1996 Season Preview
"Ushering in a New Era"
Last December 22, the St. Louis Cardinals introduced their new ownership group. The principal group is comprised of three long-time Cardinal fans with the intentions of keeping the team in St. Louis. This group should be approved by Major League baseball in early March and includes William DeWitt, Jr., Frederick Hanser, and Andrew Baur.
William DeWitt grew up in St. Louis and now resides in Cincinnati, Ohio. William’s many civic activities include the Yale University Development Board, the Cincinnati Art Museum Board, the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund, the United Way of Cincinnati and the Multiple Sclerosis and Salvation Army Boards. DeWitt has a wife and four children.
A St. Louis attorney, Frederick Hanser is actively involved with the St. Louis Hospital Development Board and is on the Easter Seal Society Board of Directors. He and his wife Kathy have a son Tim, and a daughter Kara.
Andrew Baur is also a member of the Cardinals’ new executive board. Baur is currently Chairman and CEO of Southwest Bank and its holding company, Mississippi Valley Bancshares, Inc. Andrew is currently on the Board of Directors for the Municipal Theater Association and Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. He is the former chairman of St. Luke’s Hospital, the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis. Baur was born and raised in St. Louis.
“A Shuffling of the Cards”
The last few seasons of Cardinal baseball have given St. Louis fans little to cheer about. After three World Series appearances during the 1980’s, the Redbirds have had repeated second division finishes over the last several years. Labor disagreements, lockouts and the infamous strike of 1994 went a long way to sour the loyal fans of St. Louis and others throughout the country. Yet as the 1996 season draws upon us, Cardinals fans have new reasons to be excited about baseball again. Yes, the labor strife still looms like a mugger in a dark alley, but in spite of this, a new era of Cardinal baseball is about to begin.
In looking across the board at the teams of Major League baseball, you’d be hard pressed to find an organization that has undergone as many changes in the off-season as the Cardinals. From top to bottom, the Cards have and continue to undergo rapid overhaul. Owner August A. Busch III surprised many fans by announcing his intention to put the team and stadium up for sale after 33 year of ownership. Busch stated his desire to focus his attention on his core business as the big factor in his making the decision to sell. Fans immediately feared the worst – a new owner would move the team out of town for greener pastures. Yet Busch quickly eased the minds of the Cardinal faithful.
“It is our objective to keep the team in St. Louis and we will remain a sponsor of Major League Baseball,” said Busch. “We concluded that it was in the best interests of everyone, including the Cardinals and fans, to seek a new owner.”
By spring training the new St. Louis owners should be in place and the table should be set for decades of great Cardinal baseball without the fear of relocation. It may be, in fact, that this change in ownership will prove to be just the breath of life that the Cardinal organization needs to reinvigorate the team for the next century. If this year’s off-season acquisitions and trades have anything to do with it, this has certainly been the case thus far.
The much publicized hiring of Tony LaRussa as manager captured the attention of Cardinal fans, instantly generating excitement due to his past successes. A veteran of 17 seasons managing in the majors, LaRussa is widely known for the research and dedication he puts into studying the game and his opponent. LaRussa has already managed in three World Series’ and won one world title with the Oakland Athletics. As anyone involved with construction will tell you, the key to building a strong, long lasting house is to have a good solid foundation. Through his strong leadership qualities, LaRussa should provide the foundation that the St. Louis organization needs to achieve its goal of building a winner for years to come.
With LaRussa now anchoring the Cardinal ship, GM Walt Jocketty deftly went about rebuilding the team in the off-season. Already solid in the outfield, first base and bullpen, Jocketty went about filling up the holes with the best available talent through trades and free agent signings. The result will be a team that few will recognize in March and April but will have the potential to create lots of excitement for fans throughout the year.
The new additions to this year’s Cardinals read off like a whose who of Major League baseball. Perhaps the most notable acquisitions were announced on December 23rd during the off-season. Cardinal fans got an early Christmas present when management announced the signings of top free agents Ron Gant and Andy Benes.
At the age of 31, Gant has already made a career out of proving people wrong. After huge expectations early in his career, Ron suffered through a long stretch where he batted under .200 and was sent back to the minors. Gant rededicated himself and emerged as one of the most feared hitters in the National League in leading the Braves from the ashes of last place to the World Series in 1991 & 1992. Yet it all almost came to an end for Gant after a severe motorcycle accident in February of 1994. Again Gant was viewed as washed up and was released by the Braves. Missing the entire 1994 season, Gant reemerged as a dominating force last season, winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year award with the Reds with 29 homers, 88 RBIs, and 23 steals.
“In my assessment, Ron Gant ranks as one of the most dynamic players in the game today.” says GM Walt Jocketty. “He’s a constant threat at the plate and on the base paths and is the type of player who can carry a team for long stretches.
With the trade of Bernard Gilkey to the NY Mets, Gant should be a fixture in left field this season. The combination of Gant and holdovers Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford add up to three outfields who each hit over 20 homers and stole 20 bases last season. This threesome can be expected to be involved in quite a few Cardinal rallies this season.
