By Rob Rains
When Jose Martinez was growing up in Venezuela, his sports of choice were baseball, soccer and a little basketball. Even after he moved to the United States to begin his professional baseball career, there was one sport he quickly clicked past every time it showed up while he was watching television – hockey.
Those days are over. “Now,” Martinez said, “I stop and watch it.”
Martinez is one of several Cardinals’ players who have been caught up in the buzz of the Blues’ playoff chase. He attended his first game last Saturday, watching the Blues defeat the Winnipeg Jets to clinch their opening-round series.
He had a mentor with him – second baseman Kolten Wong – who like Martinez grew up in a place, Hawaii, where the only ice he saw was usually in a drink.
“I knew what it was, but you just don’t see it there,” Wong said of the sport.
Wong became a fan after going to his first Blues game, just like Martinez. That came in the winter of 2011, the year he was drafted by the Cardinals. Matt Holliday invited several young minor-leaguers, including Wong, on a mid-winter trip to St. Louis to work out, spend time around the ballpark and just to experience life in St. Louis for a few days.
One of the activities was taking the group to a Blues’ game.
“I just loved it,” Wong said. “Ever since that game I just said, ‘This is pretty awesome.’ Everything about the game is right down my alley.”
Wong said he goes to a fair number of games, and there were six Cardinals’ players in attendance at Enterprise Center, six blocks up the street from Busch Stadium, for the clinching game against the Jets. It lined up perfectly for the players to attend because their game that day ended about two hours before the Blues’ game began.
Also there that night were Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler, sitting in different parts of the building.
Wong was sitting in the stands, and said he didn’t know Martinez was coming until this “big dude” walked up and sat down next to him. When Martinez didn’t really understand what was happening in the game, Wong tried to explain it to him.
“He was explaining all the plays and situations,” Martinez said. “I had a great time.”
It’s likely there will be several Cardinals’ players in attendance again on Thursday night for game one of the second-round series between the Blues and Dallas Stars. The game coincides perfectly with a day off for the Cardinals in the middle of a homestand.
“I will be there,” Molina said. “I’m excited for the next round.”
Wainwright has been to “five or six” games in the last few years and has become hooked by the playoff aspect of the games. He still said he is not a passionate enough fan to watch most regular-season games on television but actually going to a game “changes your perspective,” he said.
“I told a police officer who was there that nobody can ever convince me that this isn’t the best sports town,” Wainwright said. “The crowd was so fired up and had been all week – pre-game, post-game, the buzz on the streets. … I love how serious they take it.”
Wong, from his vantage point in the stands, also felt caught up in the crowd and the atmosphere inside the building.
“I love the feeling,” he said. “People are a lot more rowdy there than you see here. I was telling Jose ‘This is amazing, how these fans are all into it.’ It was so exciting to be a part of it. … Anytime you can be in that environment, and support the team, it kind of pumps you up as well.
“People growing up in St. Louis they have the Cardinals, the Blues, they had the Rams at one point. In Hawaii I never really had that. It was cool to see and be one of those fans. There were a couple of guys sitting in front of us who were really die-hard Blues fans. You could just see their excitement. It was pretty cool.”
All of the Cardinals who were there know what a crowd at Busch Stadium would be like if the team can get back into the postseason after missing the playoffs the last three years.
Watching a playoff crowd in person, just down the street, only reinforced that feeling.
“We feed off the fans here just as much as those guys do,” Wong said. “If you’re a Blues fan you are probably a Cardinals fan. For me being a Blues fan down in the stands with everyone else just cheering along with them … it was fun to be part of that and take that in and be a fan for once.”
Being at the game helped Wainwright appreciate once again what it is like for fans who watch the Cardinals and have that intense desire to wanting the team to make another run deep into October.
“It kind of got me thinking about baseball a little bit,” Wainwright said.
“We get here and just go through our routine, and it’s a normal, routine day for us. For the fans, they have been salivating all day long. I loved it.”
The Blues’ players, many of whom are baseball fans, appreciate the support of their fellow professional athletes.
“It doesn’t hurt when you have Waino and Yadi up there saying, ‘Let’s go Blues,’” said defenseman and team captain Alex Pietrangelo. “The city’s buzzing right now, and we need that energy moving forward.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Blues