There are times in the life of Cardinals überfan Marty "Sign Man" Prather when his work is underappreciated. Like this past July, when Prather displayed a sign in Wrigley Field that read: "The Curse Lives!"
No sooner had he hoisted the placard above his head than a disgruntled Cubs fan ripped it out of his hands and tossed it out of the stadium and onto Waveland Avenue.
"I had the guy in a headlock by the time security got there, but it was too late. The sign was lost," recalls Prather, a sturdy 46-year-old whose Redbirds-centric life places him someplace in the DMZ between madman and prophet.
More common are the times Prather's signs succinctly capture the mood of 50,000 cheering Busch Stadium fans, as was the case during the Cardinals' 8-3 drubbing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in last Tuesday's postseason opener. Following the first of Larry Walker's two home runs, Prather raised above his head a six-foot sign that read: "Murderer's Row." FOX television cameras quickly captured the image. In the passing hours a one-second clip of Prather and his sign came to represent the entire euphoric Cardinal Nation. By ten o'clock the next morning, the image had appeared dozens of times on SportsCenter, CNN and a host of local broadcasts.
For Prather, who lives downstate in Springfield, the media attention can't touch the feeling he gets when a Cards player gives him a fist-pump of recognition during team warm-ups. Still, he admits his obsession with signs began the first time he was thrust -- ever so briefly -- into the national limelight.
It was during the 1985 World Series. With the Cardinals up three games to one over the visiting Kansas City Royals, Prather flashed a sign that read: "The Fat Lady Is Singing." The next day Prather's father called from Florida to say he saw his son on national TV.
Despite that ill-fated prognostication, Prather has spent the ensuing two decades making 30 St. Louis pilgrimages a season -- and another 10 to away games -- armed each time with up to 40 handpainted signs. With messages on both sides of each three-foot-long chunk of cardboard, he's seldom at a loss for a salvo.
The placards, which he commissions a commercial artist to paint at $40 a pop, have earned him recognition as de facto pep-squad captain for Cardinal fans. Besides television, Prather's signs have shown up in crowd shots in Sports Illustrated, USA Today and even the front page of the New York Times. Last year the signs got Prather inducted in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Still, few in the stands know his name. To them he's simply Sign Man.
It's a distinction that has not come without its share of headaches. An owner of a dozen Domino's Pizza franchises in southwest Missouri, Prather has the financial freedom to entertain his hobby. But a fistful of dollars can't buy him out of the occasional bout of writer's block.
"It's a real challenge," he says. "Every time I go to the game, people ask me what I have new. It's hard to produce new sayings every game."
A novice -- and admittedly cheesy -- wordsmith, Prather leans heavily upon puns on the names of players and teams. There's "Calero my world Cardinal Red" for reliever Kiko Calero. "This space for Renteria" for shortstop Edgar Renteria. The sign for utility player Hector Luna reads: "Be a LUNAtic."
"I've only got one sign for Jim Edmonds, and my sign for Woody Williams only makes sense if we're playing the [Arizona] Diamondbacks," Prather confesses, then quotes the latter: "You may have the Big Unit. We're just happy with our Woody."
Camped out in the field box seats along the first-base line, Prather and a posse's worth of buddies spend each game drinking beer, sorting through signs and tossing out Blow Pops to everyone else in Section 130. (It can't hurt to try to sweeten the mood of the neighbors -- particularly those sitting behind Prather, who are likely to spend much of the game blinded by his billboards.)
Prather carries a banner for the men's basketball team at Southwest Missouri State and has been known to bring along signs when his franchises compete in competitions at Domino's conventions. But it's the Cardinals who most consistently fan his sign-making flames.
"There have been times he's called in a last-minute job and paid for me to drive the sign up to Busch Stadium from Springfield," reports his sign painter, John Short. "You don't miss a deadline with Marty. If you do, you're in for the world's greatest ass-chewing."