SIKESTON — With Albert Pujols' contract negotiations (or lack thereof) shelved until the end of the 2011 baseball season, St. Louis Cardinals fans are forced to shift their focus to spring training.
For some St. Louis fans, that's not a problem, especially for those who've experienced spring training.
Lifelong Cardinals fan Mike Marsh of Sikeston said it took him 50 years to attend his first spring training.
"It was almost surreal — a dream come true," Marsh recalled.
Marsh and his family traveled to Vero Beach, Fla., in March 2005, which was also Sikeston native Blake DeWitt's first year of spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgertown.
"We went down to see Blake, and the Cardinals trained only about 30 miles away (at Roger Dean Stadium) in Jupiter, Fla., so we made a vacation out of it," Marsh recalled.
Marsh said he enjoyed watching teams take batting practices and work on their drills — more so than even going to the games.
"There are some players you don't know if they'll ever make it up (to the big leagues) or not. When we were there, (former Cardinal) Chris Duncan wasn't on the big club yet, but he was there practicing," Marsh recalled.
Spring training dates back to 1870. By 1900 it was firmly established as a baseball ritual, with most American and National League teams heading out of town so players could train and managers could evaluate. Small Florida and Arizona communities were suddenly known across the nation because of the allure provided by major league baseball.
For Janie Young of Charleston, attending her first spring training game last year was something she could mark off her "bucket list."
"It was really fun," said Young, who traveled to Florida with a group of her golfing friends. "We were fortunate enough to have a girlfriend of mine who lives in Orlando and in the same cul-de-sac as (St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher) Adam Wainwright's dad."
Wainwright's dad invited Young and her friends to watch the Cardinals play an away game against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. Wainwright even pitched that day.
"What's so fun about the games is the stadiums are so small, and we had wonderful seats. We got there early enough to see batting practice," Young said.
She and friends caught some foul balls and saw coaches and players up close and personal.
"We saw (Cardinals manager) Tony LaRussa and Mark McGuire, which was the first year he was their hitting coach," Young said.
After the game, Young said she and her friends were introduced to Wainwright, who autographed baseballs and his own baseball cards for them and even signed Young's visor.
Young enjoyed spring training so much, she's going again next month. This time the group has tickets to attend a game at ESPN Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, which hosts Atlanta Braves spring training.
"It's fun because you've got fans of both teams there. Most of the times at Busch with the exception of when they play the Cubs — everyone there is rooting for the Cardinals. So it's really more of competition (at spring training) because people are yelling for both teams. It makes it more spicy," Young said.
Last year Marsh experienced his second spring training, but for this one, he and his family traveled to Phoenix, where the Dodgers now have their spring training.
"We could only see the games (in Arizona) and didn't get to see players work out (like in Florida)," Marsh said.
But it was still a good time, he said.
"We watched Blake play in the Dodgers' ballpark. We got a chance to holler at him on the field," Marsh said about DeWitt, who was traded to the Chicago Cubs last August.
Spring training venues in both Arizona and Florida offer a lot for visitors, Marsh added.
"They're in really neat, fun areas — and you wouldn't have to watch baseball all the time," Marsh said, adding spring training tickets are available online or at the games.
Gary Howard of Sikeston, who scouted for the Cardinals for 22 years, said if fans get the chance to go to spring training, they should.
"You get to meet the players and stand and talk to them one-on-one," Howard said.
Both Marsh and Young agreed.
"If it's on your list to go, it's everything you think it would be," Young said.
Marsh said he always thought it would be so cool to attend spring training.
"I grew up listening to the Cardinals games on the radio and to (the late broadcaster) Jack Buck," Marsh recalled. "... I thought it would really be neat to go — and it was."