Imagine Lambeau...swaddled in red
...that's the feeling I got as I returned to Busch Stadium in St. Louis Wednesday night.
As I walked from Kiener Plaza to the ballpark, I was surrounded by thousands of crimson-clad fans wearing some mutation of the Cardinal logo or script, I got the feeling not unlike the one you get marching toward Lambeau Field on an October afternoon. Redbird baseball, like Packers football, is a religion here. Fans are smart, saavy, and fiercely loyal yet polite to the occasional out-of-towner.
Brewers fans were few, and their blue outerwear made them vastly conspicuous. Yet I saw no member of Cardinal Nation getting in any cheeser's face. I doubt the treatment would've been the same in Philadelphia where the display of opposing colors is taken as a personal affront.
Busch is part church, part holy destination,and all about merchandising: stores and souvenir stands about, just in case you don't have enough red in your life or wardrobe. Food is abundant and varied. Wanna beer? Fall face first and your nose will be in someone's tapper. Just don't ask for a Miller or a Coors Lite.
And, the Cardinals treasure their history. Statues of the men who had their numbers retired greet you in at the main gate. Stan Musial gets separate treatment along the west side of Busch while there's a bust of legendary announcer Jack Buck on the north. He's what Bob Uecker is to Milwaukee, an intimate link between the action on the field and the fan at home.
Which explains the reach of Cardinal Nation. These folks travel well and fill the stands so often simply because, well, there's so damned many of them. For decades, Redbird baseball was was far west as America's past time went--teams wouldn't make it to San Francisco and Los Angeles until the late 50's. The Braves wouldn't come to Atlanta until 1965. For much of the west, south and mid-central part of the country the Cardinals were the local team, with flagship station KMOX's big signal making sure that the exploits of Dizzy Dean, Enos Slaughter and other St. Louis greats made it into many a farmhouse on the plains. Cardinal baseball became part of the DNA, passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter.
That's right--chicks dig Redbird baseball, big time. Among the most rabid fans I met were a pair of sisters, sitting in lawn chairs outside a locked Busch Stadium gate at four p.m. Wednesday. They'd been there since one p.m. The two said they just liked being part of the pre-game scene, and knew not only the Cards but also were well schooled on the Brewers.
Like Green Bay, St. Louis Cardinal baseball has a legacy that's unique to the game: storied franchise with history of success and a fanbase crafted by time, where each game is treated as a unique event that commands attention, if not in-person attendance. Sure, Cardinal fans may seem to carry a we-invented-the-game swagger, but that comes with having been around a while. Yes, a few sport a sense of entitlement to greatness, but that happens when you have ten world championship flags flapping in the outfield breeze.
If you're looking for another example of such fan-dom, just drive 90 miles north Sunday morning where the Packers are taking on the Rams. Let's hope the anticipated win over St. Louis' NFL entry isn't the only one we get in the days ahead.