The Greeks had their Parthenon, the Quakers their meeting houses
and the colonists their village greens. St. Louisans have Busch
Stadium. The home of the Cardinals is the communal gathering spot
for the city, a place where citizens share in civic traditions
such as nondenominational worship (Cardinals baseball),
conformist attire (Cardinals red) and the occasional wedding
ceremony. The nuptials of Cardinals fans J.P. and Nancy Hinson of
St. Louis took place in a rented centerfield suite during batting
practice before the May 27 game against the New York Mets. Team
mascot Fredbird was among those presiding. After the game the
happy (at least until the Cards lost 12-8) couple left for a
honeymoon in Key West and, in August, at Wrigley Field, where St.
Louis will be for a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs.
"I've been coming to Cardinals games all my life," said the
bride, resplendent in a beaded white gown as she walked down the
stadium aisles. She and her black-tuxedoed groom were among the
rare fans that day not costumed in Cardinals red at Busch, which
81 times a year has the look and feel of a college football
homecoming. "I was for this idea right from the start, and our
guests couldn't wait for it. They've all been giddy."
Getting hitched at Busch has become a recurring event, though the
majority of marriages have been those between St. Louis and
players new to the city. All it takes is one quick look at what
is the best baseball city, and Cardinals players say "I do" more
often than Larry King.
Recently married: first baseman Mark McGwire (for three years,
$28 million), shortstop Edgar Renteria (four years, $20 million),
third baseman Fernando Tatis (four years, $14 million), second
baseman Fernando Vina (three years, $15 million) and
centerfielder Jim Edmonds (six years, $57 million). In the past
33 months all forfeited their rights to free agency by signing
long-term, below-market-value contracts with the Cardinals. In
addition, last winter righthanded starter Andy Benes opted out of
the final season of a three-year, $18 million contract with the
National League West champion Arizona Diamondbacks to sign a
similar deal with the Cards, and righty Darryl Kile forfeited $2
million in salary with the Colorado Rockies to facilitate his
trade to the Cardinals.
St. Louis has a long, fabled romance with baseball. As former
Cards player and manager and current New York Yankees manager Joe
Torre puts it, "You play for the Cardinals, you're a part of
royalty. The fans seem to take you under their wing, and you
become less on-guard than you are in other places. It's a more
Torre, Dick Allen, Orlando Cepeda, Jack Clark, Roger Maris,
Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith are but a few of the many players
who were embraced more warmly in St. Louis than in any other city
for whose team they played. But what appears odd about the recent
run of players smitten with St. Louis is that the Cardinals don't
have an abundance of resources (their payroll of $64 million
ranks 12th in the majors), a recent history of success (they last
made the postseason in 1996 and haven't been to the World Series
since 1987) or the creature comforts the modern player has come
to expect. Though 34-year-old Busch Stadium has undergone several
face-lifts, the home clubhouse essentially has never been
upgraded. The narrow chicken-wire-style lockers the Cardinals use
are the same ones Stan Musial and his teammates used at
Sportsman's Park a half century ago. "Stan's locker is in here
somewhere," says equipment manager Buddy Bates, gesturing around
The love affair could better be understood at the Union Station
mall before that May 27 game against the Mets, when hundreds of
fans began lining up 2 1/2 hours early for appearances by the
relatively anonymous Vina and utility player Craig Paquette.
Better still, rewind to May 23, when 37,495 people showed up on a
Tuesday night with the nondescript Florida Marlins in town and
with no promotional giveaway to attract them. Nearly all the fans
were still there, on their feet and shrieking, when McGwire
batted in the eighth inning of a blowout win by the Cardinals.
(Big Mac, who had hit his 19th homer of the season in the second,
got a base on balls.) Or consider the next afternoon, when
McGwire munched his way through a burger, fries and pizza at a
restaurant in a busy suburban mall--the same restaurant he
frequented before his 62nd home run in 1998 and his 500th career
dinger last year--with only three interruptions for autograph
requests. The eatery brought more good karma: McGwire smashed his
20th home run that night, in his 35th game, a record for the
quickest 20-homer start in a season. McGwire's appetite for
dingers has abated since then, with eight in his next 25 games,
though every one of his at bats at Busch is attended with all the
energy of a rock concert.
No other city boasts a more consistent, ceaselessly pleasant fan
base than St. Louis's. Ringing the playing field during pitching
changes is the most unnecessary security phalanx in baseball,
dressed as if for a church picnic--in khaki shorts and blue polo
shirts--while on the lookout for untied shoelaces, people running
with scissors and other similarly grave transgressions. San Diego
Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman muttered after a loss in April at
Busch, "Everybody here is really nice. They just come out here
and beat your butt. Great baseball fans--and the team beats you
every time. This place is nice. The clubhouse is nice, but I'm
sick of this [stuff]."
