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Bernie: A holiday for 'Best Fans in Baseball'

Bernie: A holiday for 'Best Fans in Baseball'

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2012: Cardinals celebrate championship season

Cardinal great Stan Musial visits with Red Schoendienst and other hall of famers before the Cardinals home opener on April 13, 2012. (Photo by Robert Cohen / rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

As we flock to Busch Stadium for the 2013 home opener, this is as good time as any to tell everyone that St. Louis is The Best Baseball Town in America.

In case you didn’t know it, we’ll be happy to repeat it. If you didn’t hear us say it the first 100,000 times, no problem. We’ll brag on it again.

And again. …

And again. …

Let’s face it: we’re baseball snobs.

The Cardinals and their fans can be annoying to outsiders. Try to view it through the eyes of the non-believers.

They see a consistently successful franchise that’s won 11 World Series and 18 NL pennants and is still going strong.

They hear the “Best Fans in Baseball” bluster.

Just the sight of that Cardinal red makes their faces turn red. It’s too much to handle.

Will Leitch — devoted Cardinals fan and contributing editor at New York magazine — described the envy last October when his favorite team upset the Washington Nationals in the NL Division Series.

“The rest of the world, to my astoundment, hates the Cardinals,” Leitch wrote on the Sports on Earth blog. “The rest of the world was cheering for the young, likable, fiery Washington Nationals, with their superstar youngsters ... the Cardinals weren’t the heroes to them; they were the brutish villains, the Cobra Kai, the Empire, stomping on the dreams of the upstart rebellion.”

Leitch vented his angst after noting the reaction to the berserk NLDS Game 5 at Foley’s, the popular New York sports saloon: “My Cardinals! My beloved, sweet, Best Fans In Baseball Cardinals! My comforting Midwestern oasis from this hard, wonderful city … bullies! The Cardinals are the Yankees now? How did that happen?”

Leitch concluded, “So even though I want you to know and love the Cardinals the way I do, I know you can’t, because they’re not family to you. So buzz off. My team, and those who love them like I do, that’s my family. Go Cardinals. My team is better than your team.”

This boasting annoys other fan bases, especially in Cincinnati, Milwaukee and on the North Side of Chicago. I’m sure that Red Sox fans throughout New England would dispute the St. Louis claim. The New York Yankees’ faithful would likely offer a few choice, colorful words of dissent.

Except that deep down inside, they know it is true.

Residing in the nation’s 19th-largest metropolitan area — population 2.8 million — the Cardinals are one of only two MLB franchises to draw at least 3 million fans at home in 14 of the last 15 seasons. The Yankees are the other team, and they play in a city of 19 million people.

Since their first full season (1967) at the old Busch Stadium, the Cardinals have surpassed the National League’s average home attendance 40 times in 46 seasons. They’ve topped the NL average in 30 of the last 31 seasons — coming up short in 1995, the year after the labor dispute that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

It isn’t just the raw attendance count.

It’s what the fans do after they settle into their seats.

Baseball in St. Louis is a days-gone-by experience.

Forget what the calendar tells you, a visit to a Cardinals’ home game is like taking a trip back in time, to simpler and happier days. It’s always 1964 in St. Louis.

Inside Busch Stadium you’ll find 40,000 fans dressed in red. You will see grandparents, moms, dads, kids of all ages — the generations bonding in their love of the Cardinals, politely cheering smart but subtle fundamental play, showing respect to the other team, playfully teasing designated villains. (Hello, Brandon Phillips.)

We’re always reading about baseball’s decline in popularity, which is more perception than reality. But supposedly this conventional, methodical sport is hopelessly out of synch with the changing, fast-paced civilization. There’s not enough action, the games are too long, the tempo is slow, and the kids think it’s boring.

Maybe, but not in St. Louis. The kids here are into the game, and can talk strategy, history and advanced statistics. They’re clicking on FanGraphs.com and writing snarky emails to baseball pundits.

Really, it’s a beautiful thing.

You may also take note of the thousands of women in the house. Why would I bring that up? A couple of years ago the online dating service, Match.com, ranked St. Louis as the No. 1 “hot bed for ladies who love baseball.” That’s based on the high percentage of women identifying themselves as baseball fans on their dating profiles.

Well, we are rather romantic about baseball here.

In an increasingly angry and vile U.S. culture, civility and good manners remain intact within the Busch Stadium walls.

The almost constant cordiality has touched visiting players through the decades. In 2009, while pitching for the San Francisco Giants, future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was knocked out of a June 30 start at Busch Stadium.

As Johnson left the mound with head down, he was startled by a standing ovation from the St. Louis crowd — congratulating him on career victory No. 300. Johnson had reached the milestone nearly a month earlier, but Cardinals fans weren’t about to forget to show their admiration.

“That was great,” Johnson said after the game. “They really appreciate their baseball here, good baseball, even when it’s not by their own players. That shows just how much they appreciate and respect the game. I was surprised, but knowing these fans, I shouldn’t have been.”

Tom Gordon pitched for eight major-league teams over 21 seasons before retiring at the end of 2009. When asked by USA Today about the places he had competed, at home and on the road, Gordon joined the St. Louis symphony.

“That’s the mountaintop right there,” Gordon said. “No one can compare to Cardinals fans. Don’t even think of anywhere else. That’s the height of professionalism, right there. The others can talk all they want, but only St. Louis can walk the walk.”

The annual home opener in St. Louis is always a wonderful, magical day.

There’s nothing like it in baseball.

Someone will be missing today: the late Stan Musial. That’s sad. But perhaps this is the right moment to remember Musial’s tribute to the fans, offered in the book “Cardinal Nation” written by Rob Rains.

“They know the game,” The Man said. “They understand the game, but most important, they love the game. And they love the Cardinals. You can’t teach that. It has to come from the heart.”

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Bernie Miklasz is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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