For more than a century, St. Louis has hosted baseball -- for much of that time, it was the hometown of two clubs. And the city's relationship with the game and with its team remains unique to this day. The Rams won a Super Bowl, the Blues were long a playoff constant, but it's rare that anything knocks the Cardinals out of the top spot in St. Louis' sports consciousness.
Maybe Boston's passion equals or surpasses that of St. Louis. The tradition in New York is second to none. But for the complete package, no city stands above this one as a place for baseball.
"There's none better," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
The baseball legacy of St. Louis, which will host the 80th All-Star Game next Tuesday at Busch Stadium, goes back more than a century, with the Cardinals dating their origin to 1892. But more important, a winning tradition dates back nearly as long. The first Cardinals World Series championship came in 1926, and nine more have followed in the intervening years. Since then, the longest the franchise has gone without a National League pennant is 17 years.
Or, put another way: if you were born in St. Louis, and grew up here any time since 1926, you saw the Cardinals win a pennant before you finished high school. That's a fine way for a club to build a relationship with a city.
"It is certainly the history of success," team president Bill DeWitt III said. "If you look back over the uninterrupted stretch of Cardinal baseball -- which is another point to make, the fact that it was uninterrupted for generations -- you had winning teams and championship teams in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '60s, '80s and now 2000s. Everybody's had their era. That creates generational ties."
People here are attached to their team, and to the game. It makes for a perfect fit for the All-Star Game, actually. They'll make some serious noise for their own players, but it's hard to think of another city where the stars from all over the game would be more roundly cheered. St. Louis fans have earned their reputation for fairness and almost unconditional devotion.
"They're known as the best fans in baseball," said Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick, an All-Star in 2008. "It's a smaller market team compared to Boston or New York, but it's still got that big-market feel. It's a great place to play. From my standpoint, with every place I've been, it's hands-down the best."
Oddly, and unlike in some of baseball's other special cities, there hasn't been a single ballpark at the heart of it. Fenway Park defines Boston baseball. Wrigley Field is a huge part of what shapes Chicago's relationship with the Cubs. And the change from old Yankee Stadium to the new one was received with the gravity usually saved for a presidential inauguration.
In St. Louis, though, the ballpark has never defined the team. Instead, the fans and the team define the ballpark. The new Busch Stadium -- the third stadium to carry that name -- is a fine ballpark, a good place for a game with a view of the city's famous arch.
But when the Cardinals built it, they wanted it to reflect the city and the club's history. They weren't looking to replicate the experience of the previous Busch Stadium. Because it was never about the ballpark in itself. It's about the city, the baseball culture and the relationship with the game.
"I think you need to have a sense of stewardship," DeWitt said. "And what that means is, everything you do is going to be looked at from the standpoint of, 'Is it consistent with the historical integrity of the franchise?' And if it's not, then it's probably a dumb decision. The whole ballpark design process is part of that."
It's worth noting that one part of the ballpark project has not yet come to fruition. The hope was that Ballpark Village, a development right outside the stadium, would be at least partly if not entirely ready by the arrival of the All-Star Game. That has not happened, with parking and a softball field on the site as the Midsummer Classic arrives.
But people stream into Busch Stadium nonetheless, with or without the additional development. Because, again, it's never been about the building.
When you think of baseball in St. Louis, you think of the people. You think of Dizzy Dean and Joe Medwick, Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee. Maybe Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. Maybe Albert Pujols and La Russa. Over the decades, those people have forged a relationship with the town. They don't just play for the team, they represent the city. Many of them chose to live in the city. Many still do.
"They've had great players and great people," La Russa said. "Very rarely have they been let down as far as cheering somebody and [finding out], that guy's really a jerk."
So while the market is one of the smallest, the expectations are always among the highest. There's not much inherently different about the city of St. Louis as compared to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Kansas City. But while all of those places enjoy their baseball, none is a baseball town in the same way St. Louis is.
"I think it's just everything," Pujols said. "How the fans welcome [players]. They can have a great game against us and the fans are still clapping. You can make a great play and they let you know, even if you're on the other side. Everything starts with the fans. I think the fans make players who come here and play, the fans welcome them with their arms open."