At the age of 37, Willie McGee returns to the Cardinals’ outfield in what will likely be a reserve role. McGee was a juge factor in the Cardinals’ championship teams of the 80’s and his past experiences should prove invaluable for the Cardinals’ younger players.
In Andy Benes, the Cardinals have acquired a solid number one or two starter for their rotation. Still just 28, Andy has emerged as one of the top starters in baseball over his short career. Last season he was a driving force in Seattle’s push to the AL West title, winning seven games for the Mariners after they acquired him just before the trading deadline. The menacing 6-6, 240 pound hurler relies on the strikeout as a powerful weapon, amassing 1,081 K’s in six plus seasons in the majors. Benes joins his two younger brothers Alan and Adam in the Cardinal organization, and should work with Alan on this year’s parent club. A member of the 1993 NL All-Start team, Andy owns 76 career wins and a 3.61 career ERA.
Says Jocketty, “To have Andy and Alan on the same team is something I know Cardinals’ fans are going to enjoy, not just because they’re brothers, but also because they are both two very good pitchers.”
The Cardinals continued the rebuilding of their rotation with the acquisition of former Blue Jay and Athletic Todd Stottlemyre. Like Andy Benes, Stottlemyre is just coming into his own as one of the top starters in baseball. The 30 year old hurler enjoyed his best season ever under A’s manager Tony LaRussa last season going 14-7 with a career high 205 strikeouts. Stottlemyre should combine with Benes to form on of the best one/two punches in the National League. The son of former Mets’ pitcher an current Yankee coach Mel Stottlemyre, Todd and his father rank second all time in wins by a father son duo with 247. The pair trail only Dizzy and Steve Trout with 258.
Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are very familiar with what Stottlemyre brings to the table from their days in Oakland together. “Cardinal fans are really going to enjoy watching Todd pitch,” says LaRussa. “Todd really seemed to come into his own last season while working with Dave Duncan and I know they’re both happy to be reunited.”
Mark Petkovsek led the Cardinals last year in games stared with 21 and innings pitched with 137.1. He should be counted on for a similar contribution in this year’s rotation. Veteran Mike Morgan returns to the Cardinals and should have the opportunity to occupy a spot in the rotation as well. The final spot is up for grabs and could be awarded to several candidates. Danny Jackson was hopeful that he could return from a miserable injury plagued season that saw him go 2-12 with a 5.90 ERA. Unfortunately, Danny’s comeback was hampered by off-season surgery, forcing him to miss up to three months of action. Other possibilities for the rotation include Donovan Osborne and Alan Benes.
For the first time in years, the Cardinals may have a new starting shortstop on opening day in newly acquired Royce Clayton. Widely considered as one of the best young shortstops in the NL, Clayton was hard to pass up in a trade with San Francisco for pitchers Allen Watson, Rich DeLucia, and Doug Creek. Royce led all NL shortstops last year in games played with 136, which puts much doubt into how manager Tony LaRussa will find playing time for both Clayton veteran Ozzie Smith and Tripp Cromer. Cromer led the Cards last season in games started at shortstop in place of an injured Ozzie Smith. Smith is still a fan favorite and should still be of value in whatever role he plays.
Second base is equally crowded for the Cardinals this season. Prospects David Bell and Mark Sweeney will have the opportunity to prove that they can play while Geronimo Pena and newly acquired Mike Gallego are veterans who have shown they can fill the role as well.
The addition of Gary Gaetti to the Cardinal lineup will do much to increase their run production this season. With Scott Cooper departing for Japan after a disappointing season in his hometown, Gary will resume the third base duties. Gaetti comes to St. Louis coming off one of his best seasons with the Kansas City Royals. A longtime slugger with the Twins, Gaetti was reborn last season with the Royals, hitting 35 homers and driving in 96 runs. A seasoned veteran, Gaetti brings to the table 292 career homers and a World Series title with Minnesota in 1987. Defensively Gaetti has starred as well, winning four gold gloves in his 15 year career. Gaetti should prove to be a viable run producer batting in the midst of a Cardinal lineup composed of many table setters.
John Mabry should return at first base after a stellar rookie season that landed him on the Major League Baseball All-Rookie team. A surprising .307 average from last season should put Mabry in this year’s starting lineup and should only add to the potent players brought in this season by management.
Although the bullpen was arguably the strength of last year’s team, the Cardinals added veterans Rick Honeycutt and Gregg Olson. Rick starred in a set up role for manager Tony LaRussa in Oakland and should be a tremendous veteran addition. Olson will be trying to regain the form that led him to 164 career saves and the notoriety as one of the best young relievers in the game. Injuries have slowed Gregg in recent years.
The departure of Tom Henke leaves the closer role wide open this spring. LaRussa will likely use a combination of several relievers in a variety of game circumstances this season. Brian Barber, Tony Fossas, John Frascatore, T.J. Mathews, Jeff Parrett, and Tom Urbani will all have a chance to factor into pitching coach Dave Duncan’s bullpen this season.