Says Mets third baseman Robin Ventura, "They cheer real loud when
their pitcher gets down a bunt with two strikes. They even cheer
you as an opposing player if you make a good play. You're like,
'Wait a minute. This is weird.' You're supposed to have a reason
to hate the other team, but they don't give you any."
In each of the previous two seasons the Cardinals drew a higher
rating for local over-the-air telecasts than any other team in
baseball except the Cleveland Indians. St. Louis's 11.7 average
rating last year blew away, to cite one example, the 6.0 of the
world champion Yankees. "Taking nothing from Cleveland," Cards
general manager Walt Jocketty says, "but here you have
generations of fans who went to games with their fathers and
grandfathers and now bring their own kids. Not nearly as many
people in Cleveland can say that."
Mosquitoes typically outnumbered fans at Indians games in the
lean years before Jacobs Field opened in 1994. St. Louis has
drawn at least two million fans in each of the past 16 full
seasons. So ingrained are the Cards in the everyday life of their
city that the local business telephone book lists 41 firms that
have co-opted the team name, from Cardinal Acoustics to Cardinal
"Walt gets the players here," McGwire says, "and the fans keep
them here. They have the utmost respect for ballplayers. The
energy level in the ballpark every night is what sold me."
The Cardinals, who averaged 40,002 fans in their first 39 home
dates, are on pace to surpass their franchise attendance record
of 3.2 million, set last year with a team that lost 86 games.
This year's edition, which after a three-game sweep in a weekend
series against the Los Angeles Dodgers stood at 44-30 and had an
8 1/2-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds atop the National League
Central, is more worthy of the adulation. St. Louis hit 125 home
runs in its first 74 games, a faster season-opening pace than any
other National League team in history, and figures to challenge
the major league single-season record of 264 set by the 1997
Seattle Mariners. Moreover, St. Louis has stabilized its most
glaring weakness, its bullpen. At week's end Cardinals relievers
were 6-11. However, after righthanders (and former starters) Alan
Benes and Matt Morris returned on May 28 from medical rehab
assignments in the minors, the 'pen lowered its ERA by more than
half a run, to 4.80.
Though St. Louis fans for the first time since 1996 have a
contender to cheer for, McGwire is almost solely responsible for
this era of unprecedented interest in the Cardinals. The mutual
love affair began immediately after his arrival in a trade from
the Oakland A's on July 31, 1997. St. Louis hadn't had a
40-home-run hitter since 1940 (Johnny Mize, 43) until McGwire
smashed his record 70 in '98. Local TV ratings jumped 44% for
over-the-air broadcasts and 133% on cable compared to the
Cardinals' last non-McGwire season, in which St. Louis won its
division. Fans come to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals win and
McGwire hit a home run--not necessarily in that order--and McGwire
holds up his end with amazing frequency. Through Sunday he had
homered in 39% of St. Louis's home games since his arrival.
"There's nobody else like him," Florida manager John Boles says.
"If I lived in St. Louis, I'd run out and get four season
tickets, for my family dog and everybody else, just to see this
guy on a daily basis. No one over the last 100 years has had the
impact on the game he has. He dwarfs everybody else."
McGwire and Edmonds, who at week's end had combined for 49 home
runs, have fast become inseparable friends and the most powerful
examples of how players are quickly sold on St. Louis. After
playing on the West Coast (Edmonds with the Anaheim Angels), each
discovered in Middle America the joys of shorter airplane
flights, a tiny media contingent that includes only one traveling
beat writer, and fans who arrive for batting practice, not in the
third inning. McGwire signed his contract with St. Louis only 47
days after his arrival from Oakland--and only weeks before he
would have become eligible for free agency. He never takes an at
bat at Busch without people standing and roaring and flashbulbs
popping. "He hits home runs other places, and that means he's a
tough out wherever he is," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa says.
"But because of the response that the fans generate here, the
adrenaline kicks in, and he's a little stronger and a little
"He's right," McGwire says. "Unless you've experienced it, it's
hard to explain. I know when Jim got to spring training, I didn't
tell him that much. I just said, 'You'll see. You won't believe
The Cardinals acquired Edmonds on March 23 for righthander Kent
Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy. "I had an idea what
I was in for in my first at bat in spring training," Edmonds
says. "The 7,000 people cheered as loud as anything I'd heard in
Though McGwire and Edmonds grew up in the Los Angeles area and in
the off-season live there 10 minutes apart, the two of them never
had met before Edmonds joined St. Louis. "We hit it off right
away," McGwire says. He and Edmonds get together after most
games, usually to share fine food and wine. "He brings me to the
National League places he knows about," Edmonds says. "We sit
around and talk baseball. I could listen to that man all night.
