Busch Stadium full of fond memories

Busch Stadium full of fond memories

ST. LOUIS -- The showers at old Busch Stadium don't always work. The pipes make inexplicable, loud noises at odd times. The press box leaks. It's sweltering inside on a warm day, and raw on a chilly day. It's the last of the much-maligned "cookie cutter" stadiums that populated baseball in the 1960s and 1970s.

So there's only one thing to say as the Cardinals move out of their familiar home and look ahead to a new stadium next door: farewell, old friend.

That's because it's never really been about the structure. Players don't come to St. Louis, and stay there, because of the facilities at Busch. Fans don't pack the place every night because of comfortable seats and mild weather. For the men who play the game, and the throngs who watch them, there's always been something deeper about the experience of baseball in downtown St. Louis.

"It's not going to take away from it, the fact that they're transitioning to a new stadium," said Todd Worrell, who won two pennants as the Cards' closer in the late 1980s and early '90s.

"The relationships and the opportunity for a player to play for the Cardinals, the history and the tradition there, isn't in the essence of the building as much as it is in the people who made it that way.

"Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, the Hall of Famers, Ozzie Smith, guys who excelled in their sport and stayed in this community and made it what it is are really the essence of being a Cardinal player. It's not so much in the stadium itself. You can go all the way through the whole organization, guys like Marty Hendin in the front office. To me, that's where my connection is, the relationships."

Don't discount the on-field success, though. The Cardinals have won six pennants and two world titles -- and counting? -- since moving into Busch in 1966. Brock and Gibson called the place home from the start, and by the park's second season, they had led the Cards to a World Series championship.

A year after that, Gibson put up one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the game. His 1.12 ERA hasn't been approached since, and he capped it with a World Series-record 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the Fall Classic. The Redbirds didn't win the series, but a legend was cemented.

Gibson, like Worrell, Brock, Andy Benes and scads of other ex-Cardinals, still makes his way to Busch sometimes. If the Cardinals organization is a family, this is the house where many of them grew up.

The park itself has evolved over its 40 years. The artificial turf is long gone, and the center-field scoreboard also helped make it feel more like a ballpark. The arches along the top always gave it a little more distinctiveness than its contemporaries, places like Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

Not coincidentally, it probably will be missed more than those places, at least by baseball fans.

"Oh yeah," said former Gold Glove and All-Star third baseman Ken Reitz, a Cardinal for nine seasons. "I spent almost nine years of my life coming to this ballpark. I got to play with [Bob] Gibson and [Lou] Brock. I saw [Bob] Forsch's no-hitter.

"There's a lot of things that you will remember about this stadium. Just coming in there and seeing ... there's a lot of the same fans who are at the stadium that I see now when I come down when I come down and do things, that were there when I was playing -- which is pretty amazing."

Reitz played at Busch in the 1970s, which at first blush looks like a down period. The Cardinals didn't make the postseason between 1968 and '82. The crowds weren't that big. But then you look more closely, and you see the highlights.

Gibson struck out his 3,000th batter on July 17, 1974, becoming only the second pitcher to reach that mark. Later that same season, Brock set the all-time record for steals in a season. Bob Forsch threw the first no-hitter in St. Louis in 44 years on April 14, 1978. Brock collected his 3,000th hit on Aug. 13, 1979.

If that's a down decade, you can tell it's been a pretty good run.

Busch Stadium, the current one (the new park will have the same name) opened in 1966 with a 12-inning affair. The Cardinals pulled that game out thanks to an RBI single by Brock, appropriately enough. Two weeks later, Gibson christened the place in his own fine form, with a nine-strikeout complete-game win and a base hit to boot.

And thus began a remarkable run of success. The 2005 postseason will be the Cardinals' 11th at Busch. The park has hosted six World Series, and the Cards have won a pair of rings in that span. The All-Star Game came to visit in the very first year.

By the 1980s, the Cardinals showed just how much a team and a ballpark could complement one another. Manager Whitey Herzog took advantage of the super-fast turf and built jackrabbit teams that won three pennants.

With Forsch and Joaquin Andujar at the front of the rotation, Ozzie Smith leading a fine defense and George Hendrick swinging the bat, the Cards won their first World Series in 15 years when Bruce Sutter closed out Game 7 against the Brewers on Oct. 20, 1982. It's the only time the Cards have closed out a world championship at home at the current Busch Stadium.

In 1985, it was Jack Clark, and Ozzie again, and the still-famous "Go crazy, folks!" home run that led to another pennant. The Cardinals fell short in the World Series that year, but Smith's homer -- not to mention Jack Buck's call -- stands as a favorite memory of many in Cardinal Nation.

The 1987 season brought three million fans through the gates for the first time, and St. Louis played in a third World Series in six years. Whiteyball defined a decade of Cardinals baseball, like Gibson and Brock before and Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols later.

And there is every reason to think that the next 40 years, in the new park, should feature more of the same. Because it's always been about the baseball. And the baseball has almost always been good: 26 winning seasons for the Cardinals in 40 years calling Busch home.

"I can't wait until the new one is built," said Gibson, ever the contrarian. "New is good."

It's fitting that the last regular-season game at Busch won't be the end of the affair. The park is guaranteed to host at least two playoff games, and the expectations of the 2005 Cardinals are that it will see quite a few more than that.

A title would cap what has been another great era for the franchise, and the ballpark. Since the beginning of the tenure of manager Tony La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty, the Cards have six postseason appearances in 10 years.

The renovations and a grass field helped make the place look more like a ballpark, and McGwire made Cardinals baseball more of an event than it had already been. His home-run race with Sammy Sosa in 1998 still stands out, and his 62nd homer, breaking Roger Maris' record, is one of the most electric moments in Busch history. McGwire, acquired from Oakland a year before, hit No. 62 against the Cubs on Sept. 8, 1998.

McGwire's Cards never made the World Series, but teammates like Matt Morris, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny made up the core of the greatest regular-season team to call Busch home. The '04 Cards won 105 games and rolled through the Division Series before an epic NL Championship Series against Houston.

Edmonds' walk-off home run in Game 6 forced a final, deciding game and jolted a generation of Cardinals fans the way Smith's clout did 19 years earlier. Scott Rolen went deep off Roger Clemens the next night to help send the Redbirds back to the Fall Classic.

The four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox was a sour end to a magnificent season, but for the returning Cards, it just led to more hunger this year. The Cards are trying to become the first team to close a stadium with a World Series championship.

But if they don't, they'll just pick up where they left off when 2006 begins, in another ballpark named Busch Stadium.

"My perception of the whole Cardinal thing was more the people connected, fans rallying behind the team, a great baseball town," said Worrell. "Maybe we're making more out of the structure than they're really is there, because I don't think the structure has anything to do with what the Cardinals have developed over the years and will always have and maintain.

"I don't care if they went out and played on a sandlot here. It wouldn't change anything. I think people would still come out and want to get behind it, and there would still be that connectedness between the players and the community. The people that decided to live here had an impact on the game of baseball itself. So to me, that speaks volumes for the organization, because I think they could take this show anywhere and people would cling to it."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.