Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In the summer of 2003, Page 2 toured and rated all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. One of Jeff Merron's stops that summer: Busch Stadium, the old one. We sent Jeff back to St. Louis to check out the new Busch. Here's his scorecard.
ST. LOUIS -- As you cross the St. Louis city line coming in from the airport, the interstate becomes "Mark McGwire Highway." You're not sure what to expect then -- will the highway suddenly morph from a large, but reasonably proportioned, eight lanes to a Herculean 16-lane megabahn? Will the speed limit surge to 70? Will the next off-ramp be dubbed the "Mark McGwire Fifth Ave. Exit?"
Capacity: 43,975 (46,861 incl. standing room)
Total: 83.5 (78)
Of course not. In this case, the sign is just a sign, and it tells you a whole lot less about McGwire than it does about the city. It's long been known, thanks to geography and some rough marketing, as the Gateway to the West. But it is, thanks to karma and love and grace, the Gateway to Baseball.
1. Access: St. Louis attracts Cards tourists, fans from a wide Midwestern geographic area who must travel far enough to get to a "home" game that they make a weekend of it. For them, access to and from most local hotels is convenient and inexpensive; a Metrolink station is literally across the street from the stadium, and can take you where you want to go. The ballpark is also within easy walking distance of many downtown hotels, and easy access from I-70 makes this an unusual, if not unique, downtown ballpark. Points: 5
2. Exterior Architecture: The retro ballparks of the '90s will, in 20 years, be as disdained as the cookie-cutters of the 1960s and 1970s. New Busch designers HOK -- who invented the retro genre with Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- might be thinking the same thing. The new Busch is, unmistakably, new, with a red brick exterior that looks like what it is: nice, new, clean brick. Clear Cards logos and navigational markers ("Third Base," "Home Plate," employ classic styles without resorting to pseudo-distress. Innards -- ramps and posts and steel beams and pipes -- are visible from the outside, a subtle nod to my favorite piece of modern architecture, the Pompidou.
The statues that used to be outside old Busch oon will join the enormous Stan Musial monument fronting the Third Base entrance. (Unfortunately, the stone Stan looks as if McGwire's massive arms and torso were planted on top of Musial's legs -- a terrible likeness that future archeologists could mistake for Paul Bunyan.) Points: 5
3. Interior Architecture: Getting around is easy, thanks to a selection of ramps, elevators, stairs and escalators. Open spaces, like the upper-level "River View" picnic location, nicely complement the more congested main concourse. (Overheard at Busch: Lady fan No. 1: "It says 'river view' over there. I think we may be able to see the river from there." Lady No. 2: "Oh.") Views of the city (and the freeways) from the top-level walkway are abundant and, along with a nice breeze, provide some relief from the heat and enormous crowds. Points: 5
4. Ticket Availability and Price: My $28 ticket (really $32, with "convenience fees" and so forth), bought me some thin air and high heat looking down, from afar, upon the right-field foul pole. For $12, I could have scored a (better) bleacher seat, but those were sold out. For $34, if I had been quick enough, I could have scored a more desirable left-field upper deck seat, one that's in the shade during day games.
The latter is an example of very smart variable pricing; the former is a relic from the days when most bleachers were benches and much more distant from home plate than they are in the more intimate modern ballparks. By the fourth inning, most of my section had abandoned their plastic perches to stand in the shade, with a worse view of the game. Points: 3
5. Quality of Hot Dogs: Simple: small dogs, big dogs, foot-long brats, all good, all reasonably priced. Points: 5
6. Quality/Selection of Concession-Stand Fare: Good variety, from nachos to pizza to wieners and burgers as well as Ben & Jerry's ice cream. And the ubiquitous, mysterious Dippin' Dots. The Dots could be, as the slogan goes, "the ice cream of the future," but they're certainly not the ice cream of the present. Only when the frozen lemonade lines got 20 deep in the fifth did the Dippin' Dots folks gain a couple of customers. Desperation breeds a sale or two. How does this company stay in business? Points: 4
7. Signature Concession Items: Barbeque and nachos. Barbeque is superb, but pricey. Nachos are fresh-fried, tasty and relatively inexpensive; you have to empty your wallet of $1.50 for an extra small tub of artificial cheese-flavored goop, but it's not necessary, nor desirable. Toasted ravioli graced the old Busch; toasted cannelloni the new. Busch executive chef Jeramie Mitchell says he wants "to elevate all the food to another level." He's off to a good start, and plans to run the ballpark's own enormous smoker around the clock, grilling 350 pounds of meat every 10 hours. That's ambition. Points: 4
8. Beer: Busch Stadium. Get it? Unfortunately, beer prices, on a par with all other major league parks, don't reflect the reality that Anheuser-Busch brews course through the city pipes like water. In other words, you don't benefit from proximity to St. Louis' key natural resource. Nor do you enjoy the kind of variety that can be found at most other new parks. Points: 2