With the off-season acquisition of Pat Borders, the Cardinals appear to have some depth at the catching position. Borders is best known for his World Series MVP performance in 1992 with the Blue Jays. In addition, veterans Tom Pagnozzi and Danny Sheaffer return to the Cardinal backstop.
With all the new faces on this year’s Cardinal team, scorecard sales should set an all time record this year in St. Louis. The change from Astroturf to natural grass should add to the excitement of the Cardinals’ upcoming season in Busch Stadium. Regardless of where the Cards finish this year, Cardinal fans can take pride in the fact that the team has rededicated itself to winning and has the pieces in place for years of the high quality baseball that fans have come to expect.
“The Grass is Greener at Busch Stadium”
Astroturf. To baseball purists, this term should be grouped with “designated hitter”, “wild-card” and “inter-league play” as some of the most sacrilegious in all of baseball. Ever since the surface became popular among the new stadium and domes of the 1970’s, much has been made out of the differences between an artificial surface and natural grass. Diehard purists point to a break from tradition, something that baseball fans value dearly, as a prime reason to get rid of the ugly, rubbery turf. In actuality, there may be more practical reasons to ditch the surface that is quickly becoming a fad of the past. The potential for injuries may be higher in games played on Astroturf, a hard surface that many players feel resembles a parking lot more so than a baseball field. In addition, the turf is known to reflect heat, making the playing field extremely hot at times for players and coaches alike.
Many teams have become wise to the tastes of players and fans, as most of the new stadiums have come equipped with grass. Camden Yards in Baltimore and The Ballpark in Arlington are two prime examples of how teams are currently building stadiums with the attempt at giving them an old-time feel to them. Cardinals’ fans can add this to the list of things to look forward to next season as the smell of freshly mowed grass will return to Busch Stadium this spring.
If you are under the age of 26, you probably don’t remember that when Busch Stadium originally opened in downtown St. Louis in 1996, the ballpark had a natural grass surface. Astroturf, in fact, wasn’t installed until three years later – after the 1969 season – and was ready for the first game of the 1970 season.
Since then, three other Astroturf fields have been installed at Busch Stadium. A second, improved model was put down in 1976 and six years later another version was rolled onto the spacious field. The last version was installed in 1992.
To the delight of fans and players, the “real stuff” returns and plans are well underway for the conversion. Steve Peeler, a 27-year-old veteran from North Carolina, has been hired as head groundskeeper to oversee the installation, which began as soon as the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams completed the Busch Stadium portion of their home schedule before moving into their new domed stadium.
Said Peeler, “We’ll go down about 13 inches, tearing out the existing asphalt and gravel along the way. Then we’ll start the rebuilding process.”
The existing drainage system will still be used, but “pea” gravel will be poured onto the surface as a sub-base with some nine inches of sand installed over the base for added drainage. This portion of the project was to be completed by mid-January. The field would then be covered with an Evergreen Textile fabric to keep the wind from blowing the sand around and to help keep the cold weather out.
By the end of February, installation of the sod begins.
“There will be a heating system installed under the root zone,” Peeler says. “That will keep the sod at its optimum temperature for the best growing conditions after the sod is installed. It also will help counterbalance the harsh St. Louis winters and keep the roots growing.”
About 110,000 square feet of quick standing Bermuda sod will be shipped from Jacksonville, FL, for installation at the end of February. “We’ll have about five weeks to put the sod down and get it ready for opening day on April 6th,” Peeler says. “That’s not a whole lot of time but we should be able to handle it all right.”
The installation of Astroturf isn’t the only change that is underway for this season as Busch Stadium. Outside the stadium, a courtyard area will be added. Located just south of the Plaza of Champions, the area has been designed for pre-game group activities complete with a stage, concession stands and children’s activities.
Fans will relish at the changes being made inside the stadium as well. These changes include:
- Three new rows of club seats behind home plate. These seats will include upgraded padding, waiter service, and have access to a club lounge where a pre-game buffet will be served.
- Upgraded field box seats along the left and right-field lines. Also an additional three rows of seating in front of the existing field boxes.
- A picnic area in left-center field for family enjoyment.
- A family pavilion area on the left-centerfield concourse. This area will include interactive games, power-pitching, video batting cage, a fantasy play-by-play booth, etc.
- New Cardinal’s and visiting team bullpen locations. The Cardinals’ bullpen will be adjacent to the left field bleachers, while the visitor’s bullpen will be located behind the left field wall.
- Reconfigured seat in the left and right field corners, which will improve the sightline toward home plate.
“Basically we’re changing Busch Stadium to a baseball-only configuration rather than the multi-use facility that is has always been,” says Joe Abernathy, director of stadium operations at Civic Center Corporation. “We’re adding features that have been included in many of the new ballparks.”
“We believe the changes will make our already fan-friendly stadium even better for fan enjoyment.”
This upcoming season will be the 30th anniversary of Busch Stadium. With any luck, the off-season changes in ownership, players and the playing field should provide for one of the most exciting seasons in Cardinal history.
- 1996 Official Spring Training Program
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