A new era: Cards fly home to new Busch

A new era: Cardinals fly home to new Busch

The stars are aligned. The omens have been positive. All the preliminaries are complete. It's time to break in the new digs.

New Busch Stadium makes its Major League debut on Monday at 3:10 p.m. CT. Mark Mulder's first pitch to the Brewers will validate more than two years of construction -- as well as some destruction -- and a plan that dates back far longer than that.

A tight construction schedule meant that the Cardinals didn't even formally have the park handed over to them until the last week before Opening Day. They benefited from a mild winter in St. Louis, a decidedly smooth demolition of old Busch Stadium and other fortuitous happenings.

"I don't think we ever had a point where we didn't believe that the ballpark was going to be ready on Opening Day," said team president Mark Lamping. "The productivity of the workforce was at an incredibly high level, and we were blessed with great weather. We've been running ahead of schedule for quite some time."

The club believes it has a jewel to show off to fans and to all of baseball. The playing field and facilities have already received generally positive reviews from players, and the fans who have been inside have seemed to like the place.

Distinctive features include arch designs in the steelwork above the stadium, Cardinal-red seats and a view of the St. Louis arch. The old, round, "cookie-cutter" shape has been replaced by an open-ended place that just looks more like a ballpark.

At the same time, some features, like the red seats and the look of the outfield wall, will recall the old stadium.

"Our fans are going to like it because there's enough there when you look at it to remind you of the old park, and a lot of new," said manager Tony La Russa.

"It wasn't the primary objective, or we would have built a concrete building that was circular in shape," Lamping quipped. "There are some touches, such as the steel arches. It was designed to be subtle, more as way to pay homage to that ballpark, as opposed to a way to replicate it in any way."

While distinctive and memorable are admirable goals when it comes to look-and-feel, that's not really what you want on the field of play. Competitively, the hope is that the new facility will be, well, forgettable.

The Cards didn't want a cavernous facility like PETCO Park in San Diego, but nor did they want the kind of park where every dink is a threat to jump the wall. La Russa uses the word "fair" when he's asked. Others say "neutral."

With dimensions quite similar to the previous park, it's reasonable to think that goal has been achieved. But the open-air outfield and slightly increased foul territory mean it's not a certainty until they play games for a few months -- or even a few seasons.

"There are a lot of areas in the ballpark which provide great views of the playing field. We certainly encourage our fans to seek those out."
-- Team president Mark Lamping

"The only thing we won't know is, with the stadium being open, how it will play with wind and so forth," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "They did wind studies, but to me, it doesn't matter until you get out there and play in it. You can do all the wind studies you want."

As far back as 2001, the Cardinals had begun to make noises about wanting a new stadium, ideally in downtown St. Louis. They began taking significant financial steps forward in 2002, and in 2003, plans were unveiled.

Groundbreaking took place in January 2004, and from that point the old stadium was officially doomed. The final game was played in October of last year, at which point demolition could get seriously under way.

The Opening Day capacity of the new stadium will be a little under 40,000 as certain sections are still being completed. When the park is completed, capacity should be close to 44,000.

"As far as the portions of the ballpark that are complete, that is complete at a very, very high level," Lamping said. "Generally, the parts of the ballpark that still have work to do are those areas where we either do not have seating available or we only have a portion."

According to both Jocketty and Lamping, people on the baseball side were consulted extensively in the planning stages. Lamping said, for example, that the training staff was relied on when it came to building the training area, and that video coordinator Chad Blair had significant input on the video room.

The players and coaching staff had less direct input, but by most accounts their areas are fine as well. The home clubhouse should be an improvement, and La Russa and the players report that the field seems true and pleasantly playable.

And that's the most important thing, because it's the players and coaches -- and media, and team staff -- who will call the ballpark their office. Almost as critical are the fans, who have met the place with approval during a series of open houses as well as a Minor League exhibition game.

The creature comforts will undeniably be improved, from concourse width to sight lines to food offerings. That's the kind of stuff that's expected in a new ballpark. Which is not to say that it doesn't matter.

The next thing, though, is to see if the new park can capture the "it" factor that made old Busch Stadium a special place. It wasn't a nice place by any measure -- but it was special. And so, it would seem, it's up to the fans to make the same thing true of new Busch.

"We hope that they very quickly get familiar with the building and explore the ballpark, find their favorite spots," said Lamping. "There are a lot of areas in the ballpark which provide great views of the playing field. We certainly encourage our fans to seek those out."

Pitching matchup
MIL: RHP Tomo Ohka (0-0, 1.29 ERA)
Ohka probably won't be nostalgic about old Busch Stadium, where he surrendered six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings during two career appearances. Ohka was much better on the road last season, going 7-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 15 games. His best two Brewers starts came on the road, at Tampa Bay in June and at Philadelphia in August.

STL: LHP Mark Mulder (0-0, 3.86 ERA)
Mulder gets the plum assignment of April -- he gets the call in the opener of new Busch Stadium. He started last year's home opener, as well. Mulder looks like essentially the same pitcher as he did a year ago -- efficient, able to get scads of ground balls and pitch deep into games. He pitched well in his season debut on Wednesday, allowing seven hits and three earned runs with no walks over seven innings in a no-decision against Philadelphia.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• KTRS 550 AM

Up next
• Wednesday: Brewers (RHP Dave Bush, 1-0, 1.29 ERA) at Cardinals (RHP Jason Marquis, 1-0, 3.38 ERA), 7:10 p.m. CT
• Thursday: Brewers (LHP Doug Davis, 0-0, 4.91 ERA) at Cardinals (RHP Jeff Suppan, 0-1, 7.20 ERA), 12:10 p.m. CT
• Friday: Reds (RHP Aaron Harang, 1-1, 8.49 ERA) at Cardinals (RHP Chris Carpenter, 1-0, 3.27 ERA), 7:10 p.m. CT

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