I arrived at Roger Dean Stadium early, or at least I thought so. After all, it was prior to 9am, which was over four hours before game time. Yet, there was already a line of red-clad Cardinals faithful stretched out behind the gate closest to right field.
My natural curiosity led me to wonder why.
Several of the fans were well-prepared, with provisions and blankets laid out on the concrete with pillows made of backpacks or jackets or whatever. Others stood or paced nervously. One young man incessantly tossed a baseball into the air, seemingly catching it every single time.
I decided on the spot to make these fans the subject of my story.
First in line was an attractive woman. Or, at least I was pretty sure of that. She was prone on her blanket, taking a nap, her face protected from the sun by a large white folder of some type. I felt badly about it, but I had to disturb her to open the gate to join the group on the outside.
She uncovered her face, sat up, and immediately and upon seeing my voice recorder, nervously suggested I speak with someone else. It was not unlike Bob Gibson's initial reaction later that morning, but I was not to be deterred either time.
Once I got her talking, I learned why all these folks were waiting - the lure of the berm.
That's right. At Roger Dean Stadium, there is a relatively small area where the right field stands jut out toward fair territory. Instead of bleachers in that section, there is simply a grassy hill, also known as a berm. The section faces back partially toward home plate, making the viewing angle ideal.
Berm seating is standing room only and is first-come, first-served. Those blankets being used while waiting in line would not go to waste during the game, either. First, they could be employed to enjoy lunch on the grass and later, they can be reused to cover up sunburned arms and legs.
But, what makes the berm extra-special is its location. An aluminum bench directly in front of it is where the bullpen staff is perched. I know for a fact that when Steve Kline was with the Cardinals, that he regularly held court there during the game. I imagine that Ray King is maintaining the tradition. Come to think of it, if only Busch Stadium had a berm, Kline might have been so busy he would have kept his fingers to himself.
In addition to its accessibility to the bullpen players, the berm is, in fact, located in the prime location for fan access to all players. The reason I say that is that unlike in a major league stadium, the clubhouse is not located under the stands. Instead, the Cardinals clubhouse at Roger Dean is located out past the right field wall.
As a result, when players are done for the day, which happens especially early and often in spring training, they pass right by the berm on their way to exiting the playing field via a gate located near the right field foul pole.
So, to make a long story short, the berm is primo autograph territory, worth arriving at the ballpark more than four hours early to be assured of the choicest of spots.
First in line was the aforementioned woman. I asked her if she was alone. With a microphone in hand, I could drop lines that in any other situation would sound like a cheesy pick-up attempt. I chuckled to myself.
"No, my husband is over there, having breakfast. He's not as crazy as me." The answer to my question as to why she was there was simply put in one word, a word so powerful and meaningful to all Cardinals fans.
"Albert", she said. "I want his autograph. It's my favorite spot in the berm."
Next in line was Dave, holding a large white binder. "I'm here for the same thing as everyone else. To get that one spot in the corner of the berm." His goal for the day: "As many autographs as I can. I think I got 56 of them yesterday. Most of them more than once by several players."
I managed to get a laugh from the rest of the line when I asked Dave if he didn't also want a sportswriter's signature to add to his collection. I don't think Dave appreciated my weak attempt at humor, though. Either that, or he didn't get it.
I did feel somewhat better when one man offered to let me sign one of his baseballs. But the sweet spot was gone, so I told him that it would only bring down the value of the ball, anyway. Later, it became clear why he was so agreeable about me signing for him.
I asked Dave if he was collecting only Cardinals autographs, to which he replied to the affirmative. "Since my grandpa is from St. Louis, he got me started. I am from Cleveland."
Next in line was Mary, from Belleville, IL, patiently waiting. Her reason: "My kids. They're on the back fields now, but I am waiting in line so they can get a good spot on the berm." On her family's fourth day in Florida, it was their first time to see the Cardinals this spring. "We went to see the Dodgers because of J.D. Drew. He played that day and we got his autograph." At least in the minds of this family, Drew will always be a Cardinal.
Skip Launius, next in line, had time to rehearse his comments, as they flowed quickly and effortlessly. "I try to get here early to get autographs and watch batting practice. My seats are near the bullpen, right next to the berm. I don't go into the berm. This is my fifth year here. I come from January 1 until March 30th. My home is Troy, MO, 59 miles from the ballpark. I missed one game last year. Plus I went to the playoffs and World Series. I bought season tickets up there. They're in the bleachers."
When I asked Launius what would be a good day for him, the answer was surprising. "I don't know", he replied. "I've already got five dozen baseballs, 40 pictures and about 45 baseball cards. So, anything I get today you might say would make it a good day." When I asked him how he was going to get it home, Skip said, "I've got my trailer."
Skip was on a roll. I didn't even need to ask questions now. "My wife stays out in the car until just before they open up." He pointed to a new Dodge pickup parked by the curb with the Birds on the Bat logo affixed prominently. I asked him how long he's been a Cardinals fan: "Well, I turned 66 this month."
Next up was a young lady, Meredith, who was originally from St. Louis, but now is a Wisconsin resident. Why she was there: "To see Skip and to see batting practice early." Apparently, Skip is a regular institution around these parts.
He wasn't done yet. Skip offered me a business card that he pulled out of a plastic holder he was wearing around his neck. The least I could do was give him mine, as well. Said the appreciative Skip, "I collect these things, you know?" I told him I figured that he gathers everything and might need a bigger trailer to get his booty back home. "I've got over 300 baseballs at home and now have another 60 to add to it."
Stacy, from Springfield, IL, was next with a story that touched my heart. "Me and my Dad come down here every year. This is our fourth year coming. We're here for eight days and see the Cardinals every day. We're going to sit in the berm today. My Dad is out at the practice fields to watch the players and get some autographs." Now, that is my kind of vacation.
My final subject was Bill Taylor from St. Louis, who has been a Cardinals season ticket-holder for the last five years. "Got my seats for the new ballpark next season when it opens. We came down last Friday and leave Sunday. We're seeing every game during those nine days and one Marlins game. And, we're going deep sea fishing one day."
"In fact, my season tickets (at Busch) are just a few rows away from that gentleman", as Taylor gestures toward who else but Skip Launius. "I bumped into him at the Hall of Fame and again down here." Taylor denied that Skip asked him for his autograph.
"My son is on spring break, so I decided to come down here with him and my brother. Yesterday alone, I got Pujols' and Jim Edmonds' autographs", said Taylor. "My goal today is to get Scott Rolen and that would be it. The camp grounds we're staying at, Scott Rolen's Dad is camping there. He's going around talking to all of us. That's kind of neat. Good PR on their part (laughs)."
I asked Bill what Rolen's Dad had to say about Scott's knee. "Yeah, he says it is alright. But, if it wasn't, he wasn't going to admit it (laughs nervously again). I agreed, saying "Like father, like son."
So, there you have it. These are the stories of a half dozen of the 6,653 people in attendance at Monday's game - a group of fans from all over the Cardinal Nation, brought together by the lure of the berm.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org