ST. LOUIS -- When the Cardinals won the World Series five years earlier, Tye Edwards was stationed in Iraq and could not be back home in Missouri for the parade.

On Sunday afternoon, the 26-year-old Army sergeant from nearby Festus was on "R&R from Afghanistan" and stood proudly beside the Stan Musial statue outside Busch Stadium. Wearing a No. 5 Pujols jersey, Edwards watched along with many thousands of fans as the 2011 World Series championship parade roared by.

"I got back two weeks ago, and I go back to Afghanistan Tuesday, so at least I got to come home to watch the Redbirds win and see the parade," Edwards said. "It's been just awesome."

Edwards was accompanied by nine other fans, and toward the end of the parade he saw one of the best players in Cardinals history -- and in Major League Baseball history -- pass by. Pujols, officially a free agent with a handful of days to decide whether he returns in 2012 or tests the waters, waved at the throng as his truck made its way to the ballpark and the celebration inside.

"I pointed at him and he pointed back. Once a Redbird, always a Redbird, man," Edwards said. "It's up to him to make his call. St. Louis has got his back no matter where he goes. Albert's the man. There is nothing you can take from that dude. He did a lot for St. Louis. He loves St. Louis, and we love him. He's always a Redbird."

This was the moment all fans wait for -- the time-honored World Series parade. It is the true exclamation point on a Major League Baseball season. Last year, it meant so much to the city of San Francisco. The year before, it roared up the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan, and the year before that, Philadelphia finally got what it had wanted for ages.

They have some experience with this sort of thing here in St. Louis now. In 2006, it was the first year of new Busch and, they did it up right, starting the parade at historic Union Station and riding along Market Street toward the Arch and then twirling around Busch and right inside for the show. There was not much difference this time, some new faces and a Rally Squirrel.

There was a commanding theme here, though, a giant elephant in the room wearing No. 5. What were fans thinking as they watched Pujols go by? What were they thinking when he said on the stage, "I love my fans. They're the best." They were here to celebrate a team title, and yet amid the cheers for David Freese's key to the city and so much more, the No. 5 question tugged.

"It just goes to show that he was a big part of this team. I think I speak for a lot fans when I say we all want to see him come back," said Geno Halloran of Shiloh, Ill., who was there with wife Amy, 7-year-old son Brady and 10-year-old son Logan. "Hopefully they can make it work. I know the Cardinals organization is going to work really hard to make sure he gets back in a Cardinal uniform for the rest of his career. It would be extremely difficult to come to a game and not see No. 5 at first base."

"He'll be back. He'll be back," said Mike Carbrey of Wildwood, Mo.

"We hope to see him back here next year, and we'll be here again next October. I think we will see him back," said Eileen Mohesky, watching with her husband, Gil, and their three grandsons. Then Gil added: "It was very exciting. He'll be back. I'm confident."

Ask 100 fans and 90-something will expect him back. That was a parade mindset. It was not a free agency kind of day in St. Louis. When Pujols was introduced on the stage, he took off his cap and then a prolonged standing ovation rained over him. He wheeled in circles on the stage, waving at all sections. Whether it was thanks or goodbye, no one knows, and in that moment, no one seemed to care.

The biggest roar of the day was reserved for the highlight reel on the giant scoreboard, when it got to Game 6. Every moment shown brought chills, and you knew that this is how it would be for many years to come. Players like Carpenter and Pujols said the moment that meant the most this season was the last out of Game 7, but make no mistake, people will always talk about "Game 6."

Freese, the hometown hero from Lafayette High, was in one of the first trucks, not far behind manager Tony La Russa, who rode behind the famous Anheuser Busch Clydesdales.

It was a moment of a lifetime for Edwards and his family. His mother, Diane Edwards, sent him "a big box of Cardinals stuff" when he was in Iraq during the 2006 World Series run. Now she and all of them were soaking in the moment, appreciating having Tye back and able to enjoy this celebration.

"The first games he got to see coming back from Afghanistan," his mom said, "were the last games in the World Series."

Jason Wagenknecht of Kirkwood, Mo., was wearing a No. 99 Taguchi jersey as he watched the trucks and marching bands, a nod toward former outfielder So Taguchi, who played a role in helping the 2006 Cardinals win. On Wagenknecht's shoulders was a fan who came after the last title, so this was new to 3-year-old Chase. Also there was Wagenknecht's wife, Amy, and their daughters, Carrie, 7, and Chloe, 5.

"Oh, man, it's awesome," Wagenknecht said. "My youngest wasn't around then. It's wonderful. It's almost getting normal in St. Louis, which is kind of bad.

"And if Albert Pujols says he wants to go somewhere else for more money just to win championships? We've had three World Series here in the last 11 years. Where else can he go to get that? I think he's coming back. I think he's a good guy, and I think he'll get a bigger offer somewhere else, but I think he's coming back. He appears to be a man based on principle."

Pujols was asked in the celebration, "Can we do this again next year?"

"Hey, why not?" he said, and the adoring masses cheered and the wait began.