'll see how beer is brewed, learn some amazing history about the Anheuser-Busch company and, best of all, get to taste some beer at the end. An afternoon in the sampling room is the next-best thing to tasting it from a box seat behind the Cardinals' dugout. (Tours are complimentary and summer hours are 9-5; click here for more information.)
And, as Thiese stressed, St. Louis offers much more for the sports traveler. You can ride to the top of the Gateway Arch, which provides such a tremendous view that you can almost see all the way to second place in the National League Central and the Milwaukee Brewers. You can pray for a Cardinals victory at the Cathedral Basilica. You can build up an appetite for ballpark baked ravioli with a run along the Mississippi River. And you can tour the city's splendid Art Museum and contemplate whether Monet's paintings would have been even more breathtaking had he included two bright-red cardinals perched on opposite ends of a water lily.
When you're done for the day, you can dine at restaurants owned by no fewer than three current or former Cardinals (Mike Shannon, Ozzie Smith and Pujols), which doesn't even include J. Buck's, named for the famed family of Cardinals broadcasters.
No, St. Louis will never be mistaken for Manhattan or Los Angeles. But it has charms of its own. In fact, if Lewis and Clark were to start out today, they might never see reason to explore much farther beyond the Mark McGwire Highway. Or at the very least, they would wait until the Cardinals leave town on a long road swing.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your comments and travel questions to Jim, aka The Road Warrior.