ST. LOUIS — A red sea of fans jammed downtown St. Louis on Sunday to honor the World Series champion Cardinals and send a clear message to Albert Pujols: Please stay.
An official crowd estimate was not immediately available for the parade down the streets of St. Louis and the celebration at Busch Stadium, but city officials expected several hundred thousand, and it was clearly that, if not more. The crowd was so large that people were parking more than two miles away, and interstate highways were jammed near downtown.
Pujols drew loud cheers along the parade route and a long standing ovation at the stadium. When asked on the podium if he'd like to be back for another celebration next season, he smiled sheepishly and said, "Hey, why not?"
Whether that happens remains to be seen. After 11 Hall of Fame seasons as a Cardinal, Pujols is a free agent for the first time and it isn't clear if the mid-market Cardinals will be able or willing to give a long-term contract to a player who turns 32 before next season, despite his career .328 average, 455 homers and status as a team icon.
Pujols' pending free agency and a chilly, breezy and overcast afternoon did nothing to dampen the celebratory spirit. People began staking out the good spots many hours before the parade, climbed trees and leaned out office windows for better views. Nearly everyone was dressed in red except for a few in Rams blue who made the short walk from the Edward Jones Dome after the football game. Even the Rams added to the joy of the day, beating New Orleans 31-21 for their first win after an 0-6 start.
High school marching bands played along the parade route. Vendors sold hot dogs and peanuts. Fathers and mothers hoisted small children on their shoulders to wave at the passing red and white pickup trucks carrying Cardinals past — Lou Brock, Red Schoendienst — and present. The biggest cheers appeared to be for Pujols, Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter and postseason hero David Freese, who was Most Valuable Player in both the NL championship series and the World Series.
Freese, a native of St. Louis County, recalled sitting in a California Burger King in December 2007 when "I got the greatest phone call of my life, that I had been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals."
Manager Tony La Russa led the parade atop a beer wagon pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales, followed by a truck carrying owner Bill DeWitt Jr. clinging to the World Series trophy.
The parade ended inside Busch Stadium, where a sold-out crowd watched the celebration. In fact, the ballpark rally sold out in 90 minutes after the Cardinals won the clincher.
"This 11th Cardinals world championship will always be remembered as one of baseball's greatest achievements," DeWitt said, noting the Cardinals had to win four elimination games this postseason.
La Russa, too, paid respect to his team for never surrendering, even when 10½ games out wild-card contention on Aug. 25, or when they faced three postseason opponents with superior records — Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Texas.
"What these guys did so many times facing elimination, it's a lesson for all of us," La Russa said. "They never quit."
The celebration was the culmination of a four-day party in St. Louis that began with the stunning win in Game 6, when the Cardinals rallied five times and in two straight innings were within a strike from elimination before Freese won the game 10-9 with a leadoff homer in the 11th.
Friday's 6-2 win in Game 7 set off a frenzied celebration that lasted well into Saturday.
Players appreciated the response from the fans.
"I'll never forget any of this," outfielder Allen Craig, who hit three homers in the World Series, said. "It's been great."
Fans said they were still jubilant about the team's amazing turnaround.
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"It just seemed improbable," said Chris Ambrose, 24, of Chesterfield, as he watched the parade. "It's one of the greatest World Series runs of all time."
Jenny Ulrich and her husband, Jeff, of Lonedell, Mo., brought their two young daughters to the parade.
The Cardinals "are just part of what our family does," Ulrich said. Pointing to the girls, "they're the next generation of Cardinals Nation."
Mayor Francis Slay called Sunday's celebration "unbelievable."
"The Cardinals fans are the best in baseball and when the Cardinals win the World Series, there's nothing like it," Slay said.