Friday, April 28, 2006

An Alternative Reality

For a quirky take on St. Louis, check out: Failed Success in St. Louis

In the Street

If the lines at Starbucks are any indication of the vibrancy of downtown, this might be the week we passed the "tipping point" in terms of reaching critical mass in downtown STL.

All this week, customers have been lined up ten deep on the sidewalk to buy a cup of coffee at the 6th and Olive Starbucks location.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Vacation in ...St. Charles?

Having just filled our ten-year-old mini-van to the tune of $47.00, I stepped inside the Amoco kiosk to pay the cashier. Ahead of me was a woman prepaying for $5 worth of gas. At $2.79 per gallon, she was buying less than 2 gallons.

The cashier and I talked about the financial squeeze high gas prices puts on the average family. Then she relayed how someone yesterday purchased .79 worth of gas for her car. That's barely enough to start it up. It costs more to fill the lawnmower.

Getting back in the car, the radio was playing a commercial promoting family vacations to historic St. Charles, Missouri. The commercial was targeted to St. Louis audiences. Now, St. Charles is a cool historic place right in our own backyard, but you've got to wonder how bad things are getting if there's a substantial market of St. Louisans actually making their family vacation plans for St. Charles.

Skyrocketing gas and gold prices. Rising interest rates. Inflation becoming a serious concern. A president with plummeting approval ratings and a troubling Iraq policy. Who knows what's next in Iran? And today radio commercials marketing St. Louis family vacations to St. Charles.

All I can say is, through it all, there is a bright side: We're glad we're living in St. Louis. And we're glad we do have cool local places that actually offer good in-town vacation options. (Don't forget the Graffton/Pere Marquette area).

Oh, and that scooter is looking more and more like an attractive alternative! Hmmm. I wonder if there's a bridge you can take to ride your scooter across the Missouri River...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Last Missouri Exit"

After attending the Tell-Tale Heart show at Cummels, which was fantastic by all accounts, I rode over to check out the night game atmosphere around New Busch.

Maybe it's just the newness of the place, but there seemed to be a LOT more people walking around the streets of downtown near the ballpark. Mike Shannon's new, more visible, location was packed. Cards games on multiple high-def TVs were clearly visible from Market Street.

The feeling around the park is incredible. The vibe of the ballpark pours into downtown. From wide angles outside the park you see what's going on inside the stadium. The interior Jumbotron and scoreboards are in full view from the neighboring streets.

Everything feels closer. The roads around the ballpark are especially close. I like the intimacy of it. However, there's a potential serious downside to all the nearby intersecting streets.

On eastbound Hwy 40, you pass a sign that reads "Last Missouri Exit". From the elevated highway beside the stadium, the offramp drops you down right around the corner from the Broadway Oyster Bar, the Eugene Field House, and the ballpark. The end of the offramp is marked with "Do Not Enter" signs to prevent drivers from accidentally heading the wrong way up the exit ramp.

However, with all the lighting, traffic, glare and general distractions coming from the very nearby ballpark, it's easy to see how a driver, especially one unfamiliar with the area, and perhaps after having imbibed on a few too many of St. Louis' most famous beverages, could easily drive the wrong way up this exit ramp. It would be great if there was a good way to make this intersection safer.

The other dangerous intersection is the onramp to westbound Highway 40 from Broadway right next to southeast corner of the stadium. The area is filled with pedestrians. You see many of them sheepishly trying to walk across this highway onramp. Meanwhile, careless drivers will speed onto this ramp from Broadway at all hours. Combine the dangerous intersection with consumption of mass quantities of St. Louie Soda and you have another serious safety hazard.

State of the art pedestrian safety improvements have been made all around the ballpark on the new road improvements. So far however, it doesn't look like anything has been done to improve safety on these two old highway ramps. They deserve a look. We don't need that "Last Missouri Exit" sign taking on a new meaning.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tell-Tale Heart

Every once in while, very seldom indeed, you see an artist who instantly gives you that prescient, "they're destined for greatness" feeling.

Gage Love, touring guitarist with Torch the Morgue from Quad Cities, was featured in this space recently along these lines. Twenty-five years ago, jazz duo Tuck and Patti gave us that impression at a small piano bar high in the Berkely Hills.

Today, right here in St. Louis, another young artist, Joel Dodson, is doing the same. Dodson's combination of excellent guitar work, the sonic power of his melodic vocals, combined with genuine enthusiasm and fun while performing, make for a great music experience.

The fact that he puts it all together at once is the most impressive part about him. Few performers combine guitar mastery and excellent vocals in the same person. Dodson does so flawlessly, while having a good time with his band and the audience.

