Sports is everywhere. In the paper, on the internet and most definitely on our televisions. With the exposure of athletes today we often feel as though they are living in a separate world. A different realm. Yes they are paid more than most of us. Yes they are whisked through airports and sit in first class. Go home to huge mansions and choose from one of ten cars to drive. Often times there seems to be a disconnect between professional athletes and the fans. I have been lucky enough in my profession to meet numerous professional athletes. But it is the times when you meet them outside of a professional setting that gives you a chance to really see what these “celebrities” are like. Living here in St. Louis there are an abundance of places you may run into a local athlete. Whether it is at O.B. Clark’s, Weber’s Front Row, at a restaurant on the Hill or even at Mike Shannon’s. But my favorite place will forever be the dance club that once was in Union Station….Have A Nice Day Café.
This week marks the 14 year anniversary, wow I am really dating myself and can’t believe it was that long ago, but this week is the anniversary of a night that my college roommates and I still talk about to this day. That night we joined the inner circle of some of St. Louis’ sports stars. Back in 2000 my roommates Gabe, Jason, and I were seniors in college. We had routinely gone to Have A Nice Day Café every Wednesday, you know being the typical college guys. But this Wednesday would be different. It was one final monumental evening as a send-off for the three of us.
First a little back ground on the sports scene in St. Louis at that time. That week the St. Louis Blues were in a battle with the San Jose Sharks in a first-round meeting of the NHL Playoffs. On Tuesday night the Blues, the #1 seed in the playoffs, were set to face the Sharks in a game seven. After falling behind in the series 3-1 to the Sharks, St. Louis battled back to even the series and playing at home in game seven in looked like the Blues would avoid the upset. However already down 1-0 in the first period the Blues faithful had their hearts broken when Owen Nolan ripped a shot from just inside the redline as the clock wound down, beating Blues goalie Roman Turek. That singular moment summed up years of disappointment for Blues fans. The Blues would go on to fall to the Sharks 3-1 and after winning the President’s Trophy for best record in the NHL that season, they were out in the first-round. The St. Louis Cardinals were also early on in their season and hosting the Milwaukee Brewers. The next night, our Have A Nice Day Café night, the Cardinals faced the Brewers with young phenom pitcher Rick Ankiel on the mound for the birds. Ankiel already a well-known face in St. Louis was making his fourth start of the season. It wasn’t the spectacular start everyone had seen, Ankiel recorded just four strikeouts in seven innings but also allowed just three hits and no runs while picking up the win.
So there we were St. Louis sports fans, hearts broke from the Blues loss the night before but thrilled for another exciting year of Cardinal baseball. College seniors enjoying the last nights away from our impending adult world. Not knowing what lay ahead. We had already been at Have A Nice Day Café for about an hour or so and taken spots up in the upper area of the bar. All of a sudden four men walk in and immediately we recognized them. It was the Slovak Line from the Blues…Pavol Demitra, Lubos Bartecko and Michal Handzus; along with previously mentioned net minder Roman Turek. Not wanting to be the typical fans that are star-struck we sat back and gave them the simple cool guy head nods. As the night went on I needed another drink and found myself waiting at the bar with Turek and Handzus. Turek immediately struck up a conversation with me and for the next hour we sat at the bar reminiscing about the season and just talking hockey (trying to understand through his broken English the best I could).
Meanwhile at the same time my buddies Jason and Gabe were back at our original seats when another man walked in. Alone. Despite being just 20-years old at the time Rick Ankiel had made his way into the club and pulled up a spot at the bar as well. After a few minutes had passed my buddy Jason found himself talking with Rick. And then one of the best moments I have ever seen occurred. Rick, surrounded by the jersey chasing girls we all have seen, began telling a story of Jason being his brother. Side note, yes Jason I think your highlight tips helped seal the deal for relation to Rick. So at the same time we had Rick Ankiel, baseball’s phenom pitcher, playing wingman for my college roommate and me consoling a starting NHL goalie.
While this story will never get old I think there is something more to take from it. As I said earlier fans often are disconnected from professional athletes. We tend to think their life is much easier. They don’t face the same problems as us because of all the fame and money they have. But they are the same. They are regular people just like us, except with great athletic talent. They have personal doubts, they like to mess with people in a fun way, and they enjoy just being themselves and stepping away from pressures of being a professional athlete. I am sure that athletes and fans in other towns have similar stories.
But I like to think that St. Louis fans are unique for the fact that they do care so much about their teams and their players. If you are on our team you are truly ON our team. My roommate Jason wasn’t trying to be some guy hanging with a professional baseball player at the bar. (Although he did buy Ankiel a shot, while he was underage!) But it was more Jason and Rick having fun making fun of jersey chasing girls. I wasn’t a rabid hockey fan that blamed Turek for the Blues disappointing loss. Just an ear for him to talk about the disappointment that he and the rest of the team felt.
We often blame players for choking or for losing when we fell they shouldn’t. But athletes care as well. For most it’s not just their job but their love. They don’t want to lose. They feel the pain that the fans do also. So next time you talk about a professional athlete making a mistake or choking; remember they are like us, except we aren’t having our work being broadcast to millions of people.