Card Sharks

The St. Louis Cardinals want your money for their $370 million ballpark. But before the game begins, somebody needs to reshuffle the deck.

Apr 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
A new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals sounds like a good deal for everyone. Just listen to the baseball team's owners:

There would be no new taxes. The team would contribute $120 million of the estimated $370 million cost. The $250 million balance would be covered by taxes generated at the new ballpark, to be located just south of Busch Stadium on 8 acres the team now owns. The owners, who call taxes at the stadium "user fees," say the stadium would more than pay for itself. Even the math on seating sounds too good to be true. In a ballpark with 47,900 seats -- 1,872 fewer than at Busch -- there would be more inexpensive seats and more premium seats for which the team could charge upwards of $100.

But wait -- there's more. A new stadium would revitalize downtown, luring new residential and commercial development. From the rubble of a demolished Busch would rise a vibrant urban district the team has dubbed Ballpark Village. A la Wrigley Field, there'd be spectators on the roofs of surrounding apartment buildings and condominiums. And they'd be watching a winner, because the revenue from a new ballpark would ensure that the team could afford players who would keep the Cardinals in World Series contention for the next 30 years. If you didn't want to celebrate the latest victory in a Ballpark Village pub, you could speed back to the suburbs (93 percent of the fans at Busch live outside the city) on MetroLink, which the team proposes moving to the front door of the new stadium.

Why stop at 30 years, the length of the proposed lease the team would sign in exchange for public financing? Our great-great-grandchildren will enjoy the fruits of a new stadium deal under the everybody-wins scenario painted by the team. "The commitment that ownership has is, they are committed to having a stable, consistently competitive winning team in this marketplace for at least another 100 years," gushed 42-year-old team president Mark Lamping at an April 8 press conference. "The key to that is your facility."

Without a new facility, the owners like to paint the team's prospects in shades of doom and gloom. They haven't explicitly threatened to move the team outside downtown, but they warn that tax revenues, which have steadily increased at Busch for the past five years, will decline if the team doesn't get a new stadium, which could cost $690 million, once interest costs are taken into account. According to the team, tax revenues generated at Busch have jumped from $6.1 million in 1995 to a projected $15.3 million this season. "You can't assume that same tax growth if we continue to stay in this facility," Lamping says. "Thirty years from now, you're not going to get that amount of money, because you're going to have an aging facility. Fans aren't going to want to come here." Taxes aren't the only issue. Without a new stadium and the increased profits it would bring, the owners say, the Cardinals will become perennial losers because they won't be able to afford the best available players.

There are a few things the owners would rather not talk about: They don't like to talk about the astoundingly low price they paid for the team or how much it has appreciated in value since the 1996 purchase. They don't like to talk about the $15.3 million in current taxes the city and state could lose in order to pay for the new stadium. They don't like to talk about other cities where stadiums have been built with private money. In San Francisco, for example, the Giants found a way to pay for a $343 million stadium without public help. Pepsi Center, home to the Denver Nuggets and Avalanche, didn't cost taxpayers a dime. Nor did Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers and Clippers play basketball and the Kings play hockey.

It's a recurring theme with the Cardinals. Nearly every time the team is pressed for details on stadium financing or the club's economic health, club officials sidestep questions or flat-out refuse to answer. They say that questions of tremendous importance for taxpayers shouldn't be answered publicly. They prefer to do their negotiating and outline their financing schemes behind closed doors with elected officials and investment bankers. In essence, the owners are saying, "Trust us, and trust the politicians." It's no wonder, then, that so many people are so skeptical about the team's field of dreams.

At this point, unanswered questions include:

· Why can't the team owners pay for a new stadium themselves? The franchise, purchased at a bargain-basement price, is financially healthy, nearly debt-free and setting all-time attendance records.

· Why has the team proposed a method of financing that could end up costing taxpayers millions more in debt service than if a public vote were held on the stadium issue? And what other revenue sources would the team tap to repay the bond indebtedness?

