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It's Opening Day in St. Louis, and Cardinal Nation is ready to play

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2010 - "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I look out the window and wait for spring."

-- Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby

At 2:30 Monday afternoon, the best fans in baseball will gather at Busch Stadium to renew their vows.

They will wear red, the color of love, and party hats that look like baseball caps, and they will rise to their feet and hoot and holler when the Ford motorcade rolls out of the gate in right field.

The heartache of last season's playoff meltdown has -- as was expected -- slowly healed during the long, gray baseball-less winter. The spring sun is smiling now, the skies are true blue and here come YOUR National League Central Division CHAMPIONS.

Yes, we know that other teams celebrate at their first home games of the season, but they don't have the Budweiser Clydesdales high-stepping around the warning track, beer wagon in tow.

Oom-pah-pah. Oom-pah-pah. Oompah-pah-pah-pah ...

Welcome back to baseball heaven, where Redbird tradition is as prized and honored as grandpa's gold pocket watch, bless his soul, and great-Aunt Florence's hand-stitched patchwork quilt.

Treasure it, and pass it down the line.

When the citizens of Cardinal Nation assemble at Busch Stadium once more, there will be no talk of disappointed Democrats or fed-up Republicans, universal health care or tea parties. The beverage of the day will be beer, cold beer.

Here, in this new old-look stadium, smack-dab in the heart of America, all will rise together to salute the color guard from Scott Air Force Base and marvel at the grace of the American bald eagle swooping in from centerfield. The Air Force Thunderbolts will roar overhead, and the "Star Spangled Banner" will be sung with reverence, though only a few in this home of the brave even try to hit the high notes anymore.

As always, there will be a brief, but respectful, homage to yester-year's greats: Red, Lou, Gibby, Ozzie. And, oh, how we'd love to see Stan the Man swing that invisible bat one more time.

The ceremonial first pitch will be thrown by brand-new Hall-of-Famer Whitey Herzog, and those who can whistle will whistle and those who can't will whoohoooo with gusto.

Way to go, Whitey!

For several hours, an ordinary, start-of-the-workweek Monday, will have the feel of a holiday with all the trimmings -- overdone hot dogs and overpriced brewskis -- and fireworks waiting for No. 5 to sky one all the way to the Arch.

For several hours, all eyes will be on Waino's pitching and Yadi's catching and whether the kid playing centerfield will live up to his dreams.

For several hours, there will be a deserved escape from the still-rotten economy, that D average in physics and those devilish dandelions choking the front lawn.

For several hours, there will be unabashed, unbridled, unrelenting faith that this shiny-new season will see us through the long, hot summer and into the fall.

On Monday, there will be Opening Day baseball in St. Louis, and from where we sit -- up in the cheap seats with the true believers -- the team is looking good, really good.

Wish we'd brought the binoculars.

Let the backseat driving begin

Cardinals fans don't have to think hard when asked how many Opening Days they've attended.

"Three."

"Nine."

"Every one since ---- (fill in the blanks)."

Some things you just don't forget.

Ryan Farmer of Glendale hasn't missed an opening day since moving back to Missouri from Iowa in 2002, and he's looking forward to No. 9. He believes the Cardinals will easily take the Central Division title again and even offers a statistical prediction: 97 wins, 65 losses.

"If they stay healthy, I think another World Series appearance is a strong possibility," Farmer said, responding to a Beacon query. "The Phillies should be the only team standing in their way. I'm not sold on either team's bullpen, so it could be a close NLCS."

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Which brings us to an important point about diehard Cardinals fans: They are knowledgeable about their team. It may drive manager Tony LaRussa nuts, but those 40,000 second-guessers sitting in the stands watching every decision he makes have put a lot of thought into this.

For example, here's what Richard Dole, who now lives in Indianapolis, thinks about this year's roster:

"Pujols, of course, will be a powerhouse. His season average is better than most people's best. I think the season's game-changers will come from unlikely sources:

1. Kyle Lohse -- he will have a solid season and anchor the back end of the starting rotation.

"2. David Freese -- a MONSTER! His defense will improve to the point that nobody will be talking about what part of his game needs to improve. By the end of the season he will be an all around player.

"3. Allen Craig -- the biggest bat off the bench! This kid can hit and will be a viable sub for Ludwick/Holliday/Pujols offensively for a game or two here and there.

"4. Colby Rasmus -- he will be the BIGGEST impact player. No matter where he hits in the lineup, he will get on base and score runs. His offense will be overshadowed by Pujols and Holliday, but he will simply and quietly rack up the runs all season long!!!"

Any questions?

Opening Day casual

On Opening Day, St. Louis businesses can expect their employees to wear red, even if they aren't sneaking off to the ball yard. Some companies relax dress codes to allow for the Cardinals T-shirts, jerseys and baseball-size earrings that are appropriate attire in Cardinal Nation.

Switch, a local marketing firm, has even tried to start a viral movement to make Opening Day an official state holiday. While that sounds like fun, even diehard Cardinals fans like Dole know where to draw the line.

"I think that baseball is important, but not as important as responsibilities we have in our professional life," he responded. "Making Opening Day a state holiday seems kind of silly and foolish."

Maybe so, but it would sure make things easier for Susan Lohse of Oakville (no relation to the Cardinal pitcher), who will be at the game Monday with her husband. Trouble is, her son can't go with them.

"If they could include this as a school holiday, as well, that would be perfect," Lohse said in an email. "I am experiencing much guilt over the fact that we are not able to take our 12-year-old, Tony, to the game. We would probably experience more guilt if we did!"

Michael Heaney of St. Louis, who has attended three opening days, won't be at Busch on Monday because he has to work. He likes the idea of a statewide holiday but sees a Royal glitch: those pesky American Leaguers in Kansas City.

"While a nice idea, I think it would be hard to get this idea to fly with businesses," Heaney pointed out. "Another tricky aspect is that opening day for the Cardinals and the Royals does not always line up, so it would be a tough sell to make Opening Day a true state-wide holiday."

Though Heaney won't be in the stands Monday, he has done his pre-season homework and is cautiously optimistic that the Cardinals could bring home a division title this season, if everyone stays healthy and the bullpen holds.

"A lot depends on Colby Rasmus," Heaney believes. "Will he be productive against both right- and left-handers this year?"

Hello, again, Big Mac

So, how will the fans greet Mark McGwire, the Cards former slugger-turned hitting coach who stoked the coals in January, when he 'fessed up to taking steroids back in the day? Do the fans care?

"I only care that he does a good job as a hitting coach," wrote Lohse. "When we lost Thursday while only scoring one run, that became more of a concern to me than McGwire's past. You cannot squander a great pitching performance with cold bats."

But Farmer warns that there will always be "that guy" who taunts McGwire wherever he goes.

"I don't agree with what he did or condone it, but I think there was already a precedent set that if you come out and admit what you did, the media will leave you alone after a few weeks," Farmer said. "You don't really hear many talking about Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, or Alex Rodriguez anymore because there's no story there. They admitted what they did and asked for forgiveness. Plus, McGwire isn't still playing baseball, he's a coach."

Farmer believes that when someone stops denying that they've done something wrong, it ceases to be a story.

"Once you admit what you did, what is there to talk about? I don't think McGwire has been a story since the first week of spring training," he explained.

What matters is that the Cardinals hitters are hitting, Farmer points out. "Nobody complains or nitpicks when things are going well."

Are you listening, Big Mac?

Batter up!

This season Mary will be joined by features editor Donna Korando for Two Chicks Talkin' about the Birds, a look at baseball in St. Louis fromthe cheap seats by long-time fans.

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.