St. Louis Ballpark: Lucky Cards
Sunday, April 30, 2006
It's been more than a century since the hordes arrived in a St. Louis park for the 1904 World's Fair. As baseball fans, we couldn't wait to see the city's newest park: the Cardinals' handsome $365 million downtown baseball field, which opened April 10.
But we were pleasantly distracted by the World's Fair park, still going strong with a zoo, museums and boathouse. Then there's the staggeringly beautiful Botanical Garden -- the oldest in the nation -- which opened a children's play village this month.
Yes, St. Louis is a city that takes its parks seriously. Anheuser Busch even grinds its beechwood into mulch for the parks.
But let's keep our eye on the ball.
The new Busch Stadium is one of the best in a recent line of retro-ballparks. Its red brick exterior and decorative arches pay homage to some of St. Louis's most elegant buildings. The red seats honor baseball's most loyal fans, who wouldn't dream of wearing anything but Cardinal red for games. The stark, black-steel light fixtures, attractive brick stair towers and lush Kentucky bluegrass playing field make this a classy addition to baseball's best new parks.
Back in the first golden age of ballparks at the turn of the last century, great cities squeezed idiosyncratic ballparks into the fabric of neighborhoods. St. Louis's Sportsman's Park was the field that hosted more major league games than any other. Of its genre, only Boston's Fenway and Chicago's Wrigley have survived as venues for Major League Baseball.
The urban renewal movement of the 1960s produced a spate of modern multi-sport stadiums designed to showcase football as well as baseball. These concrete horrors were wrong in size and scale, pushing baseball fans far from the action. In 1992, Baltimore's Camden Yards launched a second golden age of ballpark architecture, returning scale and civic individuality to baseball.
St. Louis's 1966 Busch Stadium, after renovations in the 1990s and a return to real grass in 1997, was the most appealing and comfortable of the concrete doughnuts. It outlasted most of its peers but was demolished after last season to make way for its worthy successor, squeezed between its northern edge and Interstate 40/64.
"It's so much smaller!" were the first words out of the mouth of a card-carrying member of Cardinal Nation on Opening Day.
And that's the point. At a capacity of 46,844, the new Busch is a few thousand seats smaller than its predecessor. Ballparks designed exclusively for baseball have much less foul territory, allowing seats to be closer to the players. With the field laid out below street level, the new Busch ballpark adds intimacy. Even those in the metal outfield bleachers feel part of the action as they overhang the bullpens in left and right field.
Because the new Busch is open in center field between the two brick stair towers, fans in most seats upstairs and down get a great view of the city. For those sitting behind home plate, the huge neon Budweiser sign, with its two Cardinal-on-bat icons, is framed by the Gateway Arch. The historic courthouse where Dred and Harriet Scott first challenged the institution of slavery stands over the left center field bleachers. As a bonus for those in the cheap seats, the higher you go in St. Louis, the more you see of the city.
In designing the new Busch, HOK Sport of Kansas City acknowledged Cardinal fans' great respect for the game's traditions. Nothing flaky here. No hill in center field like that in Houston. No quirky outfield wall alignments to produce crazy bounces.
Happily, organist Ernie Hays made the transition from old to new. We wish, however, that the classic hand-operated scoreboards that graced the old Busch had found a more prominent location and function. Instead, you'll find them as mere historic artifacts lining the walls of the main concourse on the first base side and serving as a buffer from the Interstate. We also miss the neon cardinal that flew around the park after home runs. But the padded children's play area is a big plus.
Although the concourse areas are large, the new Busch copied the only fundamental flaw in Camden Yards. In many new ballparks, a fan standing in line for food on the concourse can see the field. Not so here or in Baltimore -- you stare at TV screens.
Also, the food is just average. No hometown food yet, like toasted ravioli, Fitz's root beer, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard or Vess sodas. Just the usual overpriced hot dogs, pizza and nachos. There are unwieldy but cheap turkey legs ($5), corn on the cob and a modest portion of ribs (for $9.75!). Best bet is El Birdos Cantina, with $7 quesadillas and $4.50 tacos that are at least freshly made.
Spend some time walking the outside of the park. It's ringed with plaques commemorating the 100 greatest moments in Cardinals history. Ornamental stone medallions reflecting the development of the Cardinal logo also grace the exterior. Go to the entrance at Gate 3 along Eighth Street, where the statue of Stan "The Man" Musial reminds you that heroes matter. Before you enter, turn around to see the elegant St. Louis Ballpark Lofts in the historic Cupples warehouse district, the inspiration for the new Busch's red brick and arched exterior.
The demolition site of its predecessor lies beyond left field. The area is slated for future development to tie Busch directly to downtown and enliven the ballpark neighborhood -- exactly as is proposed around Washington's new ballpark site.
And the best part? Outside the stadium, there's a city full of other parks to explore.
Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel are the authors of Fodor's "Baseball Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Ballparks Across America."