Safe at Home?

At the end of a star-crossed season, Cardinal Nation still doesn't know where the Redbirds will roost after they leave Busch

Long after the memories of Benito Santiago's home run and Kenny Lofton's series-winning single fade and long after Cardinal fans recover from the season-ending loss to the Giants, the lasting impact of the Redbirds' political victory at City Hall will remain.

The Cardinals didn't win their tenth world championship this year, but they took care of business outside the chalk lines, working City Hall to lay the financial foundation for their new stadium, on which they expect to sign a 30-year lease.

Bill DeWitt knows all this after Thursday night's game, walking toward the Cardinal clubhouse, deep in the bowels of 36-year-old Busch Stadium. His team's 4-1 loss in game two of the National League championship series sent his employees packing to San Francisco down two games to zip, a hole no team in the seventeen-year history of the seven-game NLCS has ever survived.

Confronted by Short Cuts, DeWitt snaps out of his postgame reverie to express optimism, hope and a positive spin, all predictable behaviors for an investor who has made his millions cutting deals. The Cardinal owner knows that owning one of the last four teams standing in October was good news on many levels.

A sellout crowd of 52,195 had just watched DeWitt's Redbirds lose, but the new proposal for a stadium is lurching forward through the Board of Aldermen, the Cardinals' key players are young and under contract through 2006 and, of course, the math on the new stadium deal is looking good.

"Right now is an excellent time to build a new stadium because the interest rates are at historic low levels; the economy is soft, so the construction industry is more competitive than it might be otherwise; and we've been drawing well," DeWitt says. "We have a competitive team, so all those things coming together would make you think this is an ideal time to do it.

"Having said that, it has to be a deal that's good for the franchise and doesn't stifle it," DeWitt says. "There's a balance there."

The new stadium deal centers on the city's dropping its 5 percent amusement tax on the Cardinals. DeWitt and his fellow owners see a lower tax burden, down to about 7 percent from 12 percent, as vital to making a more privately financed stadium possible.

Other ways to raise a buck are also being considered, including personal seat licenses. A PSL requires a spectator to purchase a "license" for the right to buy a ticket for that seat. The Rams and many other pro teams have used that device to raise money. DeWitt doesn't rule out PSLs, which would likely costs thousands for premium seats at the new stadium.

"We've never talked about that, but, frankly, we're looking at all options," DeWitt says. "We're just looking at the options -- any kind of program like that depends on the balance of the financing."

Short Cuts translates that response as "If you want a shot at a really good seat, refinance your house now."

The proposed financial package includes St. Louis County's kicking in a portion of its hotel-tax revenue, something it agreed to do on the previous stadium pitch, which relied on public funds for about two thirds of the $346 million cost. That proposal died in the Missouri Legislature in May.

The current proposal would have the city drop its amusement tax, have the state pick up the tab for moving highway ramps and performing other site preparation and have the Cardinal owners kick in the land and sign a 30-year lease.

A sense of urgency has been added by Proposition S, which will appear on the November 5 ballot in St. Louis. If passed, the proposition would require a vote before any amount of city public funds greater than $1 million is diverted to build a stadium. Mayor Francis Slay expects that passing the aldermanic bill for the stadium, which involves a tax cut and not a direct public subsidy, before November 5 will avert the obstacle devised by opponents of public funding of a new stadium.

Over at City Hall on Friday, the new stadium got one step closer to reality with a 24-3 vote on the bill that decreases the amusement tax and defines the development deal. The board's next meeting should give the stadium bill its third and final approval, lifting it over its first government hurdle. Aldermen Irving Clay (D-26th), Sharon Tyus (D-20th) and Irene Smith (D-1st) voted against the bill, with Clay and Smith offering amendments that failed to get approval.

Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), a frequent critic of the Slay administration, rose to give a rambling endorsement of the bill, stressing that city wards would benefit from the increased sales-tax revenues from higher-priced seats at the new venue.

Later, Bosley tells Short Cuts that baseball is big business and that because of the high stakes, the city needs to keep the team. Bosley didn't buy the Illinois option for the stadium. "I didn't believe they were going to go," he says of the owners' flirtation with Illinois. "If the profits and the money would have made sense to them, they would have gone, because that's what drives them."

With the Cardinals sweeping defending world champion Arizona three games straight and losing a tightly contested series with San Francisco four-to-one, DeWitt believes his team's on-the-field performance has an off-the-field effect.

Getting city, county and state government officials in line to support a smaller but still significant commitment of public dollars is helped by the general public buzz about the team. That the local daily newspaper publishes what amounts to an advertising supplement for the Cardinals and radio and television sycophants trip over themselves with new levels of hyperbole can only make an owner happy.

"I think it helps," DeWitt says of the playoffs' impact on stadium negotiations. "I think having a good competitive team is helpful in creating interest and generating enthusiasm. That's what we try to do. We're fortunate in the last three years to have been in the playoffs."

Lost in the hype over the Cardinals' overcoming adversity in the playoffs is this: The Cardinals were picked by many preseason prognosticators to win the Central Division and head to the World Series. Former baseball executive Bing Devine, general manager for the world-champion Cardinals in 1964, rates the current infield as one of the best he's seen.

"They can talk about the infields back to Ozzie Smith and Marty Marion, but this infield, defensively, I don't know when I've seen one like it," says Devine. On the basis of hitting and defense, Devine says, he considers Edgar Renteria the best shortstop in the National League.

The current Cardinal lineup is relatively young and largely under contract for the next few years. Compared with the Giants, whose Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow and Santiago are all 34 or older, the Redbirds look stable for years to come. Scott Rolen, 27, is signed through the 2010 season. Renteria, 27, is signed through the 2003 season, with a club option for 2004 and 2005. J.D. Drew, 26, has another year left on his contract. Albert Pujols says he's 22, although some sports-talk-show callers still speculate about his being older than he admits. There is no doubt the Cardinals will sign him to a long-term contract if they can.

Even those on the other side of 30 -- Jim Edmonds, 32; Mike Matheny, 32; and Fernando Vina, 33 -- show few signs of slowing down. Role-players Eli Marrero and Miguel Cairo are both 28.

Pitching is a different story. Starters Woody Williams and Chuck Finley will become free agents after this year. Matt Morris, although erratic in the postseason, is only 28 and still has two years left on his contract.

With that promising baseball reality in the offing, moving into a new stadium can be viewed as the sizzle or the steak, depending on whom you ask.

A veteran front-office executive such as Devine, who's more of a fan now, has a different perspective on the stadium negotiations. Even if the new venue is ready for All-Star Game baseball commissioner Bud Selig promised to bring here in 2006, that's four years away.

"Whether they like this stadium or don't like it, whenever the deal is made, for at least the next two years or so they're going to play right here," says Devine of Busch. "I'm in my eighties. Should I really worry if they're going to Illinois? Will I go to Illinois to see games? Two more years is a lifetime for me."

But for the owners of a 110-year-old franchise about to finish plans for a new stadium for the next 30 years, two years just feels like spring training.