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Cardinal Nation is ready to party with the champs on opening day

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2012 - “Twelve in ’12.”

Hear that, Sports World? It’s the new mantra of Cardinal Nation, still keeping the faith after an unsettling winter of ended eras and strained goodbyes.

The season’s home opener has been a long time coming, but the road trip is over, and the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals will be welcomed Friday afternoon by a city ablaze in red (and accented in shades of hockey playoff blue).

Then, it’s the traditional opening day hoopla at Busch Stadium, this year with the Chicago Cubs in town. There will be the motorcade of Cardinals Hall-of-Famers and current players. An appearance by the beloved Budweiser Clydesdales (do we have a no-trade clause with Anheuser-Busch?) and a dramatic U.S. Air Force flyover. A video will pay tribute to the 2011 world champs — one last look back at that cool crisp night of Oct. 29, when the never-say-never Wild Cards danced on the field under a blizzard of red, white and blue confetti after taking Game 7 of the World Series from the still-stunned Texas Rangers.

Yes, it’s time to run World Series pennant No. 11 up the flagpole and watch it fly.

“Eleven in ’11 ... Twelve in ’12.”

Look away, Cubs fans. Just look away.

'We’re chugging along'

Mike “The Big Tomato” Gassmann won’t be among the sold-out crowd at Friday’s party at Busch, but he plans to hang a virtual Cardinals flag from the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle on the Collinsville landmark’sFacebook page, just as he did during the playoffs last season.

“I was so excited about last year. It was just fantastic,” said Gassmann, a graphic designer who promotes the roadside attraction.

Gassmann said he’s been impressed so far with the team’s performance in the early games of the season.

“I’m still an Albert Pujols fan, and I’ve been following his progress with his new team,” said Gassmann, 50, a self-described diehard Cardinals fan. “But the Cardinals have always been bigger than one player. I wish Albert all the best, but I wish the best — even more so — for the Cardinals.”

The same goes for Sarah Ruffatto, 26, of Maryville who plans to be at a downtown watch party on Friday with her fiancé Josh Wells. He proposed on the field at Game 6 of the World Series — that unforgettable night of comeback baseball that cemented third baseman David Freese’s position as hometown hero and Most Valuable Player of the series. Ruffatto got the tickets to the game after writing a letter to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

The postseason was incredible, Ruffatto said, but the news about Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels was upsetting because it proved to her that it really was about the money.

“I don’t think Albert leaving us affected us to the point that we can’t get to the World Series again — that we can’t win again,” Ruffatto said. “We have a lot of talent on the team. We’re not mad at you, Albert. It stings, but I would never boo him. Thank you for everything you did and we wish you the best.”

And so it goes in Cardinal Nation where Redbird fans are sizing up this year’s roster and liking what they see: Catcher Yadier Molina freshly signed for five more years. Pitcher Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery. Lance Berkman at first base. And what about that Carlos Beltran?

Ruffatto said Freese is doing a great job, as is Mike Matheny the Cardinals new manager who replaced veteran Tony La Russa who retired the day after the Cardinals World Series victory parade.

“We’re chugging along,” said Ruffatto.

Gassmann said that Cardinal fans — and real baseball fans — appreciate the game and respect players who deserve it.

“People need to realize it’s still a business, and you can’t get around that,” he said. “That’s the way the baseball bounces.”

That said, his wife Judy DeMoisy — known locally as the catsup bottle lady — is looking to replace her Pujols jersey, possibly with a Molina shirt. And Ruffatto said her fiancé might trade his No. 5 for a Freese jersey, partly because they met the Cardinals third baseman on the set of the “Ellen Show” after the series.

Names in the crowd

Watch for the faithful to be wearing the names of Freese, Molina and Berkman to games this season, said Paul Russo, who owns four area Pro Image sports shops. He also predicts sightings of some altered versions of Pujols jerseys.

Russo’s stores gave away — for free — nearly 500 Pujols items last December after the slugger signed that 10-year contract with the Angels for about $240 million. Russo said that some customers planned to decorate their free Pujols-wear with dollar signs.

“We had bad feelings because of the way Pujols handled it,” said Russo, 44, a lifelong Cardinals fan about the decision to unload No. 5 merchandise. “We were making a stand.”

The giveaway earned Russo media attention, including a mention in Sports Illustrated, along with some loyal new customers who appreciated the gesture, he said.

“It was probably the best advertising we’ve ever done,” he said. “We knew we weren’t going to get a lot of money out of the merchandise anyway.”

Russo said that Pujols had already dropped from being his bestseller because fans feared he wouldn’t re-sign with the Cardinals.

“He was probably No. 3 among the players last year; normally he was No. 1,” Russo said. “Molina was No.1. I’m glad Molina signed before the season this year.”

Russo’s stores no longer stock Pujols items, except for bright red shirts that sell for $19.95 and denote Busch Stadium as the only baseball heaven that doesn’t need Angels.

Russo is predicting that the team will have a good season.

“They’re still going to be good,” he said. “People are still going to go to games. By the end of the year people are going to forget about Pujols. He’s one of the greatest players ever, but we’re still going to have a good team. We’re still going to be OK. Now, we’re talking 12 in ’12.”

Ruth Sergenian, chief economist for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, estimates that the impact of the 2012 Cardinal season on the St. Louis region will be approximately $322 million for the entire season. That’s based on the 3.1 million fans the Cardinals expect to pass through Busch Stadium’s gates this season. Attendance for the 2011 season was just under 3.1 million, according to Major League Baseball statistics.

Taking the long view

Tom Horace, 69, a retired high school teacher, will put up his assortment of handmade wooden cardinals outside his home in Dardenne Prairie to celebrate the opening of a new home season.

Passersby can gauge the importance of what the team is doing by the number of cardinals Horace displays throughout the season and particularly during the playoffs.

“If we’re going to be overmatched, or if injury or something would plague the Cardinals, then I probably wouldn’t do so much,” he said. “But if we have a chance to win, I’ll go overboard.”

Fans should remember that sports is entertainment and nothing to get angry about, he advises.

“We live in a day and age where people look to be angry, and you don’t have to do much to set them off,” Horace said. “When you read the newspaper reports and comments people really want to gravitate toward the negative. And anything I can do to turn that around and help people to enjoy life a little more and see the simple pleasures in life — that’s what’s behind my activity with the Cardinals.”

Horace, who has followed the team since he was a young boy, thinks La Russa missed his chance to endear himself to the city because he didn’t move here during his 16-year stint as the Cardinals manager — and because he rarely displayed happiness, even when the team was winning.

As far as Pujols, Horace said it’s simply time to move on.

“St. Louis needs to get over Albert,” he said. “He had a wonderful 10 years here, and people should offer him the kindest regards and wish him continued success — except when they play us.”

Horace said this season’s team has talent that fits with the tradition of St. Louis baseball.

“We enjoy our baseball,” he said. “We want it to be hustling all of the time, and we want it to be good competitive baseball.”

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.