· Why should the public rely on team projections that show never-ending growth in tax revenue if a new stadium is built? And if those projections prove wrong, would the Cardinals cover any shortfall?

· How would government find the money to pay for a new stadium without leaving holes in other areas of public budgets?

The Cardinals have been clamoring for a new ballpark almost from the moment the team was bought from Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. in 1996. It was an amazing buy. The partners -- led by investment-firm head William O. DeWitt Jr., banker Andrew Baur and lawyer Fred Hanser -- paid $150 million for a package that included the team, four adjacent parking garages, Busch Stadium and a parking lot just south of the stadium, where the new ballpark would be built. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, whose parent company loaned the ownership group $5 million to help buy the parking garages, the owners borrowed $90 million to swing the deal.

Inside of a year, the owners sold the parking garages for $91 million, $25 million more than the figure at which the property was valued when the brewery sold the team, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And the owners got an additional $9.7 million by selling the land beneath two buildings near Busch. That meant the owners had recouped all but $49.3 million of the $150 million they had invested. The team last year was worth an estimated $205 million and had virtually no debt, according to business magazine Forbes. By comparison, the Kansas City Royals, one of the most financially troubled teams in the league, are being bought for $96 million.

The Cards purchase may have been the deal of the century, though the owners aren't crowing. In fact, they won't say anything about their bargain, never mind that SEC report. "What we paid for the team and what we sold some of the assets for is not public record," DeWitt says. What about that Forbes estimate setting the team's value at $205 million? "I don't think it's worth that much," DeWitt says. "I don't know what the accurate figure is, so I couldn't comment on it." Even though Forbes and DeWitt are in the same ballpark when it comes to the team's gross revenue -- the magazine says the team collected $98.7 million in 1998, the team says it took in $93.7 million and DeWitt predicts revenue will surpass $100 million this year -- DeWitt says the magazine's figures can't be trusted. "I think their numbers are very inaccurate," he says. "I think Forbes in general has been high in their valuations."

The owners say they've lost money every year since purchasing the club, but Forbes estimates that the club turned a $1.6 million profit before federal taxes in 1998. DeWitt claims the Cardinals lost $5 million in 1999; the magazine will publish its estimate at the end of May. Forbes isn't alone in thinking the Cardinals are making money at Busch. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Massachusetts who specializes in the sports industry, says the magazine's numbers can be shaky when teams won't release their finances but also says it's a pretty sure bet that the Cardinals turned a profit last year, judging from their payroll of about $50 million and estimated annual revenue of $90 million-$100 million. "It seems to me unlikely (that the team lost money)," Zimbalist says. "They should have a net income. It's always possible to lose money if you have a company, no matter how promising the company is, if you mismanage it. It's also possible to lose money on the books when you're not really losing money by juggling things around. It's quite conceivable that their income statements are showing book losses. That doesn't necessarily mean their true operating situation is a loss."

DeWitt insists the team opened its books last year when it gave the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority an unaudited summary of the team's finances. "And what it shows is, each year we've operated the club from 1996 on, we've been cash-flow-negative when you factor in capital expenditures," says DeWitt, without mentioning that capital improvements such as upscale concession areas have helped boost the team's gross revenue. "We've opened our books."

Actually, the Cardinals owners did not "open their books" -- they handed out a short statement summarizing revenues and expenses. That's not the way they play ball in Seattle, where the Mariners have published independently audited financial statements for the past eight years. Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale says it's only fair to publish financial reports, considering that the public is paying $317 million toward the cost of Safeco Field, which opened last year. "Even though we don't have to do it, we've continued to do it," Hale says. "It's a show of goodwill and good faith, because we've said for so many years that the economic viability of the franchise really did depend on the ability to maximize revenue, and that was something we had reached the top rung of in terms of maximizing revenue at the Kingdome."