And he insists on getting the check."
Jocketty planned on allowing Edmonds a few months to adjust to
St. Louis before broaching the issue of a contract extension. But
less than a month into the season Edmonds casually mentioned to
him, "I think I may look to buy a place in St. Louis." Jocketty
swooped in. He and Cardinals chairman of the board Bill DeWitt,
who grew up in St. Louis, met in San Francisco on May 9 with
Edmonds and his agent, Paul Cohen. They quickly reached an
agreement. "Let's wait until we get back home to announce it,"
Edmonds told them, "so we can do it in front of our fans."
Three days later, after the news broke, the Busch Stadium crowd
greeted Edmonds's first at bat against the Dodgers with an
ovation that he said "made me feel like I was in the World
Series." Through Sunday the ecstatic Edmonds was hitting .332
with 21 homers, 48 RBIs and a .632 slugging percentage.
Edmonds says that McGwire offered him valuable counsel. McGwire
believes "players get paid way too much money." In response to
the Dodgers' signing last November of Shawn Green for $14 million
a year over six seasons, McGwire requested that the Cardinals
announce that he and the team had agreed to pick up the 2001
option on his contract, worth $11 million, to show, he said, "not
everybody is out for the money." McGwire, 36, also would like to
see two big league teams disbanded to improve the quality of play
and the schedule, and he has promised to finish his career in St.
Louis--as soon as 2001 if there's a work stoppage when this season
ends. He won't negotiate an extension with the Cards until a new
labor agreement is signed. "I don't want to sign a contract that
compels me to play past a labor problem," he says. "I'd be too
embarrassed as a major league player if we are dumb enough to put
the fans through that again."
Through Sunday, McGwire was blasting a home run every 6.75 at
bats, which was faster than his rate during his 70-homer season
two years ago (a major league record 7.27 at bats per homer). He
has lifted baseball to a new level in St. Louis, especially from
Ron Ebmeier's view 120 feet above the field and just under the
stadium rim in right. Ebmeier, 38, shoots six shells of fireworks
whenever a Cardinal hits a home run. In 1989 he sat through 10
consecutive games without a launching. On a few other occasions
over the years, he prematurely ejected on what were foul balls.
These days he must always be at the ready, allowing himself no
breaks of any sort. "I try not to drink anything before I come to
work," he says. He also keeps 18 canisters loaded and carries
enough ammunition to commemorate "eight or nine home runs a
He sits in a plexiglass box no bigger than two phone booths and
can't see the rightfield wall. He's so far away even McGwire
looks small. No matter. "It's a great view from up here," he said
recently. Behold the scenery from on high: Every key veteran
except McGwire, an unabashed Cardinal for life, was under
contract to St. Louis through at least 2003. The Cardinals were
in first place. St. Louis was the epicenter of the home run
explosion. Business was booming.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. These Buds Are for You! The Cardinals (from left, Fernando Vina, Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER BASH BROTHERS II Through Sunday, Cardinals big bangers McGwire (left) and Edmonds had slammed 26 of their combined 49 home runs at Busch.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER TURNING TWO The nimble Vina is one of the many imports who found a home in St. Louis and won favor with fans of all ages (opposite).
COLOR PHOTO: DAN DONOVAN [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAN DONOVAN WED AND WILD The Hinsons tied the knot at Busch Stadium, while fervent families of Cards fans are happy to exhibit their true colors.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE McGwire (below) is almost solely responsible for this era of unprecedented interest in the Cardinals.
All or Nuthin'
With a league-high 607 strikeouts through Sunday, Cardinals
hitters were on track to whiff 1,328 times, 60 more than the 1996
Tigers' major league record of 1,268. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds
(above) was St. Louis's most frequent victim, going down on
strikes 85 times. Nevertheless, Edmonds was hitting .332 with 21
home runs because of the astonishing success he was having
whenever he did put the ball in play. Here are the majors' top 10
in-play batting averages (hits divided by nonstrikeout at
bats). --David Sabino
PLAYER, TEAM ABs HITS Ks IN-PLAY AVG.*
Jim Edmonds, Cardinals 253 84 85 .500
Mark McGwire, Cardinals 189 60 64 .480
Manny Ramirez, Indians 183 59 54 .457
Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays 275 98 59 .454
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 275 96 61 .449
Luis Castillo, Marlins 215 79 38 .446
Carl Everett, Red Sox 245 82 60 .443
Troy Glaus, Angels 258 82 71 .439
Sammy Sosa, Cubs 288 90 82 .437
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox 206 79 22 .429
*Minimum: 215 plate appearances
"You play for the Cardinals, you're a part of royalty," says
Torre. "The fans seem to take you under their wing."