Tonite at 7:30 Dodson will be performing with his band, "Tell-Tale Heart", at Cummell's Cafe, 1627 Washington Avenue. For those looking for a "we knew them when" experience, be sure to check these guys out.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dream Sequence

The spring is turning into an early summer, and the Cardinals are playing in a fabulous new downtown ballpark, but it wasn't always certain things would turn out this way.

Invoking Wayne's World dream sequence imagery, let's go back to 2004 when negotiations were at their peak on the proposed new ballpark for the city.

Imagine for a moment that negotiations for a downtown ballpark had failed. Imagine that the cooperation between the city and the county never happened. And then imagine that the Cardinals followed through on their promise to get a new stadium somewhere. And imagine that somewhere turned out to be a "blighted" farm field up near Interstates 55 and 270, around Edwardsville, Illinois.

Baseball season 2006 opens and Busch Stadium sits dark and empty in downtown St. Louis. All the buzz about the Cardinals season would be happening at KTRS' studios in Westport Plaza and the new, suburban ballpark in Southwestern Illinois. Downtown would still have KMOX, but not the Cardinals. Columnists would write about the similar fates of our jilted downtown and KMOX- they still have each other, but not the Cardinals.

Fortunately, that scenario was avoided. We can pinch ourselves and see a fantastic new ballpark right where ballparks are supposed to be: downtown.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Halfway Home

New Busch is opening to rave reviews. Keeping the Cardinals in downtown STL marks another step in the continuing revitalization of our city. Thanks to everyone who helped to make this happen!

However, the total project is only halfway completed. The demolition of Busch II has created the largest vacant land development opportunity in downtown STL since the construction of the Arch, and the open-air style of the new ballpark is creating a whole new set of downtown issues and opportunities.

Busch III is more than just a new ballpark. It is an opportunity to build upon our year round experience in downtown STL. Here are a few suggestions ideas for the ownership group as they build up the neighborhood around our new downtown ballpark.

Before siting buildings for Ballpark Village, there should be a visual analysis completed to be sure we maximize the finished skyline views of downtown from inside the stadium. This view will be our money shot of downtown STL for national television audiences. It would be a shame if a new building blocked the views of the Old Court House or part of the Arch. The mockup version in the image above shows a blocky looking building that might block views of important buildings like the Old Court House. Let's take care when finalizing the site plan to make sure we get the best results possible.

If the visual analysis determines that some areas of Ballpark Village should maintain a lower height profile in order to preserve important views, what about using those spaces for small outdoor recreational uses such as sand volleyball, a mini wiffle ball/cork ball field, convertible to an outdoor ice rink during the wintertime? These could be in view of neighboring Ballpark Village sports bars and restaurants.

Speaking of the BV sports bars and restaurants, since lots of people without tickets will want to soak in the atmosphere of downtown baseball, the Cardinals could wire the closed circuit, commercial free baseball signal from inside the stadium to the neighboring BV sports bars. It would be the next best thing to being there. Large screen projection televisions, combined with the sound of cheers from neighboring Busch III would make a fun, exciting baseball experience.

And, for more neighborhood experiences, what about improving the adjacent stadium garages? A friend of mine is a city police officer who said he spent all day yesterday trying to keep people off of the top of the Stadium East garage. Rather than trying to keep people off of it, let's open it up.

Just like in Chicago, where the rooftops of neighboring buildings are used for bleacher parties to watch ballgames, the same thing could be done with the top of the Stadium East garage and other new BV buildings. It's even conceivable that an air-conditioned sports bar could be built into the second highest floor of the Stadium East garage. Bleacher parties on the roof; a/c on the second floor from the top. Cards ownership and the stadium people could work out a licensing arrangement.

One of the criticisms of downtown sports venues is that they are only open a limited number of dates. There is potential opportunities for those off days.

For some of us non-ticket holders who may wait years to attend a big league game inside new Busch, offer free stadium tours on the off days. And what about having one or two of the stadium stores and restaurants open year round? The stadium can be a draw all year.

And speaking of off-days, if you could get the MLB players to agree, schedule 10-20 Memphis or Springfield Cardinal games a year at new Busch. Offer lower prices, and you'd fill the stadium for more dates.

We can't wait for our chance to see the place in person. In the meantime, does anyone have links for good pictures of the ballpark and the new skyline views?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Building Up Young Ballplayers

StL Mark was looking for some ideas about how to teach a young person about baseball. Here are some of the things we tried that worked in raising our son to appreciate the game and want to play it.

Most important: Start young. When a child is 3 or 4 years old, he/she is old enough to learn how to catch and throw. Use a safe, spongy ball. Get them to throw near and far, and to corral the balls in front of them until they start catching them in the air. You probably will find yourself heaping on lots of love, praise, and encouragement. Do not stop.

Having good hand-eye coordination is an essential trait for playing baseball. It needs to be second nature. The younger a person starts developing these skills, the more natural they will be and the more enjoyment and success they will have as they get older.