Teams like the Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, which also publishes financial reports, make life easier for Michael Ozanian, Forbes' statistics editor. The Cardinals are another matter. "They didn't give us any financial information," Ozanian says. "I think they told us who the owner was and sort of what their stadium situation was. That was about it."

Whatever their financial situation, there is no disputing that the Cardinals are squeezing every available dollar from Busch Stadium. Since Anheuser-Busch bought the stadium from the Civic Center Redevelopment Corp. in 1982, the brewery and the current owners have spent $67 million to install a natural-grass field, premium seating, upscale concession areas and other attractions to lure fans to the stadium. Signing slugger Mark McGwire to a long-term contract also helped.

But McGwire, 36, won't be around forever. And so the owners have made their pitch for a new stadium. The first rumblings came late last year, when team officials met with area legislators and said they didn't yet have a proposal but might before the end of the legislative session. The meeting was nothing to get excited about, Lamping assured The Riverfront Times in early January -- merely a just-in-case sort of thing. At the time, Lamping declined to release drawings of the proposed stadium. He said it didn't make sense to show the drawings until the team had a way to pay for the stadium.

By month's end, team lobbyists were carting stadium drawings around state legislators' offices in Jefferson City to drum up support for a House bill that would set aside the state's share of the sales tax generated at Busch -- or its replacement -- to help pay for a new stadium. The measure would also set up a public stadium authority that would have the power to issue bonds for ballpark construction. The bill was born in secrecy. It began as a one-paragraph proposal to set aside the state's portion of the sales tax from the Truman Sports Complex to pay for upkeep and improvements at Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where the Chiefs and Royals play. After a public hearing before the House Commerce Committee, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dennis Bonner (D-Independence), says he approached the Cardinals and suggested that they might be able to get the same tax break as the Kansas City teams -- the thinking being that support from legislators from St. Louis and Kansas City would be enough to overcome opposition from rural legislators. Committee chairman Rep. Henry Rizzo (D-Kansas City) says St. Louis isn't the main point of the bill, as far as he's concerned. "I don't think it has anything to do with the Cardinals," Rizzo says. "I think it has to do with getting funding for our stadiums."

And so the bill was amended -- it went from one paragraph to 24 pages -- and voted out of the Commerce Committee during an executive session without any notice or public hearing on the St. Louis component. Team lobbyists made a presentation during the closed-door session and told legislators what the Cardinals would contribute toward a new ballpark.

Lamping downplays the significance of the pending bill. "It was designed to increase the state's annual subsidy in the Kansas City sports complex," he says. "We sort of liked that precedent being set. Therefore we supported it. I think it confuses things a little bit. Some people may look at the bill in Jeff City as approval for the Cardinals to build a new ballpark, and that's not what it does."

Lamping is right. By itself, the bill would not be enough to get a new stadium -- it says bonds issued by the authority would not be backed by the state or any municipal or county government. But it is a start. It sets the stage for public financing by putting a new stadium under a public stadium authority. It requires that a new stadium be built within the city. And it says the authority must spend its money on a new stadium rather than Busch. Rizzo says getting the bill to the House floor for a final vote is a top priority for him.

The Commerce Committee approved the bill on Feb. 28. Five weeks later, team officials made public what they'd been telling legislators. When they publicly unveiled stadium plans on April 8, they said their campaign to get a new stadium was just getting started.

The $370 million deal -- which doesn't include $18 million in street work and other infrastructure costs or the unspecified cost of reconfiguring MetroLink so that the train stops at the stadium entrance -- would be a winner for taxpayers, if you believe the Cardinal owners. The owners would contribute $120 million upfront, including the value of the 8 acres south of Busch where the new ballpark would be built. The team pegs the value of that land at $20 million; it intends to keep the 12-acre site where Busch now stands after the present stadium is demolished (the $4.6 million demolition cost is included in the overall $370 million price tag). "The balance of the $250 million we would propose to be funded by tax-exempt revenue bonds, which could be repaid from a portion -- a portion -- of the tax revenue directly generated by the Cardinals in the new ballpark," DeWitt says. "No new taxes would be necessary."

