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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The mind works in mysterious ways.

While mulling over the mediocrity that is the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, my mind wondered back to my first Major League Baseball appearance.

The year was 1963. The Cardinals played the Philadelphia Phillies at Sportsman’s Park. I was with my mom and dad, dad’s brother Bud, and his wife, Mary.

The details are fuzzy.

It is the only time I ever saw Stan Musial play. I remember Bob Gibson throwing a complete game. We were sitting down the left field line, and sometime during the game I remember a foul ball whistling well over our heads.

But, the enduring memory is emerging from the tunnel and seeing that beautifully manicured green field. That’s a memory that has stuck with me over the years, it’s a memory that is renewed every time I walk into a major league stadium.

That tangent got me to thinking about my first NHL game, my first NFL game and my first NCAA basketball game.

According to hockeyreference.com, my first NHL game was Jan. 29, 1976. The St. Louis Blues played host to the New York Rangers. I didn’t remember the score, but the website tells me the Blues lost 6-3.

However, one detail of the game will never be forgotten.

Having never been to an NHL game, I was shocked at the crowd’s engagement. I’d been to many Cardinals games by this time and was used to the casual atmosphere of baseball.

At some point during the game the Blues were short-handed. Derek Sanderson, one of my favorite players, was on the point killing the penalty.

The Rangers moved the puck safely into the offensive zone, and one of the defensemen made a lazy point-to-point pass. Sanderson broke toward the puck, and the crowd reacted instantly. I stood up, well, because everyone else had.

By the time my eyes got back to the ice, Sanderson poked the puck ahead. Now, the crowd was not only standing, but cheering uproariously. The noise inside the old barn grew exponentially when Sanderson split the defenders and skated into the clear.

My adrenaline was pumping wildly before Sanderson fired the puck toward the goaltender. When the puck reached the back of the net, the place went nuts. People were turning around high-fiving strangers. It was the most delirious sports moment I had ever encountered.

I fell in love with hockey that night.

My introduction to the NFL wasn’t nearly as pleasant.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1977. Jim Hart’s St. Louis Cardinals were flying high. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, the CBS football pundit, said the Cardinals were one of the favorites for a Super Bowl berth. The Thanksgiving Day match-up with the Miami Dolphins would be a harbinger of things to come.

To be kind, there was nothing for the Cardinals to be thankful for. Bob Griese and Company embarrassed the Cardinals 55-14. The memorable moment – Conrad Dobler got booted from the game.

Perhaps that game scarred me for life. I’ve totally lost interest in the NFL.

As for college basketball, I had an evening math class at SIU’s Tech Building Nov. 30, 1972. After the class dismissed, I walked across the road to watch the Salukis play McKendree.

In those days I was in awe of the Arena, now the Banterra Center. Before remodeling, the Arena held 10,000 fans – 10 times the population of my hometown of Beckemeyer.

I remembered the Salukis playing McKendree. The SIU media guide tells me SIU won 88-78. It was an opening night win in a season in which the Salukis finished 11-15.

As I recall, I sat upstairs in the old wooden bleachers. The crowd was sparse and I remember thinking, “Where is everybody?’

Despite the lackluster crowd, I was enamored with the athleticism and quickness of the Salukis and Bearcats. That enchantment remains.

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LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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