The Cardinal Difference
This weekend saw the Cardinals celebrate their astonishing 2011 World Championship and their home opener with the kind of festival atmosphere that only happens in St. Louis. Rain or shine, the stadium swelled to standing room only capacity, every fan draped in red. World Series trophies ringed home plate, while huge Ford trucks carried each player out to the first base line. And, as always, Cardinal legends were there in bright red Cardinal suit coats signifying their everlasting contributions to the franchise and the city. The fans cheered it all with passionate adoration.
You don’t see this kind of celebration anywhere else in baseball. It’s the Cardinal difference.
There are towns with teams older than the Cardinals. There are teams with more wins than the Cardinals. There is even a team with more World Series Championships than the Cardinals. But no team and town so perfectly mesh together like St. Louis does with its beloved Cardinals. The first April sighting of crisp red and white uniforms glinting in the sunshine against the fresh green grass is the real beginning of spring for St. Louis, and a cause for unrestrained celebration.
But it’s more than that. The Cardinals and its fans show respect and class. Home openers and celebrations like the ring ceremony this weekend are moments when Cardinal fans not only anticipate the future, but also reflect on the past. The Cardinals aren’t required to take time from the game to wheel Stan Musial around the stadium, but they WANT to. Fans aren’t required to rise to their feet to give standing ovations to David Eckstein or Tommy Herr, but they WANT to. Even in the midst of a party for current heroes, the Cardinals and their fans give proper respect to past heroes and past heroics.
In perhaps the most touching reminder of this facet of Cardinal baseball, the team produced special World Series rings for each of its Hall of Fame members. Stan Musial received a ring. Whitey Herzog received a ring. Lou Brock and Bob Gibson received a ring. Even Ozzie Smith received a ring over the protestations of Tony La Russa. These men didn’t physically play for the 2011 Cardinals, of course, but they played alongside that team in spirit. They built the foundation upon which the 2011 team was built, and they forged the tradition in which the 2011 team succeeded. In remembrance of those contributions, these men were honored, too.
That kind of class and respect is part of the Cardinal difference.
The unrestrained love and respect found in abundance at Busch Stadium is the reason why so many former players eventually come home to roost with the Cardinals after retirement. It could be seen in the eyes of Jim Edmonds, recipient of a massive ovation when he carried out the 2006 World Series trophy on Friday. Edmonds spent more than half of his career playing in places like Anaheim, San Diego, and Chicago, but his home is here among Cardinal Nation. Edmonds knows he had good years for appreciative fans in other cities, but in St. Louis he has achieved a sort of immortality. Again, the Cardinal difference.
Albert Pujols may be discovering that difference for the first time. The prodigal son now faces the prospect of his prodigious talents wasted in front of casual California fans for a team that regularly ranks third behind the Lakers and the Dodgers in fan interest. There are no traditions at Angels Stadium. There are no legends shaking Albert’s hand. There will not be throngs of adoring fans filling the stadium once the beaches open. Just money – lots of money – to fill the void created when Pujols walked away from everlasting worship and baseball immortality.
One can only imagine the text message Yadier Molina sent to his buddy Albert after Molina received his glittering diamond and ruby ring to thunderous applause from the Cardinal faithful.
That love between a team and its fans will never be as good anywhere else, and is the one thing left in this game that is truly priceless.
Cardinal baseball is steeped in tradition and fueled by the passionate adoration of Cardinal Nation. Players past and present bask in it. Fans revel in it. The best baseball town on Earth knows how to not only cheer for the future, but also honor its past. One only had to be in attendance this weekend at Busch Stadium and witness the respect shown to Cardinal legends by the team and the fans to see the difference.
That’s the Cardinal difference.