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Musial focus at fan festival

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ST. LOUIS – Stan the Man was the dominant topic at the St. Louis Cardinals’ annual fan festival. Outside Busch Stadium, it was totally about paying tribute, too.

All day Sunday, fans ignored near-freezing temperatures and gathered around the larger of the two Musial statues at the ballpark, remembering the Hall of Famer and franchise icon who died Saturday at 92. Team flags were at half-staff.

Among the tributes was a statement from President Barack Obama saying he was “saddened to learn of the passing of baseball legend Stan Musial.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called Musial “a great American hero who – with the utmost humility – inspired us all to aim high and dream big. The world is emptier today without him, but far better to have known him.”

The team was awaiting word from Musial’s family on arrangements for a formal tribute. Weather could preclude a home-plate ceremony and casket viewing for fans such as was done when broadcaster Jack Buck died in 2002.

“It’s the end of an incredible era,” team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “We’ve told them whatever they would like to do, we would certainly be there for them.

“Stan epitomized everything that’s great about Cardinal baseball in every way.”

Despite the weather there was a game-day feel at the ballpark. Dozens at a time congregated around the statue, often blocking a lane of traffic to get the perfect photo. Many fans dropped off mementos, including miniature bats, balls inscribed with messages, hats, flowers and flags at the base.

A tear rolling down one eye, 65-year-old Gene Sandrowski of St. Louis remembered attending a 1954 doubleheader when Musial hit five homers against the New York Giants at Sportsman’s Park.

“I snuck in and worked my way down,” said Sandrowski, who wore a Cardinals jacket and hat, as did many others. “What a game, what a player. He was a very generous man, too.

“I’ve got a ball signed by him at home: ‘To Gene, to a great baseball fan, Stan Musial Hall of Fame.’ Try to get an autograph now, they’ve got them all fenced off.”

The most expensive item in the team store came off the shelf. Richard Dunseth of Jacksonville, Ill., deemed the $900 price tag for an autographed Stan Musial jersey a bargain. For $169, you could purchase an autographed ball in a cube.

“Most of the people here, their memories of him are as a person and not a Hall of Fame player,” Dunseth said. “This is just kind of a spontaneous buy. I think it’s worth it.”

Inside the fan fest, those who knew Stan the Man best validated the outpouring of emotion.

Longtime former manager Tony La Russa ranks Musial in the upper echelon of players along with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Off the field, La Russa has an even greater appreciation.

La Russa, who collected celebrity pals during his 16-year stint as manager, recalled author John Grisham and his father being touched by the chance to meet Musial a few years ago.

“They’re sitting in my office and here comes Stan,” La Russa said. “Grisham told me later on, as they left the ballpark his dad said, ‘My life is complete. I just met Stan Musial.’”

Musial had been in poor health for several years.

“Anybody who knows him knows the quality of life was not good,” La Russa said. “I remember it was like with Jack (Buck), you got so selfish. You knew he was suffering but you definitely didn’t want to lose him.”

Again and again, Musial was remembered as a superstar with no sense of entitlement or worries about privacy. Though Musial marketed autographs with a business partner in Stan the Man, Inc., he had no qualms about signing in abundance for free.

“You see players today that are somewhat stingy with autographs, trying to maintain value or for whatever reason,” DeWitt said. “Stan could care less about the value of his autograph. Whoever wanted, he would give it because he wanted to make them happy.”

Coming up, Cardinals prospects knew Musial was the one to emulate. Outfielder-first baseman Allen Craig met Musial in La Russa’s office a few years ago.

“I think his nickname says it all,” Craig said. “We lost an all-time great.”

Center fielder Jon Jay grew up in Miami, a city that he said lacked a “rich baseball tradition.”

“What Stan stood for, he’s a role model for everyone,” Jay said. “I know he’s resting in peace.”

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