Not only were they all red-clad, ready to cheer on their beloved Cardinals against the Florida Marlins that afternoon, but this group had a more focused purpose – to get up close and personal with their favorites and snag an autograph or two in the process. Roger Dean offers a unique opportunity to do that.
Between the Cardinals dugout and the bullpen (a single aluminum bench in front of the stands), fans line the area in front of the first row of seats. People flock here before the game, whether their reserved seats are in that area of elsewhere in the park. Those tickets were likely purchased two or more months ago – vacations to sunny Florida planned during the course of the long, cold winter.
Another group arrived that morning with a similar purpose, but a different approach. Tickets for the berm - the sloped, grassy area that juts out at an angle toward the right field line – are first-come, first-served, as especially are the prime locations on the berm along the front of the padded concrete wall.
All these folks, young and old, have a similar objective – for a player or coach to grab their Sharpie and affix a John Hancock (or John Rodriguez) to a photo, baseball card, cap, jersey, program or whatever is at hand.
Outside Gate C, Charles Keffer of Huntsville, AL was patiently waiting alone in his spot near the front of the line to gain entry to the park. Keffer explained. "My son usually stands in line here, but he is on the back fields this morning. So, here I am!"
Keffer was referring to the Cardinals minor league complex, which is located behind and to the right of the main park. There are at least six fields where the youngsters work out in the morning and play games many afternoons. There is no charge for access to the minor league fields. If the Cardinals of the future interest you, don't miss the opportunity when you come down to see the big club.
It is Keffer's second trip to Florida to see the Cardinals. He and his son plan to follow the club to Port St. Lucie to see them face the New York Mets on Friday.
Next in line was the family of Mark and Debbie Haenchen from St. Louis. The clan, six strong, is making their first-ever trip to Spring Training. Son Brian, 16, hopes to pursue a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. I am not sure if he is more excited about that or in cheering on the Cardinals. Both sound pretty good to me.
While they had reserved seats, the Haenchens wanted an early opportunity to grab a rail spot along the first row of seats two hours before the game. About five minutes after the gates were opened, I spied the Haenchen girls poised and ready.
All they needed was someone to sign for them. Around 11:00 A.M., as the Cardinals completed batting practice in small groups, they quickly headed from home plate down the inside of the baseline toward the gate in the right field corner that leads back to their clubhouse.
Manager Tony La Russa was the only one who acknowledged the fans. While the skipper rolled a baseball over to the fans standing along the front row, he did not come near. There were many cries for young slugger Chris Duncan, but he had other work to do. The orange-shirted security guard knowingly assured everyone within earshot by saying, "Maybe they will sign when they come back out".
Sure enough, before 12:30 P.M., coaches and players began to file onto the field, wearing their classic home whites. Non-roster invitees Jolbert Cabrera (left) and Eli Marrero (right) came out early and signed many items for the fans on the berm.
As the day's starting pitcher, Chris Carpenter, warmed up in the foreground, Brian Falkenborg, Brad Thompson and the manager himself were busily signing along the berm at 12:50 P.M. Dennis Dove, Kelvin Jimenez and Randy Flores were among the many who also took a turn.
La Russa twice slightly acknowledged the supportive cheers of the crowd as he walked toward the Cardinals dugout. Once there, the focus could again be on the game itself, not the distractions of the day.
When the afternoon's game was over, only the trampled, browned grass and the day's refuse remained.
Soon, it will be cleaned up, ready for the next shift of the greatest fans in baseball – the Keffers, Haenchens and millions more like them.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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