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SIGNING OFF ON SOMETHING SPECIAL

Tonight, baseball fans will say goodbye to the Cardinals who have returned to St. Petersburg every spring for half a century.

Legendary players _ Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Red Schoendienst _ will be on hand at the St. Louis Cardinals' final home game to recall a marriage between town and team that outlasted so many others in modern baseball.

Mayor David Fischer will head for the ballpark as polls close on Election Day to express St. Petersburg's gratitude to this team.

Plans will be announced to embed plaques in downtown sidewalks from Al Lang Stadium to Tropicana Field, commemorating each year of spring training in St. Petersburg since 1915.

"Fifty-seven of those will say the Cards," said Jack Helinger, a farewell party organizer from the Chamber of Commerce.

Finally, the departing St. Louis Cardinals will throw out the first pitch to the newcomers _ the Devil Rays, St. Petersburg's 1998 expansion team.

Spring training teams come and go as eager towns compete to build them new ballparks.

The Yankees, who once played in St. Petersburg, left for Fort Lauderdale, then Tampa. The Orioles went from Miami to Sarasota to St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale. The White Sox are leaving Sarasota. The Braves and Expos are leaving West Palm Beach. The Blue Jays may leave Dunedin.

The Cardinals stayed _ longer than any team that came to the Tampa Bay area.

They arrived in St. Petersburg in 1938, left during World War II to train in Cairo, Ill., then returned to stay in 1946.

For 51 years, some of baseball's most loyal fans have followed them here. Many come to Florida each March to size up the new Cardinals and get an early taste of summer. A few eventually come to stay.

Come 1998, the Devil Rays will be St. Petersburg's spring training and summer team. The Cardinals will join the Expos in Jupiter, in fancy new facilities now under construction.

"Jupiter? Might as well be Mars," said Keith "K. C." Carpenter, one of the fans who came to stay.

Carpenter grew up in St. Louis taking streetcars to Cardinals games in their old Sportsman Park, the stadium depicted on the T-shirt he wore to Monday's game. He saw them play in six World Series from 1964 to 1987. He followed them to St. Petersburg each winter until he decided he liked Florida enough to sell his bar in St. Louis and buy one in North Redington, which he called K.C.'s on the Beach.

And after all those loyal years, his Cardinals are leaving for a town on the other side of Florida.

"The owners aren't loyal. The players move around. I'm like a jilted lover, I don't care. Just tell me when the next game is, I'll be there," he said.

"I've bought season tickets for the Devil Rays. I'm going to be a Devil Rays fan."

When the Cardinals came to St. Petersburg, Al Lang Stadium had not been built on its waterfront. The city's population was a booming 80,000. Choice lots on Snell Isle were auctioned for back taxes for $20. Televised baseball was a thing of the future. Every player in the American and National leagues was white.

"Back in the 1940s there wasn't much here. There was a lot of green benches, and there was a streetcar that went out on Central Avenue a ways," said Red Schoendienst, an assistant to the Cardinals general manager who played second base on that 1946 team. "It grew up to be a beautiful city."

To some Cardinals, St. Petersburg was not a beautiful place in its streetcar days. Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, such famous players as Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White, a future National League president, were segregated from their teammates by city hotels.

Today, St. Petersburg will honor those players on a collage of Cardinals given to each fan attending the farewell game. The Cardinals are wearing patches that say, "Thank you, St. Petersburg 1938-1997."

Their opponents, fittingly, will be the Phillies _ St. Petersburg's first spring training team in 1915.

The final game is expected to sell out. At 5 p.m., the last 450 seats in the bleachers will go on sale.

In 1998, fans like Marilyn Worseck will be spending springtime in Jupiter.

She keeps a shrine to the Cardinals in her St. Louis home. She went on a Caribbean cruise with the Cardinals recently and plans to do so again next year.

She comes to the ballpark wearing Cardinal hat pins, a Cardinal necklace, Cardinal earrings and a Cardinal shirt. She has followed the Cardinals to seven straight spring training seasons in St. Petersburg, and she will follow them to Jupiter next year.

"I've been to the coldest opening day and the hottest season finale," she said. "I just love the sport."

For ushers like 76-year-old John Buckley, the future is less certain.

For the past 15 years he has wintered in Treasure Island and worked as a Cardinals usher, a job that pays $25 a game plus tips and the autographs he sports on his Cardinals cap.

Next year a new team will be in St. Petersburg, owned by a Vince Naimoli whom the ushers don't know. They aren't sure whether to chance it in St. Petersburg or follow the Cardinals to Jupiter.

Buckley still can't believe the Cardinals are going.

"It's like a trademark. You say Cardinals, they connect it to St. Petersburg," he said. "I talked to people today who didn't know the Cardinals were leaving. You just see that blank look: Geez, this is impossible."

Buckley hopes to return to Al Lang, but that depends on an owner whose name he struggles to recall.

"Nobody knows what Manoni will do," he said.

THE LAST GAME: PHILLIES VS. CARDINALS, 7:05 TONIGHT, AL LANG STADIUM

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