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Season ender: Let's hear it for the fans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2009 - The good citizens of Cardinal Nation did everything in their power Saturday at Busch Stadium: They tried to believe.

They wore Cardinals sweatshirts, scarves, beads – and their hearts on their red sleeves.

They turned out in force for Game Three of the National League Division Series, with the home team down by two. The crowd of 47,296 was the largest in the four-year history of the stadium.

And when Cardinals leftfielder Matt Holliday stepped to the plate in the first inning with two on and one out, they gave him a standing ovation, waving rally towels and whooo-hoooing as if he had never dropped that fly ball for what would have been the final out of Game Two.

If this were a movie, Holliday would have skied one to the Arch. But on this crisp autumn day in Baseball Heaven, the slugger tapped out to the mound.

In the end, no amount of cheering, praying, wishful thinking -- or booing of Dodger leftfielder Manny Ramirez -- could drive in Cardinals runs. The Redbirds went down 5-1, the Dodgers did the on-field victory dance and “Auld Lange Syne” played over the stadium speakers as the faithful headed home for the winter.

While the playoffs ended in a brutally quick sweep, the Cardinals remain the 2009 National League Central Division Champions, and even the Dodgers can’t take that away from them.

As the season fades into baseball history, here’s a nod to the believers of Cardinal Nation, true warriors of Saturday’s game:

Best Hat With World Series Trophies On Top

Tom Lange, 57, of Spanish Lake says it took him three months to fashion his World Series trophy hat. The trophies – 10 of them to represent the number won by the Cardinals – are made of shish-kebob sticks and gold mailing labels, cut into flag shapes. He was planning to add another trophy this playoff season.

At 2:30 p.m. -- about two-and-a-half hours before game time -- Lange was already in line, waiting for the stadium gates to open. He was holding a place for his wife Anna and 82-year-old mother, Loeta Burke.

“We’re gonna win – they’ve got our support," Lange said. “This is Cardinal Nation. This isn’t Tinsel Town."

Lange was still holding onto that hope when last spotted at the top of the ninth, heading toward the exit.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over," he said, mustering a smile. “At least it wasn’t a bad game. There was no dropped ball. No ball through the legs."

Making Waves Award

Adam Fritz, 27, and Kathy Moore, 31, of St. Charles made waves with the largest Cardinals flag in sight at a pre-game pep rally outside the stadium.

Fritz was confident that the Cardinals were about to begin a three-game sweep of the Dodgers.

“We can get it done. It’s not impossible," he said.

Fritz, a lifelong Cardinals fan, pointed to a nearby parking garage.

“For the 1982 World Series parade, my mom took me up on that rooftop to watch,” he said.

Number One Fan

How do we know that Addasyn Zeller, 9, of Edwardsville is the Cardinals No. 1 fan?

Because that’s what she was carefully lettering onto a poster at a booth set up in the Ford pavilion area of the stadium before the game.

The fourth-grader at Columbus Elementary in Edwardsville said she was sure the Cardinals were going to win.

So was her mom, Shelly Zeller, who described Game Two’s ninth-inning loss with these familiar words: “a heartbreaker.” She predicted that fans would give Matt Holliday a standing ovation.

And they did.

Best Cub Fan Converter

Eric Lee, 12, of Camp Point, Ill., near Quincy, waved his rally flag with a vengeance as the Cardinals were introduced before the game.

Eric says he has always been a Cardinals fan, despite living dangerously close to Cubs Country. In fact, he said, he has brought one of his friends into the red fold, although another remains a fan of the Cursed Ones.

Eric was listening to Game Two of the playoffs on the radio Thursday night.

“I thought we were gonna win," he said, solemnly.

Name a sport and this seventh-grader probably plays it, said his grandmother Susan Lee. So Eric understands about errors on the field.

“It didn’t feel very good, but you’ve just got to forget about it," he said.

Look at that rally towel go.

Most Photographed

Reggie Harwell, 47, of O’Fallon, Ill., was easily the most photographed person at the stadium aside from, say, Albert Pujols.