The Cardinals say the stadium wouldn't cost taxpayers anything so long as they don't go to the ballpark. That's a questionable proposition at best. According to the team's figures, Busch will generate $15.3 million in state and local tax revenue this year. The public would have to pay $19 million a year for 30 years to service the debt. During its first year, the stadium would generate $22 million in tax revenue, according to team figures, leaving a $3 million surplus after the annual debt is paid. That's a lot less -- $12.3 million, judging from the team's figures -- than the city and state are now getting from Busch. According to the team, that hole in public budgets would gradually shrink as revenues from a new ballpark grew through the years. On the basis of the team's model, which many economists question, tax revenue at the new ballpark would have to exceed $34.3 million a year before the new stadium could truly start paying for itself. Under the team's projections, that wouldn't happen until 2017. In the meantime, the stadium would leave an $80 million hole in the public coffers.

This is the best-case scenario drawn from the team's numbers. It assumes there won't be a players' strike in the next 30 years. It assumes baseball will be as popular for the next 30 years as it is today. In short, it assumes a lot. (See chart.)

The team says a new stadium would generate so much revenue that existing taxes would more than cover the cost. "What we're trying to get across is, this building will pay for itself, and it will pay for itself with Cardinal fans," Lamping says. "These dollars come only from people who go to the ballpark. They don't come from people who don't care about the Cardinals. Let's just look at it in terms of when you buy a ticket, if you buy a soft drink, if you buy a program, if you buy a beer, a stuffed Mark McGwire Beanie Baby, what's that going to generate? In many respects, you can look at this (taxes generated at Busch) as a user fee. The people who use it (the new stadium) are generating the funds to pay for it and leaving a lot left and ensuring growth for other services in the state of Missouri, other services in the city of St. Louis."

There are several problems with the team's assertion that the stadium would pay for itself, that Cardinals fans would bear the entire cost through tax revenue generated at the stadium. For one, Congress in 1986 changed the tax code in an attempt to end federal stadium subsidies. The changes made stadium bonds taxable if more than 10 percent of the bond proceeds benefit a private entity and if more than 10 percent of the debt service is secured by property used by a private business. Dennis Zimmerman, a former Library of Congress researcher who specializes in tax law, makes the impact on stadium financing clear in his article "Subsidizing Stadiums," published in the book Sports, Jobs and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums (Brookings Institution Press, 1997). "In order to avoid exceeding the (10 percent) security interest test, a stadium bond issue must be structured so that no more than 10 percent of the debt service for the bonds is secured, directly or indirectly, by property used in a trade or business," writes Zimmerman, who is now a tax analyst for the Congressional Budget Office. "This precludes paying for debt service directly with stadium-related revenue, or indirectly with general revenue (for example, taxes or lottery receipts) that is replaced with infusions of revenue earned from the stadium."

In other words, the Cardinals' financing proposal appears to violate at least the spirit of the 10 percent rule, because the team is saying that only baseball fans who go to the stadium would pay for it. How would the team address this potential problem? "If you're somehow asserting that the stadium can't be built because of this law, I think you might be wrong," Lamping responds. "I think it (the financing plan) would need to be structured differently than the way you anticipate it being structured." But he offers no specific examples. Has the team crunched numbers with investment bankers? "Not that we're prepared to talk about, no," he says.

The debt-service restriction helps explain the design of the stadium bill now before the General Assembly. Under the bill, the city, St. Louis County and the three bordering counties would have representatives on the stadium authority if those entities agreed to donate money to pay the stadium debt. The bill also allows any other government body to donate money. With the exception of the city, none of these entities gets tax revenues from Busch Stadium, nor would they receive any revenue from a new stadium, so money from these entities wouldn't count against the 10 percent rule.

