Aaron Goldsmith spent weeks in April with maps, planning his mission to be the first to buy a hot dog at the new stadium of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.
A college history major with a keen appreciation for documentary evidence, Mr. Goldsmith videotaped his conquest, from turnstile entry to concession stand purchase. Days later he auctioned the frozen hot dog on eBay, with his DVD recording, for $300.
Naturally Goldsmith put the proceeds toward two seats, purchased for $485, from the Cardinals' old, torn-down stadium. So despite lacking tickets to this year's World Series, which pits the Cardinals against the Detroit Tigers, he can watch on TV from his own not-so-cheap seats.
Such antics illustrate the depth of feeling among die-hard Cardinal fans. Like the legendary Louisville Slugger baseball bats, most here seem to have a tough core that bends but seldom breaks. Extreme loyalty and a keen sense of the game's finer points are trademark. Booing is rare. But applause for displays of skill by opposing players is not.
It's a mix of adoration, good manners, and good sense that many say helps lifts this Midwest metropolis and its beloved team in good years – and keeps them afloat in bad ones. It's been an important and well-utilized quality in recent years.
The Cardinals suffered acute embarrassment over the 2004 World Series when the Boston Red Sox steamrolled them in four games. Fans swallowed hard over one-time favorite slugger Mark McGwire's refusal to answer congressional questions on steroid use. Lately, too, there's even a nagging feeling among some that despite praise for its good looks, the new stadium may have cost taxpayers too much.
"Our quarrel is more with the owners of the Cardinals than with the team," says Tom Sullivan, whose Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums opposes the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars spent on the deal. "All of us have been lifelong Cards fans. We're not happy with how they're handling the financial aspect."
Such loyalty has been a constant for a team with storied ranks that include the legendary "gas-house gang," Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson, and more World Series championships than all except the New York Yankees.
But if there's understandable pride, it is tempered by heartbreak. Fans remember well disasters that include an umpire's blown call that cost the team a World Series victory in 1985. Another disappointing World Series loss went to the Tigers in 1968 who roared back from a 3-1 deficit to beat St. Louis in the seventh game.
"When things aren't going well it still takes an awful lot for fans to get on their players," says William Marston, a St. Louis-area high school baseball coach. "It has something to do with Midwest attitudes. It's very much these are our guys."
Fans' goodwill was sorely tested this year. Unlike the 2004 Cardinals juggernaut with the best record in baseball, this year's team belly-flopped into the playoffs with an unlikely 83-78 record, the second worst of any World Series team. The team struggled all year with injuries and three major losing streaks.
Adoring fans didn't boo – but experience also told many not to hold too much hope their team would survive the playoffs.
"There was a little bit of reservation among fans this year, still feeling the hurt and embarrassment from 2004 when the team got swept," says Bud Kane, a Cardinal fan ever since he listened to his first World Series on the radio in 1934 when the Detroit Tigers played the Cardinals for the first time. "You just have to bounce back and hit them next year. That's what true fans do."
Now that the Cardinals are in the middle of a World Series tussle with the Tigers for the third time, every game – even the losses – feel like a slice of Fall Classic magic.
"Winning the World Series would be wonderful, of course, but just being there – to let the season go on just a little more – is great," says Ed Wright, a high school teacher who has attended dozens of games each year for decades and has amassed a huge collection of scorecards. "I didn't really expect them to beat the Mets. So being in the series now is just the cherry on top."
He admits a World Series victory would help put to rest some recent ghosts – the stinging loss to the Red Sox – and worst of all for many, the Mark McGwire espisode.
"Everybody was really disappointed when he sort of took the Fifth," says Mr. Kane. "It shook a lot of people."
Through such vicissitudes the Cardinals pageant continues, spurred by a devotion born of countless deep moments between the team and the fans – and among fans themselves.
Kevin Murphy, now managing editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, a local weekly newspaper, recalls his dad somehow got a ticket to a coveted 1968 World Series game between the Tigers and the Cardinals. Though he loved baseball, the elder Murphy gave the ticket to his son. Unable to take his son to the game himself, he put the 11-year-old boy on a bus – a journey now etched in the son's memory.
"I still remember how much Dad loved the team," he says. "The Cardinals mean more to me today because I know how deeply my dad felt about giving me that ticket."