The Cardinals unite St. Louis, but for many who came here from other countries, baseball helped them learn America and feel American. Each Sunday this July, columnist Benjamin Hochman will capture the story of a new St. Louisan, who now bleeds Cardinals red.
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
The boy in the war was 9 the day he thought his parents might die.
The bus toward Budapest fled what is now Bosnia, with the Beganovic family huddled inside. Refugees. They stopped in a tiny town. Denis Beganovic’s parents got off to gather food for the family. The sirens started.
“Airplanes. Bombing,” said Beganovic, now 30. “And the bus started going. Just me, my brother and my grandmother on a bus. Twenty years later, I think back — are they going to get killed? Are they going to make it onto the bus? My parents were running behind … and finally got back on the bus.”
Baseball became his escape, but first he had to escape.
Initially to the refugee camp in Hungary, which at first felt like a jail. They were there nine months, through the winter.And then, to some town in America.
“We’re driving from the airport, you see the Arch,” Beganovic said recently, over sandwiches at Macklind Avenue Deli. “The town we were from was 20,000 people, so there wasn’t anything more than six stories, so seeing downtown for the first time? And you can see Busch Stadium, and you don’t know what it is at that time. You’re holding on to the window. Amazed.”
St. Louisans aren’t all from St. Louis. The Cardinals unite our city and citizens, but for many who came here from other countries, baseball also helped them learn America and feel American.
“I certainly had never heard of baseball before then,” Beganovic said. “I learned English watching Cardinal games on TV and ‘Three Stooges.’”
A NEW CULTURE, A NEW NORMAL
New classmates, new teachers, new surroundings. It’s an unenviable transition for any impressionable kid, even moving across town. Denis and his younger brother, Adis, moved across the world. Not just new classmates, new teachers, new surroundings, but also a new language, new culture, new normal.
“You’re trying to learn something in class,” Denis Beganovic recalled, “but as you’re trying to learn, you’re also trying to learn the language.”
They arrived on May 8, 1996 — the last year of Ozzie, the first year of Tony and the start of a couple of decadent decades. And each May night, Beganovic was transfixed by the television. The boys would watch this strange sport. Grandma, too. Beganovic’s parents, Melisa and Nurdin, were seldom home, working a full shift at one job, only to then start a full shift at the next job. They came to America with few possessions and “10 dollars, maybe,” Beganovic said.
In Bosnia, he’d sometimes wander the streets and find tank shells or bullets. In St. Louis, in the basement of the home they rented, Beganovic found a metal baseball bat. It was silver, with black padding grip wrapped around the handle. It was an Easton, but when Beganovic found the bat again this past month, the barrel was so worn down, you couldn’t read the brand’s logo at first glance. The bat had splotches and scratches and stains, and it was beautiful.
In the alley by their home, near St. Mary’s High School, these two Bosnian boys would lose themselves in this foreign sport.
“My brother would pitch, I would hit, and then we’d switch — we’d play a full game,” Beganovic said. “He would be Todd Stottlemyre or Donovan Osborne, and I would be Ray Lankford or Ron Gant. … I didn’t hit left-handed, but because of Lankford, I tried. … And there was a church next to us, and we hit so many of those tennis balls onto the roof. Just the two of us. It was a way to normalize the situation — doing what other kids are doing here.
“We probably broke 3-4 windows on the church. I remember just tennis ball after tennis ball, on the roof, hitting it down the street.”
‘I REMEMBER BEING AMAZED’
He knew the date. Of course he knew the date.
“May 27, 1996,” Beganovic said. “Against the Rockies. We lost 5-2.”
Another Bosnian family invited Denis and Adis to a Cardinals game.
“Old Busch Stadium,” Beganovic said. “I remember being amazed — to get to the top level you have to walk in a circle and walk and walk, and I was just holding on to the rail, walking up, looking around at the sights and sounds.”
The stadium, if you recall, was this drab, concrete edifice … until you’d approach the opening space to each section. And you’d walk out of what seemed black-and-white into this green, bright alternate universe, and it would encapsulate your soul. Holy moly. Walking into old Busch. The sun and the scent of hot dogs with grilled onions and the sounds of players playing catch, the baseballs pouncing in the pocket of a glove and Ernie Hays’ welcoming organ music, which sounded in part like it was for a carnival and in part like it was for a religious gathering.
Really, this all was a symbolic experience for a boy who had just left a drab, desolate world for one of possibility.
“You see the field, and — it was just the size of it,” Beganovic said. “And finally making the connection of everything I watched for the past three weeks — the layout of the field, getting a sense where everything is at from TV.”
The boys got gloves. Lankford T-shirts. Beganovic recently texted a photo from the 1990s of him in a Cards hat, Adis in a Cards jersey, along with their mother, at a putt-putt course in Branson.
“How freaking American is that!” he said.
By the fall of 1996, his first year in American schools, “baseball played a big part in making me a person in school who was like everybody else. So I wasn’t that foreign kid who didn’t know English, didn’t know anything. If you’re able to come in that classroom and say, ‘Cards won 3-2 last night, Lankford hit a home run,’ you’ve got that connection with them. You may be different, but the baseball is what connected us. And that connected us in that first school year, after spending the summer watching baseball. I didn’t know much about St. Louis or anything school-wise, but baseball accelerated my ability to connect.”
The Cards made the playoffs that fall. First time since ‘87. Only looking back does Beganovic appreciate the significance of that fall, while succumbing to the fact that “it was a pretty good choke-job there against the Braves.”
His grandmother got into it. Darvisa had worked as a hospital cook for most of her life, before the Beganovics came to America. She was in her 60s and never learned English. But she would watch those Cards, if the game wasn’t on too late. She’d watch a game and fire off an expletive if a player struck out in a key moment.
“She knew the names of all the players but didn’t speak any English,” he said. “When I went to college, I would call her every day at lunch, and she’d say, ‘What happened to the Cardinals last night?’ I moved back to St. Louis, and I worked at City Hall, and I didn’t call one day — so she had my mom call City Hall to see where I was at!
“She passed away (a few) years ago. … She liked ‘The Golden Girls,’ ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ because of the grandma on the show, and baseball.”
THE KID WHO ESCAPED
Today, Beganovic is a senior transportation planner for MoDOT, in the St. Louis District. He talks about the Cardinals with confidence and passion. When he gives you a phone number, he doesn’t say the “314,” which is one of the most St. Louis things a person can do. Still, he takes his American-born buddies to Bosnian restaurants. At his home, he’ll grab them a Bosnian beer from the fridge. He is forever the kid playing baseball in the alley, but he’s also forever the kid who escaped a war-torn world.
“I think these stories are important to remind people,” he said, “because people think, ‘Oh, bomb this country, let’s go to war,’ but you don’t understand what war is. There’s a human element that most people don’t get. Not everybody is a terrorist, or is this or that. I’m still that little kid who was playing soccer, and all of a sudden the people I’ve played with for five years are not talking to me, because two politicians decided to now go to war. I don’t know. I think 400,000 people died in three years. The bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. But we’re here now. But I still feel that connection. I still have a Bosnian flag. I’ve been an American citizen since 2008.
“I remember the ceremony down at the courthouse. The judge said, ‘Congratulations, you’re Americans now. Embrace that. But still don’t forget who you are and where you came from — and help us understand that part, while we help you understand America. There’s enough space to combine the cultures and learn from each other.’ And that’s where baseball comes in.”