9. Bathrooms: They're new. They're clean. Only modest lines for the ladies' room from the fifth inning on. On the other hand, most fluids during the Memorial Day game I attended were excreted through the pores. This must have had a (no pun intended) dampening effect on demand. Points: 5
10. Seat Comfort: Red plastic seats with cup holders. Very cool. Black armrests: very uncool, in fact. The armrests match the park's signature black wrought iron railings and barriers, but I was able to order a raw burger and fry it up seatside. Not good. Points: 4
11. Price/Selection of Souvenirs: Before the game, I was tempted to stop by the ballpark "Build-A-Bear" workshop to craft a special Fredbird for my 5-year-old daughter. I pined for the one outfitted with the complete tools of ignorance, including mask, knee pads and shin guards. Then I discovered the minimum price ($22 for a premade, simple jersey-clad version).Then I discovered I'd have to wait 20 minutes for one of those, and an hour to stuff and dress my own (price to be revealed only upon checkout). I did dig some of the 2006 inaugural season items, like bronze and "silver-clad" limited edition coins ($20, and worth it), but was puzzled by the 25-foot Cards logo tape measure. Maybe for measuring David Eckstein's infield hits? Points: 4
12. Scoreboard: The crystal-clear, center-field board uses only about one-third of its space for advertising; the rest goes to clear stats and instant replays. As far as I could tell, not a pixel was amiss. Too bad for Cards catcher Gary Bennett; during his entire second inning at-bat, we were reminded that he "has hits in five of his last eight starts." Guess someone is trying to send a message.
The out-of-town scoreboard is partially obscured to those baking in the right-field sun. But even at a very wide angle, most scores were readable. Still, a mini-version in full view to those sitting in deep right would have been nice. Points: 4.5
13. Sound System: The old Busch had 60 or so speakers; the new one boasts 100. If you go for a snack, you'll hear crystal-clear broadcasts of the game throughout the park. If you stay in your seat, you'll hear a PA announcer who sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher. Points: 2
14. Fun Stuff to Do Besides the Game: Fast pitch and batting cages could provide a brief respite for kids of all ages, but Busch is blessedly free of video game banks, concert pavilions, and swimming pools in the bleachers. The best thing to do for an in-game diversion is to take a stroll up top. Beautiful. Points: 4
15. Ushers: I was up in nosebleed territory (the less expensive bleachers had been sold out far in advance), in a section pounded by the sun. My seat, as my usher pointed out just before the game began, would sandwich me between two men who, like everyone else, were sweating profusely. She pointed to the next row up, which was nearly empty. "Sit here for now," she said. "It will be a little cooler. If someone shows up for this seat, you'll have to move, but at least you can enjoy the space for a while." I almost hugged the woman. Points: 5
16. Trading-Up Factor: None. The Cards sold out for the 26th straight time for the May 29 game I attended, and set a Busch record to boot: 45,509 paid, thanks to a new section of left-field seats that had just opened, ahead of schedule. I couldn't even trade over to standing room at the shady side of the park, because everyone else who'd seared in the sun for four or five innings had the same idea. But the fact that I was encouraged by my usher to "trade down" to a more comfy seat counts for something. Points: 1
17. Seventh-Inning Stretch: Nothing fancy -- a massive a cappella version of "Take Me Out." High participation rate. Points: 5
18. Knowledge of Local Fans: When I visited the old Busch in 2003, I noted that keeping score the old-fashioned way remained a popular pastime in St. Lou. Fewer poised pencils this time around, but this is Baseball City. When fans weren't admiring the new park, they were talking ball.
In the first inning, the 10-year-old boy next to me said, upon Albert Pujols' first plate appearance, "Pujols could get 10 homers today!" My heart sank a bit, because this kid seemed to know his Birds. Then he added, "But probably not, because he won't get 10 at-bats." My heart returned to its proper position (I think). Points: 5
19. Pre-And-Postgame Bar And Restaurant Scene: Flannery's is a local sports bar that's been voted, I was told, the best in the city for the past few years. It's a good 15-minute walk from the park, but runs shuttle buses on game days. It's worth a visit -- good food and drink at reasonable prices. Paddy O'Reilly's is much closer, but some say, to paraphrase Yogi, that it's so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. The Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky, has his own place near the park, and Mike Shannon's Steaks remains an institution. Considering Busch is backed up to spitting distance of the I-64/I-70 junction in one direction, and faces a vast, beautiful, but virtually empty downtown in the other direction, there are some good choices. Points: 4
20. Wild Card: There's not much nonsense at Busch, and it's simply elegant. Sometimes less is more. Points: 7
Total Points For Busch Stadium: 83.5