Play catch: More than anything else, it is the number one fundamental to playing baseball. Plus it's just plain fun. Without exagerating, in his thirteen years. I've probably played catch with Matt some 5,000 times, with probably close to a million tosses. Playing catch can be a great time for having talks with your child, and as he/she gets more skill, you can teach more applications. Simulated ground balls, popups, pitching sequences, etc.

Now that Matt is turning into a young man, he doesn't need me so much to play catch. So when it's late at night, and he asks me to have a catch under the street light, it's a gift he is unknowingly returning to me.

Teach no fear: Fear of the ball is the greatest obstacle to becoming a ballplayer. I didn't overcome it until I was about fifteen. Standing in the batter's box or fielding a hard hit ground ball can be intimidating. To help Matt overcome this fear, when he was about 2 and 1/2 years old, we went down in the basement with his Toys R Us-styled fat plastic bat and a foam softball to practice batting. He had this big grin on his face, and I would fire fast pitches to him from about 12 feet.

He'd take big swings, and, if I pitched it decent, he'd hit it. He couldn't get enough of it. If the foam ball would hit him, that was just part of the fun. Plus, he started to figure out how to get out of the way of an errant pitch. During the wintertime, the basement can be a great place to teach good applicable baseball skills.

Get out and play with other neighborhood kids: While they're little, seek out families with other kids who like to play. You'll probably find them right on your block. Besides learning to make friends, the kids get better at sports together. On our block, we have neighbor kids in four out of five houses in a row. They all play together, and each one of them are among the best athletes in their class, and good friends.

Seek out organized youth leagues: By age five, "T-Ball" is an option for boys and girls. The games are structured for fun and learning. It's a great way to meet new people, and give the kids a good time. Check out YMCA or CYC sports leagues. They specialize in youth sports.

Play other sports: Baseball is not a conditioning sport. Actually, in my opinion, baseball is really less of a sport than it is a game. Yet you need to be in good shape to play it. Basketball, soccer, and hockey are good sports to get kids in shape to play baseball. (Note: For what it's worth, my other strong recommendation is to not have kids specialize in a single sport until they are at least in 8th or 9th grade. Figure skating and gymnastics being the exception, otherwise, let the kids decide for themselves what they like best. Overzealous parents who think they are raising the next Nolan Ryan do their kids a disservice.)

Make the investment: In addition to all of the hours you will spend together, providing your young athlete with good equipment is important to their skills development, safety, and growing confidence. Quality hand-me-downs are a good option, or check out "Play It Again Sports". They deal in quality, used equipment for most sports.

Avoid over or undersized bats and gloves. By age 8 or so, invest in a leather glove. Make sure their bat is the right length and weight for their size. If you're unsure, take a friend who knows the difference. Lugging a too-heavy bat is a recipe for lots of late swings and strikeouts. Fielding with a wrong-sized, non-broken-in glove is a formula for lots of dropped balls. By age five or six, they should be throwing and catching a "safety" baseball (regulation size and weight, with a little cushiony give).

Build their confidence: Sports are fun but challenging. Sometimes they can be difficult and frustrating. Self-confidence is crucial to the development of all young people including young athletes. Practice and positive reinforcement work. Steer away from coaches who yell too much. Few young players respond favorably to adults who yell at them. If they're still playing by the time they're in high school, then they can deal with yelling coaches.

Set a good example: If you appreciate baseball, chances are your kids will too.

Have fun: It's the most important ingredient of all.

Bonus: Growing up in St. Louis doesn't hurt!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Tony and Me

At the annual fundraising auction for Matt's school, we bought a signed copy of Tony LaRussa's "Three Nights In August" book. The book is about a 3-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs as seen through the eyes of Cards manager, Tony LaRussa. I'm hoping that the book gives me some added coaching insights as we start our second year managing a youth hardball team down at historic Heine Meine field in Lemay.

The St. Louis Cardinals have adopted Heine Meine as one of their "Cardinals Care Fields". If you want to see true baseball in a restored, historic neighborhood setting, make a visit to Heine Meine field sometime this spring or summer. The atmosphere is great, the baseball entertains, and the concession stand has everything you're looking for at reasonable, midwestern prices.

The team I manage, the "St. Louis South Sox", is entering its second season, playing at the "Midget 2" level. Players range in age from 12-14. Bases are at 80 feet and the distance from the mound to home is 54 feet. Next year, the boys will move up to the big field, with full size, major league dimensions. Still, with 80-foot bases, it's a long throw from third to first for a twelve year old.

In 1980, before he played for Tony LaRussa, a skinny Mark McGwire played in an exhibition game at Heine Meine for the US Olympic Baseball Team. In that game, McGwire hit a towering a home run deep into the adjoining neighborhood of tidy, frame houses.

