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Mourning Stan The Man: 'We wish you could go on forever'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2013 - Outside the gates of baseball heaven, the faithful of Cardinal Nation come to pay their respects to Stan Musial, the greatest -- and most beloved -- player to wear the birds-on-the-bat jersey.

The Musial statue outside Gate 3 at Busch Stadium -- where fans traditionally meet up with family and friends before a ballgame -- seems a fitting place to hold a public wake.

It is a quiet ritual, playing out over and over in the biting January cold. The arriving mourners -- many wearing Cardinal red -- stand back at first, respectfully viewing from a distance the bronze likeness of Stan the Man in his famous batting stance, as if they have never really seen it before. Then they move in -- perhaps to leave a token of affection at the base of the monument. Finally, they pose for a picture -- one last keepsake of No. 6 -- before walking away, as quietly as they came.

The vigil began on Saturday night, shortly after the announcement by the Cardinals that Musial, 92, had died at his home in Ladue.

By Sunday morning, the base of the statue was covered with forget-me-nots from Cardinal Nation. There were red flowers -- roses and carnations -- and cans of Budweiser. American flags, Teddy bears and balloons. And there were baseballs and baseball caps -- payback for a man who had cheerfully autographed thousands of them for his fans.  On each was a carefully lettered message: "The Greatest Cardinal of them all” or "So long, for just a while” -- the familiar sign-off of Jack Buck, the late Cardinals broadcaster who died in 2002.

Mothers and fathers of all ages brought their sons and daughters of all ages. Others came alone, standing for a few minutes in silent tribute or prayer.

The Runge family left a note paraphrasing the tribute to Musial by baseball commissioner Ford Frick that is engraved on the base of his statue: “You are now Heaven’s perfect warrior ... Heaven’s perfect knight.’’

A little boy named Troy drew a farewell card on green paper, illustrated with a lopsided Arch and a wish: “Dear Stan Musial, Feel Better In heaven.”

Damon Meier, 37, of St. Charles brought flowers to pay his respects to a man he never met or saw play. Musial retired from baseball on Sept. 29, 1963.

"That’s how much he means to St. Louis and to me,’’ Meier said. "I’m a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and Stan is a lifelong Cardinal. He was St. Louis when it comes to baseball. He was 'The Man.' He was a true Cardinal, inside and out.’’

As a child, Meier learned about Musial from his parents.

"I wish I could have been able to see him. I talked to my mom last night, and she was trying to remember if she had seen him the day he hit five home runs in a doubleheader. They talk highly of his character. You can’t help but respect a guy like that,’’ he said.

Generations of Cardinal Nation have passed down their admiration and affection for the Hall of Famer who won seven batting championships and amassed a magical 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road.

News accounts of Musial’s last game as a player relate the outpouring from Redbird fans in 1963 -- a hometown tribute that followed a series of sendoffs held at stadiums around the nation as Musial played on those ball fields for the last time. Team owner August "Gussie” Busch Jr. spoke for the fans who packed into Busch Stadium or watched on live TV the moving retirement ceremony for the 42-year-old slugger who had played his entire 22-year career in a Cardinals uniform.

"We wish you could go on forever,’’ Busch said that day.

And in a way, Musial did -- because the Cardinal for life was also a St. Louisan for life.

For the next 50 years -- a half-century -- Stan the Man lent his name to good causes, ran businesses, including a well-known restaurant, shook hands, handed out autographed pictures and sometimes played a quick tune on his harmonica for his surprised fans.

Funeral details 

A public visitation for Stan Musial will held from 2-8 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, 4431 Lindell. A funeral mass will be held at the cathedral at 11 a.m., Sat., Jan. 26. Afterward, the Musial family will lay a wreath at his statue at Busch Stadium. Burial is private. 

But in recent years, even fans sitting in the upper terraces of Busch Stadium recognized that time was catching up with Stan the Man, who still appeared for ceremonies on Opening Day or the post-season. They welcomed their hero with thunderous applause, cheering madly as he was driven around the stadium warning track in a golf cart. They snapped fuzzy images with their cameras and cell phones as their now-fragile No. 6 passed by, smiling his Musial smile and waving his Musial wave.

In 2010, Cardinal Nation enthusiastically embraced the “Stand for Stan” campaign started by the Cardinals organization to convince President Barack Obama to award Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama presented the medal to Musial at a White House ceremony in February 2011.

On Sunday, Ryan Nolting, 40, of Glendale brought his children to Busch Stadium to pay their respects.

"It’s a sad day,’’ Nolting said. "He was a great St. Louisan and ambassador for the city. I never saw him play -- he retired nine years before I was born -- but he was the best Cardinal of all.”

Nolting brought an old harmonica to leave at the growing memorial. His 11-year-old daughter Zoe reverently placed it on a corner of the statue’s concrete base.

"I’m a harmonica player, too,’’ Nolting said. "And he carried one around for years, and I used to carry one around for years, too.’’

Nolting said he met Musial as a teen-ager, while working at a nursing home that Musial used to visit.

"He was a very nice man,’’ Nolting said.

He noted that that his 7-month-old son Ryan, who was wearing a warm -- and very red -- Cardinals hat, would be going to his first baseball game this season.

It will be a season that won’t be blessed with a Musial sighting on Opening Day.

On Saturday, the baseball world lost a legendary star, but Cardinals fans lost Their Man.

And we wish he could have gone on forever.

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