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February 8, 2006

Offseason of Discontent

How St. Louis Baseball May Be Altered

by Will Leitch

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For all the attempts by Bud Selig and his merry men to level the playing field between those teams which derive a large percentage of their revenue from their cable station and those which derive a large percentage from Hat Day, it's still obvious that we're a long way from the Royals beating the Yankees in a bidding war. It's generally assumed that certain teams, thanks to population density and geography, will simply never be able to compete until even more rules are changed.

The four teams that come up the most often: Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Because the cities these teams reside in are so much smaller than New York and Los Angeles, and because there isn't much relative cash in television contracts and massive merchandising deals, the thought is that they can't compete.

Let's take a look, for a moment, at the populations of each of these cities, plus one other:

Milwaukee: 583,624
Kansas City: 444,387
St. Louis: 343,279
Tampa (Bay): 321,772
Cincinnati: 317,361

No one ever considers St. Louis a small market team, but they're pretty much the definition of it. Allotting for the suburban sprawl that infects all our nation's cities, the St. Louis Cardinals are in the bottom five of all of baseball in urban population but were sixth in overall payroll last year, at $92,106,833. Why is this? If you've been to Busch Stadium any time over the last decade, you have the answer to that: No fans in baseball are more slavishly devoted to their team than Cardinals fans. Sure, we're dopey, but we Cardinals fans are the reason the team is not the Royals. It's the best example in sports of a team's success being owed solely to their fans.

And, if the last three months are any indicator, it's a relationship that could be in serious trouble.

It was difficult for some to understand why Cardinals fans were so openly emotional when Busch Stadium ended its nearly 30-year run via the brutal right arm of Roy Oswalt. Wasn't Busch just another of the outdated cookie-cutters of the Riverfront/Three Rivers/Veterans Stadium multi-purpose mode? Well, it was if the last Cardinals team you remember was managed by Whitey Herzog; many improvements had been made to personalize the stadium from the inside, and, more important, the Cardinals' entire personality (along with baseball's) had changed since Vince Coleman was unsuccessfully dodging tarps. It was still Busch, but it had become our Busch; for people who lived too far from Chicago to visit Wrigley, it was a vacation destination.

But ownership talked of outdated locker rooms and maxing out revenue streams, the usual prattle tossed out there when there's more money to be had in construction. As with everything else the Cardinals do, the fanbase was supportive, if confused; what was wrong with Busch again? And when the new stadium blueprints came out, it became clear the new Busch Stadium looked, well, a lot like the new Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stadiums. It was almost a cookie-cutter, just 30 years later. This is what we're tearing down Busch for?

But fine. If the ownership claims it needs a new stadium to continue to compete, well, hey, we're St. Louisans; we trust people. Whatever you gotta do, ya know? This is a World Series caliber team; whatever it takes to improve it and keep it together, make it happen. Remember, this is a fan base that gives standing ovations to Rick Ankiel, rejoiced upon the signing of Scott Cooper and had special promotions involving Joe McEwing; it's not too difficult to keep us happy. Even if you take the games off KMOX Radio--the station every Cardinals fan grew up listening to, either to Jack Buck and Harry Caray or Jack Buck and Mike Shannon--and put them on this strange all-Cardinals radio station with a weaker signal and a bunch of guys with nicknames like "Ian The Peon" and "Frank O. Pinion," destroying a bond millions of Cardinals fans have shared for decades, we'll put up with that too, because doggone it, we just love those Cardinals.

As close as the Cardinals came yet again last year to a championship--it has been 25 years since the Redbirds last won one--fans were eager to see how last season would be built upon, how the team would capitalize on Albert Pujols (a player the team essentially lucked into) in the prime of his career and finally snatch the ring fans had been waiting for. With a new stadium, record attendance and that fat new radio contract, there should be plenty of money to go around. Right? Right?

Suddenly, away went Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek (who, along with Sanders, was signed by the Royals?), Matt Morris, Julian Tavarez, so on. These weren't exactly Jim Edmonds-quality guys, but it seemed strange to be doing such large-scale subtraction on a team that didn't seem in much need of rebuilding. But we could still handle that; we lost Mike Matheny, and every male Cardinals fan secretly believes that if they had caught a break or two, they could have had Mike Matheny's life (and they're probably not that far off). We're sentimental, but we're realists.

But then came the final straw: the "reinforcements." Notorious lollygagger Juan Encarnacion was signed. For three years. Junior Spivey is almost certain to be confused with Pokey Reese by every Cardinals fan. Braden Looper exists solely for Mets fans to make fun of us. And, the piece de resistance: the signing of Sidney Ponson to a one year deal. Never mind his tendency toward troubles with the bottle, or that 6.21 ERA; we think it's only a matter of time before a DUI arrest in Clayton turns wrong, and he accidentally eats the breathalyzer. But hey: he has hair now.

It's not just one thing. It's a combination of all of it, the unwanted new stadium, the lack of respect for radio tradition, the sudden (and promise-breaking) penny-pinching. Suddenly, this doesn't resemble the fuzzy love of Cardinal Nation; it feels like just another team. Like a business. It is a business, of course, but when you're messing with Cardinals tradition, you're in serious danger of killing the golden goose. If the fans turn against the franchise, the Cardinals really are just another team. And that's disaster.

Imagine, if you will, the Cardinals getting off to a rough start this year, and combine that with disorganization at the new park; it won't be able to handle full capacity until May, and the concessions will only be partly open for the first month. Those outside the St. Louis area may open the season by struggling to get adequate radio reception. The Cardinals suddenly aren't so cuddly; the fans finally express their impatience with Tony LaRussa not turning into Whitey Herzog.

If the fans start to turn, it could be dark days for St. Louis baseball. It could happen much sooner than you think.

Will Leitch is the editor of Deadspin.com and the author of two books, including the recently released Catch. He can be reached here.

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