St. Louis's love affair with its storied Cards

The heartland's baseball mecca celebrates as it hosts the World Series.

While the players in the 2004 World Series dream of plays well made and opportunities missed, the crew from Lubeley's Bakery & Deli on historic Route 66 probably will see cookie jerseys, red-feathered birds on baseball-shaped cakes, and red-and-white cupcakes in their sleep.

In the past few days, they've baked, decorated, and sold hundreds of cookies, cakes, and other red-and-white decorated treats to a torrent of Cardinal fans looking for temporary souvenirs. About the only commission they haven't had - yet - is a Cardinal theme for one of their celebrated wedding cakes.

The family-owned bakery, founded in 1937, and the Cardinals, christened with their current name in 1900, are traditions passed down to generations. But no one stands in line comparing the best method for piping icing.

Instead, the talk at the bakery, co-owned by Helen Lubeley Murray and her brother, Bob, is wall-to-wall baseball - except for a customer who draws wide-eyed looks from the clerks when she announces, "I hate baseball."

She might as well have insulted the pope. As Cardinal great Stan Musial explained in the foreward to "Cardinal Nation," a book about the team and its fans: "Baseball is a religion in St. Louis. It has always been that way, and I see no reason why that will ever change."

It's not that baseball is the only major-league game in town - football's Rams and hockey's Blues have loyal followings - or that everyone cares about the outcome of a game of no consequence to the pennant race. It's the way fans here treat the game and those who make it happen that makes St. Louis - where the World Series moves for Game 3 Tuesday - a baseball town.

This is a town where newcomer Larry Walker struck out at his first at-bat after this summer's trade from the Rockies and got a standing ovation that required a trip out of the dugout. Walker and other Cardinals are used to taking bows for routine home runs, not because of their egos but because the fans won't stop until they do. Some teams recruit players despite their location; the St. Louis baseball atmosphere lures players.

Baseball writer and Cardinal historian Rob Rains, who wrote "Cardinal Nation" says other cities have great fans. "What separates St. Louis a little is it's a love affair," he says.

The love affair with the Cardinals began when Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang dazzled during the Depression. The first World Series win actually came in 1926, but the city was spoiled by championships in 1931 and 1934. Since then they've won just enough in every generation - 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982 - to keep the flame burning.

Its geographic status as the westernmost and southernmost place where you could see a major-league game until 1958 made St. Louis baseball a regional draw - especially since you could see a game almost every day because the St. Louis Browns were also in town. Eventually, the generations handed down not only the tales of wins and heroes, but also the idea that St. Louis was a baseball mecca.

The notion was honed by a series of storied observers, especially the late Jack Buck, whose mellifluous voice pumped love of the game over the airwaves for 47 years. With partner and former player Mike Shannon, Mr. Buck educated and enthused fans across St. Louis, the far-flung Cardinal radio network, and the widespread audience of 50,000-watt flagship KMOX.

One result: The Cardinals can fill Busch Stadium even in off years thanks in no small part to the out-of-town fans who plan vacations around the Cardinals, driving in annually from out-state Missouri and the core of Cardinal Nation - Illinois, Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Oklahoma. Mark McGwire and the great home-run race of 1998 burnished the reputation, drawing national attention to St. Louis fans.

Ask one of the fans standing in line at Lubeley's how long they've been following the team, and the answer is probably their age. Angie Wheeler was told her mother listened to a game on the radio while in labor; Ms. Wheeler was born in 1967 when the Cardinals defeated the Red Sox for the championship. Her 10-month-old son will hear stories about his first World Series, celebrated with Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols cookies.

Wheeler borrowed from Shakespeare as she explained her feelings about the team whether it's winning or losing: "We love a little too well and not too wisely."

Andrew Bushway, 9, hopes to see his first World Series game in person this week. His favorite is Pujols for his play and his Christian faith. Parents Tim and Melissa are training Andrew, and Emily, 6, in such Cardinal traditions as cheering for opposing players who break a record at Busch. Whoever wins the 2004 World Series, the next generation of Cardinal Nation is well under way.

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