What would back these tax-exempt bonds? The bill says the assets of the stadium authority -- in essence, the stadium itself -- would be the sole guarantee for investors. In the event the stadium authority doesn't have the money to pay its debt, the governor would be required to put the shortfall in his budget. It would be up to the General Assembly to approve the appropriation, but lawmakers would be under no legal obligation to do so.

The lack of a solid legal guarantee helps explain why the stadium bonds would carry a high interest rate. Lamping says the team has calculated an interest rate of 6-7 percent, comparable to the amount charged on a used-car loan. The rate is also comparable to what teams pay when they fund stadiums themselves. In Denver, for example, the Pepsi Center is being financed with a private bond that carries a 6.94 percent interest rate. "We could live with that," Lamping says.

The Cardinals insist they're looking out for taxpayers. "Our plan would be to do this as inexpensively as possible, which suggests financing it through tax-exempt revenue bonds that would be issued by the (stadium) authority and purchased privately," Lamping says.

There are cheaper ways. In other cities where the public subsidizes stadiums, government-backed revenue bonds -- which usually require voter approval -- are less expensive because they're typically paid off in less than 20 years and carry a lower interest rate. Revenue bonds issued for the new Denver Broncos stadium carry a rate of about 5 percent. Another alternative would involve issuing general-obligation (GO) bonds for a new St. Louis ballpark. GO bonds, which typically are repaid over 30 years and backed by the taxing and borrowing power of government, these days carry an interest rate of around 5 percent. Based on a 5 percent rate, the yearly debt service would be about $3 million less than the $19 million annual cost projected by the Cardinals. Over 30 years, that adds up to a savings of more than $80 million. But voters would have to approve GO bonds for a ballpark -- it would be a statewide vote if the state used its credit to guarantee the bonds. And that's not something the Cardinals want. "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?" Lamping says.

Not everyone feels the same way. St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, who has said the team must open its books before he'll support public financing, wants to put any funding proposal on the ballot.

Gene Scott, presiding commissioner of Franklin County, says the Cardinals haven't come by with a tin cup yet, but he already knows what he'll say: "I don't think it's unsafe in me stating in any way, as the executive officer of the county, that if revenue were asked to be contributed by the citizens of Franklin County, a ballot issue would probably be necessary."

It's the same message in Jefferson County, where Samuel Rauls, presiding county commissioner, says there isn't any extra money sitting around in the county budget to help pay for a ballpark. "So I see the only way of generating any money out of Jefferson County would be some kind of tax issue, and the only way I would even think about something like that is to put it before a vote of the people," Rauls says. "I think that's the only fair thing to do."

Rauls can't understand how the team's proposal would work. "I'm interested in how you generate $250 million without raising taxes," he says. "And I'm more than happy to sit down and listen to the Cardinal organization on that issue."

The idea that a stadium can pay for itself through increased tax revenue but no new taxes is dubious at best, according to economists and other academic experts who analyze the business of sports. There's only so much money available for discretionary spending in any community, so more tax revenue from a ballpark would mean less tax revenue from other places. "I would be very reluctant to suggest to taxpayers that they will ever get a positive return or payback on the diverted (tax) funds," says Mark Rosentraub, an Indiana University professor who analyzes the economic impact of sports on urban areas. "Since people spend money elsewhere if they don't go to the game, those transactions would be taxed, and that money would go to the governments involved. The taxes received in the future are not gains or profits, since they simply return to the public sector what it is that they have been receiving." Rosentraub isn't the only one who doesn't think a ballpark could pay for itself. "Maybe they can try and sell a bridge in Brooklyn, too," says Mark Kamlet, dean of the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, which helped study the economics of a new stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "My first impression is one of deep skepticism. If that's going to generate so much additional revenue that it can self-finance the stadium, why don't they just do it themselves?"

