O'FALLON, Mo. -- By the early evening in this bustling suburban bedroom community, you got the feeling that something out of the ordinary was happening. The skies over T.R. Hughes Ballpark needed an air traffic controller. News helicopters hovered above the outfield, and a resplendent red, white and blue hot-air balloon cruised close to the light towers along the right-field line.
Combined with that was traffic on the ground with enough TV news vans parked across the street to make you wonder if that was O.J. Simpson in the light gray SUV pulling into the parking lot around 6:30 p.m.
But it wasn't O.J. in the Bronco. It was Shaquille O'Neal in the Escalade, making a grand entrance into the 10-year-old minor-league ballpark a couple hours before the start of the taping of his reality TV show, "Shaq Vs."
On Thursday evening, it featured a home run hitting challenge against Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. And out on the sidewalk that led to the main entrance to the park, the Hollywood TV guys were squawking on walkie talkies, trying to coordinate a made-for-TV entrance for the 7-foot-1 basketball giant who recently dubbed himself "Shaq-ie Robinson" for the occasion.
"OK, people, Shaq is only a few minutes away," said the guy with the long white hair, black hat and Madonna headset to the small, early arriving crowd. "When the truck pulls up, we want you to cheer, high five, shout his name. Just don't try to leap out and hug him, swarm him or propose to him."
Hmmmm, really? No hugging, swarming or proposing?
Rats. OK, on to Plan B.
The Escalade had just glided into the lot. It rolled slowly past the first line of security, then picked up speed.
Now there was another guy with the walkie-talkie who was talking to someone somewhere who must have been very important.
"Yes, he is here...crackle, crackle
"Yes, the crowd is...crackle, cracklecued....
"OK, roll cameras...crackle...crackle.We're about to make a little live TV magic errrrrrr.
"Hey, where's the truck going?"
The SUV was turning the wrong direction, going right instead of left, heading not to the red-carpet treatment at the front gate, but disappearing behind the outfield wall and rolling toward the big brick clubhouse 200 yards away.
"Uhhhhhhhh, yeah, we have a problem."
And so this is how the rare evening of "Hollywood Comes to O'Fallon" began on Thursday.
Before the park began to fill up, this was strictly Shaq's show. His name was first on the marquee. His name was in the biggest typeface on all the laminated badges dangling from the necks of all the very busy looking folks who roamed around inside and outside the ballpark gates.
But once the lights were turned on inside the ballpark and once the capacity crowd jammed into every nook and cranny, let's just say Pujols had a decided home-field advantage.
The park was filled with a sea of red, and fans broke out in impromptu "Let's Go Albert!" throughout the night. Shaq's name may have been painted on walls and fences all over the place, but this was a three-hour El Hombre Lovefest, complete with waves of No. 5 Pujols jerseys, T-shirts and handwritten signs.
I was not supposed to be here. The folks from ABC Entertainment had issued a media blackout on the event, which will air in primetime next month, for fear that somebody in the Fourth Estate might ruin the "surprise" ending for this made-for-TV "competition."
Members of the working media were on no special list at the gate. And even though I do have a Screen Actors Guild card (did I ever tell you I was in a movie? Yeah, the remake of "The Longest Yard." I was brilliant), they still wouldn't put me on the VIP list. So this was weird. For the first time in my professional life, a sports event was going on and I couldn't get in by simply waving a press pass at the gate.
The only way to get in was to get one of the 4,500 free tickets made available to select River City Rascals season-ticket holders, or enterprising folks who could weasel their way in by any means necessary.
I am not a Rascals season-ticket holder, but I am an accomplished weasel. Before 11 a.m. Thursday morning, I had secured a ticket, and a darned good one.
Box seat, baby. Six rows up behind the first-base dugout.
So, yes, I had a great view of the proceedings. And even though the good folks from the network made it difficult on the local media, I don't want to be a spoilsport, so I will not reveal the ending of the "competition."
But that doesn't stop me from offering clues:
Clue No. 1: I saw several balls travel completely out of this quaint minor-league park. Crushed over the left-field wall. Crushed over the tall pines beyond the center-field wall. Smoked on a line into bleachers all along the rim of left, left-center and dead center field.
Clue No. 2: I did not see one ball dunked.
Clue No. 3: As a batting coach, Ryan Ludwick (who was seen giving The Big Pitchout batting tips) makes a heck of a right fielder.
Clue No. 4: The Big Infield is not so much a nickname as it is a vivid and descriptive method of measurement.