The flag in center field made its slow, sad descent to half-staff.
Terry McCrae of Columbus, Ohio, knew what that meant.
Umpire John McSherry was dead.
Two batters into Monday's opening game, the ump - known to Cincinnati baseball fans as much for his 328-pound frame as his colorful style - had walked away from home plate and collapsed.
Ninety minutes later, someone lowered the flag at Riverfront Stadium.
The scoreboard flashed a brief, business-like message: ''Due to the unfortunate circumstances during today's Reds-Expos opening day game, the game has been canceled.''
But, the flag said it all.
Terry McCrae stood up. Seven fans in the same row of cheap seats joined him.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with his son Chris McCrae, Terry doffed his hat. Face to the sun and under a cold, cloudless sky, he started singing:
''Take me out to the ballgame . . .''
One by one, the seven men joined in.
Some wore Reds caps. One guy had on a Yankees hat. Another singer's headgear showed him to be a Detroit Tigers fan. Reds. Yankees. Tigers. But in song they were on the same team.
''Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack . . .''
By the time they had rounded third and headed for the last chorus, the octet had swelled to a choir of about 300 diehards.
Before the flag was lowered, the singers were still hanging around the ballpark, long after the game had been called. They were talking softly and thawing out in the sun that spilled down the red seats.
Little kids looked on in disbelief. ''What happened, Daddy?'' a boy asked his father. ''A man got sick'' was all the father could say.
As the crowd warmed up, they grew impatient for word on Mr. McSherry's condition.
''Has anybody heard anything?'' Linda Dixon of Westwood asked a group in the top row. ''Does anyone have a radio? What are Marty and Joe saying?''
Two junior high Reds fans from California, Ky., Danielle Rust and Sarah Reis, said nothing. They put their heads down and paged through their Reds yearbooks. Danielle's dad, Steve Rust, anxiously drummed his fingers on the seat in front of him.
''They were doing CPR on him when they took him away,'' he kept saying. ''I hope he's all right.''
Then the flag went down and the singing began.
''So it's root, root, root for the home team . . .
Terry and his Columbus buddies were initiating his teen-age son, Chris, into their opening-game club. This was the men's sixth consecutive opener and the teen's first.
''It was all going so well,'' said Chris Powell. ''One out. One strike and one ball on the second batter. And, after the snow this morning, the sun had even come out.
''Then the umpire went down.''
''For, it's one, two, three, strikes you're out at the old ball game.''
''That was for McSherry,'' Terry McCrae said putting his baseball cap back on.
''He was a pro. He called a good game. And, a character, too. His kind was just what baseball needed.''
Joe Manley, a stadium security guard, came up to ask Terry McCrae's group to leave. In the process, he wondered why they were singing.
When he found out, the guard lowered his head.
''I'm sorry,'' he said. ''No one told me. The last I heard on the radio he was still alive.''
Then with a look of hope in his face, he asked: ''Are you sure?''
No one replied. Terry McCrae just pointed toward the flag.
Cliff Radel's Metro column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday.