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St. Louis: Best baseball town?
10/25/2004 7:58 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- "Best baseball town in America."

It is a claim that St. Louis baseball fans and those custodians in Cardinals uniform have made proudly for years, and it is a provincial issue sure to rankle fans from Boston to Chicago and points beyond. But it is a subject that is almost constantly mentioned these days, by Fox TV broadcasters, by national media, by red-blooded fans around town -- and even during Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's interview-room session after Monday's World Series workout at Busch Stadium.

"Tony, people always call St. Louis the best baseball town in America," a Los Angeles Times columnist asked him. "Why do you think that is?"

"I go by comments from players," La Russa replied, "and I think the they say St. Louis is the best because fans are as enthusiastic as in other places but are probably more fair-minded. You can get booed here some, but you're not going to get embarrassed. ... Here, you never see nastiness from our fans. If you like knowledgeable people who are fair-minded to the other side, this has got a chance to be the best."

Mike Radetic is one of those fans, from nearby Washington, Mo., and he has had Cardinals season tickets for the last 12 years. When asked to explain the frequently perpetuated notion that St. Louis is the Majors' best baseball town, he said one at-bat told you everything you need to know. It was Larry Walker's first time up to the plate as a Cardinal in August, following the trade from Colorado. Walker struck out. He received a standing ovation. That doesn't happen anywhere else.

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"I was one of those people standing and applauding him that day, and I was proud of the fans," Radetic said. "It just reinforces the idea that people in St. Louis know their baseball. They were saying, 'Thank you for coming here, we're glad you're a Card.' Everyone else appreciated it. I'm sure it was hard for him to make that move, and we wanted to show that. He's a no-nonsense guy like (Scott) Rolen. A true craftsman who knows his game. We know it, too."

Best baseball town in America.

Just ask the guy who has the statue in his likeness out front of Busch, the statue where countless fans meet before home games. They say: "Meet me at Stan the Man." Everyone knows where you are talking about: the ultimate St. Louis landmark, practically right up there with the Gateway Arch that towers nearby.

"They know the game, they understand the game, but most important, they love the game," Stan Musial, the most beloved Cardinal of them all, said in Rob Rains' book, "Cardinal Nation." "And they love the Cardinals. You can't teach that. It has to come from the heart."

It comes from the heart, and it comes from the Heartland. It comes from fathers and mothers, from grandparents. It comes from all of those years when St. Louis was the only baseball town in an entire region, when the voices of such storytellers as Harry Caray and Jack Buck reached for miles and miles into homes where families listened to the exploits of Musial and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

While "Red Sox Nation" is a more frequently heard phrase, symbolizing a passionate fan base that includes displaced fans seemingly everywhere, "Cardinal Nation" also is ensconced in baseball terminology and it applies to a more exact and wide-sweeping demographic in the heart of America. Rains, a St. Louis author of many Cardinals books, wrote that it is "a region that encompasses Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky." They listen for miles and they drive for miles.

For all those years during the 1900s when Major League Baseball was a 16-team sport -- and until the Dodgers and Giants moved out of New York in the late 1950s -- St. Louis was the westernmost and southernmost city in the Majors. It was the Cardinals' and the Browns' own manifest destiny, a land virtually their own. It was the longest train ride for the game's stars from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Ted Williams. And as radio popularized the game and the game popularized radio, countless fans became Cardinals fans by listening to the voice of great Redbird announcers such as Caray and Buck through the massive reach of KMOX, still the Cardinals' AM flagship station.

The game expanded and became concentrated with new or relocated clubs throughout the continent, but that fan base already had been established and generations of fans in St. Louis and far beyond it inherited the tradition of the birds on the bat. It has become religion, like Packer football in Wisconsin or high school basketball in Indiana. Nothing has changed, except for the names of the players who take the field every spring. Start with St. Louis and then draw rings gradually around it to emulate the reach of the KMOX frequency, and you have Cardinal Nation.

"The Cardinal fans are lifelong fans," former Cardinals second baseman Tommy Herr said in Peter Golenbock's book, "The Spirit of St. Louis," which chronicled the city's baseball history. "St. Louis baseball is a cultural and regional phenomenon in the Midwest. The love for the Cardinals isn't just in the city of St. Louis. It's all over."

Then referring to the 1982 title he helped win, Herr added: "I think to have all that culminate in a world championship and a parade, you could really sense the love and the enthusiasm for the Cardinals."

Lee Blackmore loves the Cardinals enough to have the birds-on-the-bat logo tattooed on his leg. interviewed him before an NL Championship Series game at Al Hrabosky's Ballpark Saloon, a pregame haven for fans near Busch, and counted no fewer than seven such logos gracing his body, from hat to clothing layers to sunglasses. It has been this way pretty much all of his life.

"In the old days, when they had Sportsman's Park on Grand Avenue, I would take a streetcar there," Blackmore said. "My mom and dad would give me six dollars, and that would get me to the game, get me in, get me a soda and get me home. It's passed on from generation to generation. I've taken my sons to the game -- you become more knowledgeable."

Hrabosky, the owner of that establishment and the maniacally effective reliever on those Redbird teams of the 1970s, was signing "Mad Hungarian" on white towels that his patrons would take over to the game. He was in his element -- just as he was on the mound. Jack Buck always used to talk about "Midwestern values" as a reason St. Louis fans were a little different, whether backing the Cards or the old Browns (now Baltimore Orioles), and Hrabosky agreed.

"In many ways this is all a credit to Jack and Harry and (Mike) Shannon all the different announcers who have displayed the passion," Hrabosky said. "Fans have grown to think of Cardinal baseball as a religion. I've always described these fans as wanting to see the team win, but they accept the outcome either way. They appreciate baseball.

"As player, when I'd go up to bat or to the mound and hear that ovation, I'd pause for a moment to really listen to it and then say to myself, 'If you want to hear it again, you'd better get someone out.'"

So that's what Hrabosky was doing when he would psyche himself up behind the mound before throwing each pitch.

Mark Unger of nearby St. Charles, Mo., was cheering Hrabosky then and is cheering Jason Isringhausen in this postseason. He is among those who hear so many people now talking about St. Louis as the best baseball town in America. And with all due respect to people in Boston and other places, he agrees.

"I don't know why it is, but I guess it's how people grew up around here," said Unger, a sales manager. "I travel around a lot and my company is based in Massachusetts, so I'm surrounded by Red Sox fans a lot of the time. And they recognize that we're incredible fans, too. They realize that they're a focal point, but the guys I know there who really know baseball don't overlook us.

"Any time there's a sacrifice to move the runner over, a bunt, a grounder to the right side to move a runner, everybody in this town knows that's a great play. I've seen it happen in Minnesota and they don't even know it was a good move. I don't want to say that's the case for everyone there, because they have great fans, too. But this really is an amazing baseball town. And a lot of us are hoping we pull one out here. We're due, too."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.