Last year the South Sox, named for the players who all come from different south side neighborhooods, finished the season with 5 wins and 7 losses. We enter the 2006 season with hopes for a solid year, having added more pitching, hitting and defensive strength. The team has a crisp, new look, and for the first time, an actual corporate sponsor - Bommarito Nissan. As the boys came over last nite to pick up their new uniforms, you could see the excitement on their faces.

Matt has played with some of these boys since first grade. Johnny "Boom Boom" is one of them. John plays first base for the South Sox. John has always loved playing baseball, and is growing into a fine first baseman. He has the lanky build and stretch play you want to see over at first. Of all the boys, John was the most eager to see the new uniforms. He had his dad call yesterday, and they were among the first to arrive last nite to pick them up. You could see a gentle smile come across his face and a gleam in John's eyes as he inspected the new uniforms and the "South Sox, sponsored by..." red and white team banner.

As crazy at it may sound, one of the top reasons we moved to St. Louis from California was to raise Matt in a baseball-drenched environment. We're living that life now, and it is a wonderful thing. Uncynical, these young players have baseball dreams. Based on a show of hands, almost every South Sox player has hopes to play high school ball in a couple of years. Their hearts are filled with anticipation.

So far, I've learned two things from "Three Nights In August". LaRussa does not follow conventional wisdom in any part of managing. He always tries new things. One of them was to move a powerful, dangerous hitter into the leadoff spot. Traditionally, you save those hitters for the middle of the lineup. LaRussa figured that challenging a pitcher early, before he can settle into a rhythm, would be a good strategy. With added pop in the South Sox lineup this year, we're going to try that same strategy.

Another lesson LaRussa shares is his job description of the role of a major league manager. Getting pampered, multi-million dollar, athletes to play at the top of their game is a difficult thing to do. To do so, LaRussa believes his job is mostly about
"unlocking players' hearts".

Coaching 12 and 13 year olds presents a similar challenge. These young guys are ballplayers on the inside, building up their potential. Unlocking their hearts will help unleash that potential. If by the end of the season, the players come together and the team plays with "heart", then no matter the win-loss record, it will have all been a very good year.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Need and Not Have"

They say it's always better to "have and not need" than to "need and not have".

There's one thing we could use in St. Louis that at the present time is definitely in the "need and not have" category.

St. Louis is a place known for its wealth of architectural assets. Some of them are in need of emergency stabilization. Unfortunately, there is no fund designated for emergency stabilization of historic structures.

While there are many old buildings that make sense to demolish [if you don't believe me, let's take a tour sometime and you can draw your own conclusions..], there are many others worth preserving.

Some are important contributing structures located in St. Louis historic districts. Without a ready source of emergency stabilization funds, we wind up losing some of these important buildings.

With a wide variety of opinions, we've discussed donating funds to different sorts of nonprofit organizations. Would you consider making cash donations to an organization whose sole purpose was to award emergency stabilization funds for preserving historically significant buildings?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Summer in St. Louis

Hot? Yes. A Great Vacation Destination? Absolutely...

Here's a list of possible day trips starting from St. Louis:

French Discovery

Cahokia Court House and Cahokia Mounds
Fort Des Chartres
Chester, Illinois
St. Genevieve, Missouri
Belleville, Illinois
White Cottage for ice cream
Our Lady of the Snows

Mississippi River Country

Clarksville, Missouri
Louisiana, Missouri
Pere Marquette State Park
Illinois/Missouri Ferries
Alton, Illinois
Finn Inn, Graffton, Illinois
Elsah, Illinois
Cahokia Mounds
Wood River, Root Beer Stand
Hanibal, Mark Twain sites

Missouri River - Hermann - Missouri Wine Country

Historic St. Charles
Augusta, Missouri
Purina Farms
Daniel Boone Home
Meramec Caverns
Washington, Missouri
Gary Lucy Studio
Katy Trail
Hermann, Missouri

St. Louis County

Butterfly House
Laumeier Sculpture Park
UCity Loop
Prologue Room (Boeing)
Jefferson Barracks
Grant's Farm/Clydesdales
Swim outings
Museum of Transport
Glencoe Train
Magic House
Six Flags over Mid America
Ice Skating

St. Louis City

Gateway Arch
Old Cathedral
Old Court House
Scott Joplin House and Historic Mansion Tours
City Museum
Crown Candy
Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries
Soulard Market
Soulard Neighborhood
Lafayette Square Neighborhood
Central West End Neighborhood
New Cathedral
Missouri Botanical Garden
Forest Park
St.Louis Zoo
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Union Station
Ted Drewes for frozen custard
Cherokee Antique Row
Fox Theater
The Muny Theater
Powell Hall and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Anheuser Busch Brewery Tour/Clydesdales
The Hill Neighborhood
St. Louis Cardinals
Eugene Field House and Toy Museum

Check back..more links to follow...