It started with a glimpse. Walking from a hard-fought parking spot on Lucas Ave toward the entrance to the Convention Center on Washington, I spied a slight, aging black man wearing a white Cardinals jersey with a number 1 and the name Smith stitched across the shoulders.
Normally an Ozzie Smith Cardinals jersey wouldn't draw a second glance in downtown St. Louis, but this is All-Star Week. This was the real deal: the Wizard himself strolling down the street, escorted by a phalanx of big burly security guards. While celebrity sightings will probably get old quick- this was the first and thus a titillating indication of what to expect for the next five days.
Yes, MLB's All-Star FanFest
, the sprawling baseball extravaganza in the America's Center, began today and red-clad Cardinal Nation was out force. And so were the bigwigs.
While the entry line wrapped around the block at 8:45 this morning, inside Mayor Slay eyeballed a statue of "Cool Papa" Bell before sashaying over to shake hands with Smith and Cardinals President Bill DeWitt. All three gave speeches before the gates opened and baseball fans (who either took off work for the occasion or are gleefully unemployed) stampeded into baseball's equivalent of a three-ring circus.
Autographs from Joe Buck to Bill Buckner to everybody else ever.
Spread across the entire building are hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of memorabilia-- everything from a Milwaukee Brewers World Championship Ring ($557), to an autographed black and white picture of Mickey Mantle signing autographs for little kids ($501, for that meta-moment), to an autographed Stan "The Man" jersey ("Ask for price", which probably means its too expensive). There's also a collection of artifacts on loan from Cooperstown that aren't for sale and at least three Cardinals World Series Trophies on display. And baseballs, thousands and thousands of baseballs.
There are interactive exhibits--batting cages where the pitches are thrown by video screens of big league pitchers, an indoor field, a place where visitors can do a play by play of a taped baseball game-- to the point that the scale is quite staggering, really. There's also enough merchandising and advertising that I felt like my wallet lightened just standing there.
Is it worth the $30 price of admission ($25 for kids)? Probably, if only because it's a helluva lot cheaper than $1,000 scalped tickets to the All-Star Game.
But if you are one of the 200,000 people who have already bought tickets, here are a few pieces of advice...
- Don't commit any crimes and don't park illegally. Duh, I know, but downtown is crawling with law enforcement of every size, shape and uniform. And even at 8:30 a.m., parking was a bear.
- Bring your own beverage and eat beforehand or at a restaurant outside-- $4 for a bottle of water, and the only food seemed to be nachos and snowcones.
- If you're bringing your kids, bring a glove and a baseball. The ball will probably get autographed by somebody (big names signing today are Bob Feller and Lee Smith) and the glove will come in handy at all the interactive sites.
- Bring a camera. Photo opps abound.
- Hit the ATM before you arrive. Beyond the expensive refreshments and memorabilia, there were a few cools shops, especially if you like fitted caps: There's a wall of hats, with one for every major league team and all their minor league affiliates. Check it out:
Other things to note:
-Sadly, the Negro Leagues exhibit makes no mention whatsoever of St. Louis' own "Prince" Joe Henry
. Of course, James "Cool Papa" Bell had his own locker and jersey:
-The giant scale models of all three Cardinals stadiums are pretty cool.
-People really, really want to pretend they're "in the game" or part of the Cardinals. There's one photo-opp where you can "climb the wall" to make a catch. Using little ladders, you can then hold yourself up and pose for a action-shot style picture. They even provide gloves. There's also this giant cardboard cutout of the 2009 Cardinals for fans to insert themselves for picture. The wait for this was at least half an hour: