So long, St. Louis: My favorite sports memories from four years in the Lou
I often get asked, as a huge sports fan, whether it’s a big deal that Washington University isn’t a Division I school. That fact doesn’t bother me—not only because the Bears compete for championships across the board, but also because the greater St. Louis area has plenty to offer in the way of athletics.
Upon matriculating to Wash. U. from my New Jersey hometown, I was eager to embrace the small-town sports scene. What St. Louis lacks in bright lights and win-now mandates, it more than makes up for in accessibility and community. I’ll miss those after moving back to the northeast after graduation. Here’s a collection of my fondest St. Louis sports memories over the last four years.
5. Rams open 2015 season with overtime upset of Seahawks
The then-St. Louis Rams entered the 2015 season in between a rock and a hard place. The “Greatest Show on Turf” glory days were long gone, a coach with a 7-9 ceiling was in charge and they played in the lousy Edward Jones Dome to boot. Rumors swirled that Stan Kroenke was going to take the franchise and split.
Playing to quite literally save football in St. Louis, the Rams opened against the big, bad Seahawks, who had come a yard short of a second straight Super Bowl and were setting out on a revenge tour with sparkly new toy Jimmy Graham. They were going to be unstoppable.
The Rams were supposed to roll over as the first stop on that tour. First round pick Todd Gurley was out and after a quick punt return touchdown by Seattle rookie Tyler Lockett, Seattle was set to cruise to 1-0 on the season. You don’t beat elite teams making special teams mistakes like that.
But then…they did. I was shocked that the Rams took the Seahawks to the locker room tied. And then Tavon Austin returned a punt of his own and suddenly, the Rams had momentum. I have no recollection of now-Super Bowl hero Nick Foles leading a game-tying drive in the final minutes. I do remember with crystal clarity the irony of Marshawn Lynch getting stuffed needing a yard, ending the game.
That afternoon, St. Louis felt like a football town. Over the next few weeks, the Rams’ record even moved to 4-3, Gurley becoming a sensation with four straight 125-yard games. Of course, none of it mattered. Kroenke and the NFL were leaving for Los Angeles no matter what. Only then would they invest in the team, trade up for a star quarterback, find a star head coach to supplement St. Louis-drafted stars Gurley and Aaron Donald.
But it feels nice to have one positive St. Louis football memory.
4. Understanding the Cardinal Way
I always admired the Cardinals from afar. A small-market team, they always seemed to make something out of nothing. It was easy to see how their loyal, rabid fans created a sea of red for every postseason game.
And it was a lot of postseason games. From 2011-14, the Cardinals made every NLCS, reaching two World Series and winning one. It’s hard to undersell just how impressive that accomplishment is. Only three other teams had done that in history, the last being the dynasty Yankees. Even the dynasty-primed Cubs couldn’t do it.
But what really impressed me about that run is how seemingly every single Cardinal had a big playoff moment. While they haven’t matched that devil magic in the years since, the continuing “next man up” mentality has still blown me away. In their lone playoff win since 2015, two players I hadn’t heard of months earlier, Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty, went deep.
The ability to create remarkable moments, too, remains a hallmark of Redbirds baseball. Aledmys Diaz hitting a grand slam while mourning his friend Jose Fernandez’s death is what baseball is all about. Matt Holliday pinch-hitting a home run in his possible last at-bat as a Cardinal is one of those scripted moments you’d scoff at in a movie. Yeah, they haven’t won as much over the last few seasons, but those moments are baseball at its heart.
3. Bronson Koenig makes madness
Given that I’m writing about my college years, it would make sense to include a college sports moment. But I’ve written about the Bears extensively, so I’ll go off the board here. Instead, in the midst of March Madness, I invite you to then-Scottrade Center (seriously, two of the three major St. Louis sports stadiums have undergone name changes in my time here) for the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
It was No. 7 Wisconsin against No. 2 Xavier, the winner facing a potentially wide-open path to the Elite Eight with No. 3 West Virginia already upset in the first round. Back and forth they went, neither team leading by double digits at any point. Down three with 13 seconds left, Bronson Koenig pulled up from well beyond the arc to tie the game.
A Xavier turnover ruined one chance at a buzzer beater and we seemed destined for a hard-fought overtime period. But the turnover gave the Badgers one two-second shot at madness, and Koenig delivered one of the most exciting moment of an even more exciting tournament.
2. Jordan Hicks throws the greatest pitch of all time?
I’m a math nerd, which makes baseball a perfect sport. Baseball is a game of numbers. It has lots and lots of numbers. It has so many numbers that extremities are that much more extreme. A first of something is rare; the best of something is remarkable.