With the Cards down 1-0 in the second inning, Harwell -- who calls himself “Cardinal Nation" -- created a stir in Section 172 as he walked down the steps blessing fans with his baseball-on-a-stick. As he wandered the stadium, fans waited in line for a chance to pose with him.

“You need to get out there and bless the ball," shouted a passer-by.

“I put a three-game blessing on them," Harwell responded cheerily.

He predicted the Cardinals would win by one run on Saturday, by four runs on Sunday and by one run when they returned to Los Angeles to clinch.

Oh, well.

Curliest Red Wig

By the fifth inning, a brrrrrrisk 50-degree brrrrreeze was pummeling fans in the upper reaches of the stadium, and rumors were spreading that $3.50 a cup hot chocolate would soon be served.

Standing-Room-Only fans John Tucker, 26, of St. Louis and his fiancée Laurie Kleemeyer, 25, were keeping the faith in Section 346.

From the rousing cheers of the crowd up here, you’d have thought the Cards had scored – but, no, it was just the crowd’s least favorite All-Star Manny Ramirez striking out.

“Sit down, bad boy," Tucker yelled.

With the game half over and the Cardinals down 4-0, Tucker explained the plan.

“We’re going to pull this game out – we’re going to get into their bullpen," he said, adding, “We need the big guys to step up."

Tucker wore a bright red curly wig attached to a ball cap.

He wore it well.

Best Whitey SweatshirAs fans rose for the seventh-inning stretch, some never sat back down – instead heading for the exits. With the Cards down 5-0, empty seats were evident throughout the stadium.

“It’s very disappointing," said Tony Rejent, 36, of St. Louis who was with his wife Christi, 31. “You wouldn’t have expected to see people going home."

Rejent, a die-hard fan, wore a red sweatshirt with a likeness of Whitey Herzog and this quote: “If I managed the Cubs I’d be an Alcoholic.”

Rejent wasn’t consoled by the thought that there’s always next year.

“That’s six months away – that’s a long time to wait," he said.

Opening Day is April 5 – 177 days away -- for those counting.

Smartest Hat Choice

Tony Lohse, 12, of Oakville -- whose last name is spelled like that of the Cardinals pitcher -- had been standing with his family in the same spot for four hours by the time we talked with him, having snagging their Standing Room Only position at 3:30.

But he was still smiling under his cheery Cardinals stocking cap that would have looked just right at a World Series game in November.

“I’ve had a good time," said Tony.

His mother, Susan, was pointing out that kids Tony’s age expect the Cardinals to have good teams that win every year, but that wasn’t the case for fans when she was younger.

“We lived through the Seventies," she said, and then added brightly. “It’s disappointing, but I’d rather be in the playoffs than not. I’d rather call us the National League Central Division Champions. They’re still champions."

Worst First Playoffs

For the Lacy family, scoring Standing Room Only tickets meant they were all able to attend their first playoff game.

Michelle Lacy and her friend Cheryl Spivey drove from San Antonio to attend with her dad Jim and brother Jason, 20, of St. Louis.

The good news: Pujols spoiled the Dodgers shutout in the eighth. The bad news: The inning ended with the hometown heroes still down 5-1.

“The scoreboard is looking pretty bad," said Michelle Lacy, 23, who waved her rally towel until the last out in the ninth.

“Dad said we needed to get some use out of it," she said.

Kiss Cam Should-have-beens

And, finally, there were Ryan and Kristin Davis of St. Louis, married just two weeks ago, watching the game’s end from deep in left field.

He wore Dodgers blue; she wore Cardinals red.

He was noticeably happier.

Ryan, who grew up in Indianapolis, is a Ramirez fan, dating back to the Dodger All-Star’s early career with the Cleveland Indians. It seems that when Ryan was about 14, he went to an Indians game where Ramirez played catch with him before the game started.

“I have a past with him -- he’s fun to watch," he said. “You either love him or hate him.”

His bride, meantime, was already thinking about a Cardinals comeback next year.

“I remember ’06," said Kristen, who grew up in St. Louis rooting for the Redbirds. “I have faith they can do it again.”

The groom acknowledged that the Dodger sweep had come with a price.

“We also had tickets for tomorrow," he said. “I’m kind of upset that we can’t go now."

What a guy.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.