The Cardinals seem to be in an excellent position to pay for a new stadium: They have virtually no debt, according to Forbes. They sold a record number of season tickets before opening day, prompting predictions that they'll set an all-time attendance record with 3.3 million fans coming through Busch gates this year. More than 22,000 season tickets were sold before the season's first pitch, even though the team finished 21 games out of first place last year, when more than 3.2 million fans went to the ballpark.

The Cardinals' biggest expense is the team payroll, which at $61.5 million ranks 11th in the 30-team league this year. The Minnesota Twins, last in the league, have a $16.5 million payroll. That's a difference of $45 million. If the Cardinals are serious about their fans' paying the full cost of a new stadium and they truly don't have the resources right now, wouldn't it be possible for the team to slash payroll for a few years, weather some losing seasons and use the savings to pay for a new ballpark that would, in the team's own words, ensure a competitive franchise for the next 100 years? After all, DeWitt says he's in it for the long haul -- he claims he wants to own the Cardinals until the day he dies. "We're in it because we love baseball and we want to own it forever," says DeWitt, who once was partners with George W. Bush in the Texas Rangers and has owned interests in the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds.

Start talking financial details with the Cardinals, and the team grows as silent as Busch in December. Beyond saying what they'll contribute and what the project will cost, team officials haven't said much. If the team's tax-revenue projections prove overly optimistic and the stadium doesn't generate enough tax revenue to cover the debt, is the team willing to guarantee it would cover any shortfall? That's an idea an elected official would have to suggest. "I would like to respond to those types of proposals as opposed to guessing what our response would be," Lamping says. "We'll see."

And so it goes. How did the team determine that tax revenue from a new stadium will rise steadily through the years, starting with $1 million jumps each year for the first dozen years of the project and eventually mushrooming to $75 million a year in 2034? Lamping explains that the 30-year projections were drawn from the last five years at Busch, where revenue has gone from $6.1 million in 1995 to a projected $15.3 million this year -- it was a simple matter of extrapolating the curve. Wouldn't tax revenues ever stabilize at the new stadium? "Those are questions that the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri need to ask as they evaluate this project," Lamping says. "If I could predict the future, I wouldn't be here working for the Cardinals. Based on what we know right now, is that the best projection we can give you? Yeah."

What if there's a players' strike and tax revenue from the stadium drops to zero? Surely that would dent the notion that a new ballpark would pay for itself. "Those are very good questions that should be asked as public authorities," Lamping responds. "If they're going to consider being part of it, they should ask those questions and deal with it at that point." What would his answer be if they ask? Lamping answers with a question: "How much is the public putting in?" Well, they're putting in $250 million. "They are?" he responds. That's what you've asked for. "No, no, no," he says. "What we've said is, we're going to put up the $120 million. There's $250 million to find. We would suggest that that would be handled via some sort of tax-exempt revenue bonds and that the annual obligation for those come from a number of sources. We need to find $19 million (each year), is what we said. If it doesn't come from the public and it doesn't come from the team, who knows?" What other sources might there be other than the team and the public? Again Lamping plays connect-the-dots, refusing to volunteer any examples or specifics for the public to consider. "I guess you'd have to look at what financing plans have taken place for other stadiums," he says.

OK, how about San Francisco? The Giants, with the help of corporate sponsors, are paying for their own $343 million stadium after voters four times rejected public financing for a new ballpark to replace Candlestick Park, a stadium notorious for poor attendance and a lack of premium seats and other amenities to boost revenue. There's no comparison, claim the Cardinals. For one thing, the Giants don't have as large a tax burden as the Cardinals, Lamping and other team officials say. Then there's the size of the Bay Area media market. The team notes that there are more television sets in San Francisco than in St. Louis, so the Giants can make more money from local broadcast and cable rights. But St. Louis, unlike San Francisco, is a baseball town, and that's reflected in the teams' contracts with local media. According to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, the Giants are getting $14.5 million a year for local rights. The Cardinals get $12 million a year, not including whatever the team makes from 45 games it broadcasts on KPLR-TV (Channel 11) (the team buys time from the station and keeps whatever money it makes from commercials).