I love baseball, but more specifically, I love pitching. The pitch is at the heart of baseball itself. It’s baseball’s core motion; it starts every play.
Some not-so-quick back-of-the-napkin math: In the 46,213 games played since 2000, 13,489,022 pitches have been thrown. Extrapolate that rate out to the 218,222 games played in major league history, and nearly 64 million pitches have been thrown by major leaguers.
Now, imagine the best of those 64 million pitches. Not a good pitch, not an excellent one, but the best single pitch ever thrown. What would it look like?
Two characteristics stand out. One, a pitch can either be a strike or a ball. The best pitch would likely be a strike. Two, speed. In all of human history, we’ve been obsessed with velocity, baseball being no exception. Throwing the ball as hard as possible is the game within the game.
That brings us to Busch Stadium, May 20, 2018. A young man named Jordan Hicks is on the Mound City’s mound (No, seriously, St. Louis is nicknamed the Mound City. I learned that fun fact in doing research for this article.) He’s never thrown a ball recorded over 103.2 mph, but even that objective measurement has room for error.
MLB.com’s Statcast search says Aroldis Chapman threw the fastest official pitch at 105.8 mph in 2010. But that source also says he threw the second fastest pitch at 105.7 mph in 2016—the same pitch MLB.com’s Statcast leaderboard pegs at 105.1 mph. Meanwhile, Brooks Baseball has it at 105.85 mph, which would make the 2016 pitch faster than the 2010 pitch. Clearly, there’s enough variability here that the true top velocity is in question.
Back to Busch. Like I said, Hicks has never thrown a ball over 103.2 mph—fast as Cool Papa Bell flipping the light switch off, but still quite a bit short of peak human performance.
But then: 104. Whew. Sensing the rarest shot at history, I pulled out my phone and started recording. Then: 105, farther outside than Steph Curry pulling up for three. The Busch scoreboard, of course, doesn’t show the decimal, so it could ostensibly be anything from 104.5 to 105.4 rounded.
Two pitches later, 105 fouled off. Statcast search has it at 105 even. The Statcast leaderboard, 105.1. Brooks Baseball, though, puts it at 105.90, a hair above Chapman’s for the fastest ever.
Is it the fastest pitch ever? Maybe! It’s hard to say for sure. Even if not, both the Chapman pitches mentioned were balls, whereas Hicks’s was a strike. There’s an argument to be made that Hicks’s pitch is the greatest ever. And when you put it in the perspective of the roughly 64 million thrown in history, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
1. Blues win back-to-back Game 7s
The greatest thing St. Louis ever did was convince me the Blues exist. Seriously. I’m pretty set in my fandom: Yankees fan as long as I can remember, Giants fan since Eli Manning took over (that’s how you know he’s been there too long), Nets fan since they played in a different state. I guess I would say I was a fringe Devils fan, but I’d be lying if I claimed to be into hockey.
The Blues, though—they’re a bleak franchise. Zero Stanley Cups in a half-century, not even a championship appearance after three straight to start. The Golden Knights went to the Final in their first year of existence! To think that the Blues would be the team to make me a fan of a whole new sport is just wild.
Somehow, though, it felt natural. By playoff time, I could reel off the whole roster. I was ready to embrace the St. Louis-Chicago rivalry, to hate the evil defending champion Blackhawks. The Game 1 thriller had me giddy; a 3-1 lead had me celebrating.
But this was 2016. We didn’t know it yet, but 2016 was where 3-1 leads went to die. So Patrick Kane single-handedly keeping the series alive after the Blues expended massive energy to go to two overtimes at home had me on edge. And blowing a 3-1 lead in Game 6 by allowing six goals wasn’t the best mojo. Why, oh why, did I add another miserable rooting interest to a collection that currently included the Yankees’ first selloff of my lifetime, two straight 10-loss Giants seasons and the Nets first round pick headed to Boston?
I thought about going to Game 7, but why bother going just to be blue? So, I watched from my dorm. The Blues did their best to quell my nerves—they scored a minute in, then again in the first period for a 2-0 lead. They also did their best to induce dread: They blew that 2-0 lead, of course. I watched the rest of the way waiting for my stomach to drop, not an ounce of confidence coursing through my veins. Then, a miracle.
They did it again two weeks later against the Stars, this time taking mercy on my soul with a 6-1 drubbing. Though they ultimately looked listless in the conference final against San Jose, the Blues made a fan for life that spring, even after I leave St. Louis. And that’s just about all you can ask for out of a city.