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Spirited fan club, St. Louis Cardinals help those suffering from Alzheimer's

A graying fan walks through the Busch Stadium gates, open especially for him on this day. The light bulb begins to flicker as he peers at the contents of a shoulder-high glass case. It's one of Stan Musial's gloves from the 1940s, barely larger than The Man's hand, very lightly padded and definitely game worn.

After the plates are filled and club members take their seats, there's another oldie-but-a-goodie to behold, a powder blue, pullover Ken Oberkfell jersey from the 1982 World Series championship team. Then come more tactile reminders, with much posing and varied stances, when one of Vince Coleman's bats makes the rounds.

"Ron talks about that all the time," said Mary Nicoletti, who accompanies her 63-year-old husband to the meetings. "He usually doesn't want to offer much because he doesn't want to stumble over the words. But this, it kind of brings it out of him."

It has been said that sports is the universal language, and that's the key to an effort to improve lives of those suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Baseball is the trigger mechanism for the Cardinals Reminiscence League. Their love of this proud franchise helps them in many ways.

Members share common ground, smile a bit, and caregivers get a sliver of relief — all with a Cardinals theme — from ever-increasing responsibilities for a partner fading too soon.

"It really is a part of the culture," said Dr. John Morley, director of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, who developed the program with the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "It's quite clear the Cardinals are loved by everyone. Anybody can sit down and talk about it, even if they don't really know what they're talking about."

Research has shown that for those in the early stages of dementia, revisiting long-ago milestones in shared discussions can be helpful in retaining short-term memories, along with improving mood and communication skills. Forming groups helps to develop a network of friends who are having similar experiences.

"Using reminiscence helps them move forward," Morley said. "And it makes them happier, too."

The St. Louis effort is patterned after successful endeavors in Scotland that focused on soccer. There are three local groups of a dozen or so members plus caregivers, who encourage discussion.

The Cardinals are enthusiastic participants, also offering the stadium for the annual Walk to End Alzheimer's last month.

"It seemed like a good fit for us," said Brian Finch, manager of stadium tours and museum outreach for the Cardinals.

Most of the year, the club meets the first and third Friday of the month at the local Alzheimer's Association chapter office. For the annual Busch trip, almost everyone was clad in team apparel, some from head to toe. Others let just a cap do the trick.

They began with a buffet lunch in the interview room, where manager Mike Matheny politely steels himself during postgame interrogations and just up the hall from the clubhouse. A brief video encapsulating franchise highlights is shown, followed by gentle prodding by Finch to get the members talking. Just a few start, at first and haltingly. But before long, they're all contributing.

Nothing like bringing up umpire Don Denkinger's infamous blown call that handed the 1985 Interstate 70 Series on a platter to the Royals, to unite the faithful. Bob Gibson's hallowed 1.12 ERA, which is responsible for lowering the mound to give hitters a fighting chance, is also a conversation starter. And so is the framed photo of Gussie Busch making the warning track circuit atop a Budweiser beer wagon pulled by Clydesdales, while wearing a ridiculous, red Cowboy hat.

A plastic-protected scorecard from the 1964 season, just after the Lou Brock trade, reminds them about the most lopsided deal in franchise history. The Cardinals snared a future Hall of Fame standout, and the Cubs received a pitcher, Ernie Broglio, who was fast running out of steam.

The response was near reverence when Finch removed his 2011 World Series ring and passed that around, too.

A member recalled being at old Sportsman's Park when flamboyant Browns owner Bill Veeck pulled the ultimate publicity stunt and sent up midget Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit. Some knew the tiny uniform belonged to a very young Bill DeWitt Jr., now the team chairman.

"He walked," one of the members shouted.

"That's right," Finch replied, "on four straight balls."

All the while, Bill Hoffman sheepishly confessed to a petty infraction from several decades ago, that he'd once sneaked into old Sportsman's Park without paying for a playoff game. Mick Ambrose remembered Brock setting the stolen base record.

The program struck pay dirt when Nicoletti unburdened a guilty conscience from just two years earlier, when he'd paid for upper deck standing room tickets and moseyed down a level for a better view of the 2011 World Series. Later, he enthusiastically recalled sighting a rally squirrel, the pesky unofficial mascot of the 2011 postseason run, scooting right between his legs in a concourse.

Nicoletti was diagnosed in April 2011, just shy of his 60th birthday. For two years he'd been slipping, getting distracted at home, losing track of finances, weaving on the road and making enough mistakes on the job that Mary received a telephone call.

"I didn't think anybody his age could get something like that," Mary Nicoletti said. "What really kills me is there's no hope."

The numbers are grim for a disease that has no cure. Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, including an estimated 200,000 under age 65. Among 70-year-olds, 61 percent are expected to die within a decade. Between 2000 and 2010, deaths from Alzheimer's increased 68 percent, while deaths from other major disease declined.

The Nicolettis hold a "Rally Around Ron" trivia night every year, and raised $12,000 for Alzheimer's Association research and programs from this year's event. Mary Nicoletti realizes it's a mere pittance, holds out zero hope for major progress anytime soon and frets about the chances the couple's children will get early-onset Alzheimer's, too.

Still, you do what you can.

The Reminiscence League fills a similar niche, providing occasional glimpses of normalcy to once ordered lives turned upside down. Bridging the Cardinals' good old days with the erratic fits and starts of this year's NL Central contender, there's more of a connection with what's happening right now, or yesterday, or last week.

At a dinner with friends this week, Ron Nicoletti received a framed rally squirrel picture.

"You're not going to believe this," Nicoletti said. "My friend said, 'I'm going to give this to you.' It's really cool!"