The Cardinals propose paying $1 million a year to help pay for maintenance at the new stadium. Would this constitute rent? "I think you should look at it as, we're going to contribute $1 million a year, and what happens beyond that is a function of how the rest of the plan comes together," Lamping says. "Is there a possibility there could be more? Absolutely." Just how much more, the team won't say. "We have an idea of what would make sense, but we don't believe we should be negotiating a lease before there's even a belief that the stadium's going to get built," Lamping says.

The team, which has committed $100 million in upfront money, says it will retain naming rights for a new stadium, a deal that could be worth well more than $100 million, judging from what's happened in other cities. Last year, naming rights for the Washington Redskins' stadium fetched $205 million. The Houston Astros, who got $100 million for their stadium that opened this season, have the largest naming-rights deal in baseball. Naming rights typically include a lump-sum payment on the front end and $1 million or more each year, but the Cardinals wouldn't necessarily have to wait for their money. In Denver, Ascent Arena Co., owner of the Nuggets basketball team and Avalanche hockey club, used $68 million in naming rights for Pepsi Center (plus revenue from suite rentals and corporate sponsorships) to back $139.8 million in taxable bonds.

Personal seat licenses (PSLs) are another potential source of upfront revenue for the team, but Lamping doesn't want to get into that. "We have absolutely no idea what the financing of this plan is going to look like," he says when the subject of PSLs comes up.

Query fans at Busch on any given day, and it's tough to find anyone who wants the place replaced. "It's 30 years old, but there's nothing wrong with it," says Larry Kleinkemper, who's been an usher for three years and a Cardinals fan since Stan Musial roamed the field at Sportsman's Park, where the team played before Busch opened in 1966. "It's a beautiful park. Of course, I'm prejudiced. I've been a Cardinals fan all my life." Kleinkemper, 69, would work for free. "I do it because I like baseball and I like to have fun," he says from the left-field stands during batting practice before a recent game against the Milwaukee Brewers. A few dozen fans line the outfield fence more than an hour before the first pitch in hopes of snagging a ball. When the gates open two hours before the national anthem, at least 50 fans in search of autographs stampede toward the first-base line to secure spots where players are most likely to saunter by. It's wet today from an earlier rain, causing a few of the autograph hounds to slip and fall as they sprint down the stadium steps. They get right back up and keep on going. It's like this every game, Kleinkemper says.

Marty Prather, who wears a red hard hat emblazoned with the words "Mac Attack Pack Charter Member," drives 200 miles from his home in Springfield, Mo., to catch as many as 40 games a year at Busch. He brings 20 or so hand-painted rah-rah signs, many of them signed by players. Tonight's game against the Cubs is being televised on ESPN, so Prather has brought a sign he hopes will get him on TV: "Every St. Louis Player is Nefarious." "What does 'nefarious' mean?" asks another fan who's come to the seats above the home team's dugout to watch the players warm up. "It means 'wicked,'" answers Prather.

A Cincinnati transplant, Prather shifted his allegiance from the Reds to the Cardinals in the early 1980s. He sees the beauty in Busch. "I kind of love this place," he says. "I hope we don't get a new stadium. But it's going to happen. It'll happen just because of the economics." As much as he loves Busch, Prather also loves a winner. And so he has accepted what he sees as the inevitable: Busch must go so the players can get paid. "I like the ballpark," he says. "I also like a winning team. I'd rather see a winner."

While team owners throughout the major leagues bemoan the impracticality and ugliness of multipurpose ballparks built in the 1960s and 1970s, Prather senses history slipping away. He ticks off examples: Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Busch, all on their way out or on the endangered list. "This is the best of the four, without a doubt," Prather says. "They represent the '60s and '70s. Busch is about the last one left. It would be a shame to lose this one. Even though it wasn't a good era, it still represents an era."

Matthew Hathaway contributed to this story.