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Cardinals finale: Goodbye to a dear, old friend

The first thing you notice is the trunks. Everywhere, there are trunks.

In the room that is still, for the moment, the St. Louis Cardinals' locker room, the trunks dissect the middle of the room. They are big, red, boxcar-sized trunks, leaving the players on each side to peer over them like hoboes on opposite sides of the track that has a train parked upon it.

You could pack Buicks inside these trunks. Late Monday morning, a batboy wanted to climb on one of them. First, however, he had to climb on one of the smaller ones _ for Gremlins, perhaps _ and then onto the bigger one. Up there, he looked a lot like Snoopy on his doghouse.

You have stayed in hotel rooms smaller than these trunks. Put wheels on them and they would look a lot like a mobile home. But as they sit there, about to be packed for a road trip that will last an eternity, one thing occurs to you.

The Cardinals are going to need more trunks.

Tonight, they are going to pack up forever and haul it away.

How do you pack away 57 years worth of memories? How do you crate up all the spring afternoons when the sailboats would drift past and someone would hit a fly ball into a perfect sky? How do you fold up all the legends who have worn the familiar red jerseys?

How many ground balls have scooted across the infield over the years? How many lazy fly balls have climbed toward the clouds? How many airplanes and sailboats and sunburns? How many forgotten players chased familiar dreams on this field?

They have been here since 1938, three years during World War II notwithstanding, and it seemed they were as much a part of us as The Pier and the beach and the hot dog vendors on the corner. Sometimes, you feel you have to play mix-and-match with teams and towns to remember who is where. The Orioles have been nomads, skipping around the state. Who knows where the Reds are going to end up, and who remembers where the Rangers train?

The Cardinals, you always knew. They were St. Pete's. That wasn't going to change.

But it has. And their time runs out tonight.

The question remains, however. Does anyone really care?

It has not been a glorious farewell for the Cardinals this spring. It is not as if the fans of this city have latched onto the legs of the players and begged them not to go. You see a lot of aluminum when you look into the stands.

The players have noticed it, too. There are times you hear the voices at the batting cage as they look at the empty stands and wonder where the people are.

"Yeah, we talk about it," said catcher Tom Pagnozzi, who has spent 14 springs here. "We wonder the reasons for it."

Was it the strike? Are fans that disillusioned? Is it the coming of the Devil Rays? Is it that the weather this spring has been too nice to waste it at a park? Is it, as Pagnozzi suggests, the lure of the Yankees and Legends Field? Only the Yankees seem immune to the slumping attendance of spring training.

Or has St. Petersburg fallen out of love with the Cardinals?

You wouldn't think so. There have been too many springs when this team was the closest we could get to major league baseball, too many game days where the kids reached across the rail and thrust forward a ball in need of a signature. Have we outgrown the joy of that already?

Look, no one is calling for tears. In the words of veteran Willie McGee, "this isn't heart-tuggin' time." For the Cardinals, this was never the place to win anything big. This was the place to prepare to win. So while the memories are nice _ and McGee says they are _ it isn't as if something terrible is about to happen to either the area or the athletes. St. Petersburg is going to be better off with the Devil Rays. The Cardinals are going to be just fine in Jupiter.

Still, it has been 57 years. A lot of infields and pop-ups and called strikes.

We know much of what tonight will be like. There will be politicians and plaques and posters. There will be legends and lore and speeches galore. For the final time, there will be Cardinals baseball.

But city officials can only do so much. There should be a heartfelt farewell from an area full of fans who should be aware of what this team has meant. We should not rush into tomorrow without appreciating yesterday.

Tonight is the last chance.

You ought to say goodbye. You ought to say thanks.