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The Spirit of St. Louis

The heart of the greatest baseball city in America is not about a curse, or a Monster, but a lawn chair.

Several lawn chairs, in fact, stacked up incongruously between the grease-splattered bays of an auto repair shop in this cluttered neighborhood.

Nearly every day around 11 a.m., an elderly man walks up, grabs a chair, and drags it to a concrete patch in front of the garage. Then another man. Then another.

“Here they come,” owner Harry Berra says. “These old men and their baseball.”

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From around the corner and 50 years ago they come, cradling heirlooms disguised as St. Louis Cardinal stories:

“How about that Gashouse Gang?”

“There’s nobody like Stan the Man.”

“Don’t forget the Wiz.”

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“God bless ‘Country’ Slaughter.”

The old men sit all afternoon in front of that auto shop, drinking bitter coffee and spinning tales like old women knit quilts.

“Baseball is different here,” said Mickey Garagiola, 83, one of the regulars. “The people stick by their players. They consider them their neighbors. Win or lose, this is their ballclub.”

The resulting fabric, colorful and patchwork and rich, will be unfurled again today when the nation witnesses a World Series game that will feel like a family reunion.

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The Cardinals will play host to the Boston Red Sox in front of 50,000 red-clad fans who will not boo, who will not leave, and will recognize and greet each of them the next time they see them at Starbucks.

“Right after I got traded here from Atlanta, I stopped in a convenience store,” recalled the wholly anonymous Ray King. “The lady said, ‘Hi, Ray, welcome to St. Louis.’ ”

The Cardinals will play host to the Red Sox at a ballpark where beyond the right-field fence hang names of the Cardinals whose numbers have been retired.

Their first names.

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Ozzie, Red, Enos, Dizzy, Jack....the list goes on.

“Only happens here,” Garagiola said. “We look at the Cardinals like just another friend.”

The Cardinals will play host to the Red Sox at a ballpark where, out front, there are nine towering monuments to each of the team’s nine world championships.

On each monument is a plaque containing a description of the World Series and the names of the players.

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On the most recent, 1982 landmark, two of the names have been freshly bronzed because they had apparently been worn down by so many people touching them.

One name was Ozzie Smith

The other was ... Jeff Lahti?

“It doesn’t matter who you are around here,” said kid pitcher Dan Haren. “If you are a Cardinal, you are one of them.”

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True story.

During Mark McGwire’s home run chase of 1998, he was ejected from a late-season game, causing the Busch Stadium fans to uncharacteristically boo and throw debris.

Before the next game, announcer Jack Buck took the microphone at home plate, reminded the fans that they had behaved poorly, and wondered whether they didn’t owe somebody an apology. It may have been the first game in baseball history where, upon taking the field, the umpires received a standing ovation.

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While the Red Sox have the more publicized fans, the Cardinals have the more old-fashioned fans.

Television shows us countless images of Red Sox fans praying. Yet more compelling is the sights of Cardinal fans collapsing, which happens many times every summer when they refuse to leave their outfield seats during 100-degree humidity-filled afternoons.

“One day it rained the whole game here, and there were more fans out there in the ninth inning than in the first inning,” King said.

While the Red Sox are purportedly the nation’s truest regional team, the Cardinals draw from an area more than twice as large as New England, from Illinois to Iowa to Arkansas to Oklahoma.

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Chances are, if you grew up anywhere in the middle of the country, you went to sleep one night to the clear voice of Jack Buck on KMOX radio.

Chances are, if you show up at a Sunday afternoon game at Busch Stadium in the summer, you will be see as many buses as cars, with sleepy folks piling out toward the stands for their four-hour bake.

“All I know is, the people come from everywhere,” Haren said.

But mostly St. Louis, where baseball history is exemplified about 10 minutes south of Busch Stadium, near that auto repair shop, part of that area known as the “Hill.”

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There, on one short stretch of Elizabeth Avenue, sit the former homes of three Hall of Famers.

Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up here, while Jack Buck had one of his early homes here

The Berra and Garagiola houses are across the street from each other, while the Buck residence is just 10 houses away.

Plaques are in the sidewalks in front of each of the homes, which today are ringed by tiny pumpkins, paper skeletons and a Cardinal garden gremlin.

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“What this city is, is baseball,” Mickey Garagiola said.

The Red Sox fans have the mystique, but the Cardinal fans have the magic.

While Red Sox players sometimes leave town because of the booing, the Cardinals stay because of the cheering. Most notably McGwire, who was so overwhelmed after being traded here from Oakland that he gave up his free-agent rights to stay for less.

While new Red Sox players have to prove themselves, newest Cardinal Larry Walker was given two standing ovations in his first at-bat this summer ... and one of those was after he struck out.

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The Red Sox players have traditionally been wary of getting too close to their fickle fans. But the Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith used to do a backflip for the fans, and Stan Musial has serenaded them with, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his harmonica, the best baseball moment of many summers.

How powerful is a Cardinal fan? Transcendentally powerful.

After McGwire hit one of his homers in 1998, it was shown on the video board at a nearby Rams’ football game.

The football fans cheered so loudly, the Rams couldn’t hear their signals and were penalized for delay of game.

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You don’t believe it, pull up a chair.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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