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Green Grass, Red Clothes _ Baseball Returns to St. Louis

April 8, 1996

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ The superstar free agents are nice and the new manager is appreciated. The talk in St. Louis prior to the Cardinals’ home opener, however, was the green, green grass.

For the first time since 1969, the Busch Stadium turf is the real thing. Bermuda sod and dirt have replaced the spongy plastic that spawned the bounce-it-and-go pennant winners in 1982, 1985 and 1987. In the end, traditionalists won out and grass was installed earlier this year.

The change has met with overwhelming approval from fans.

``That’s the way baseball was intended to be played _ on a grass field. I think it’s a great thing,″ said Ron Thomas, one of hundreds of red-clad fans who attended a downtown rally to mark Monday night’s home opener against the Montreal Expos.

Don Dempski, who’s been following the Cardinals for 52 years, agreed.

``There’s nothing like the real grass,″ Dempski said. ``That’s baseball.″

Pregame festivities had a strong grass theme.

The ``Redbird Express,″ a city bus that has transported fans to games for 40 years, was covered with growing grass. Old-time rockers the Grass Roots performed at the noon-time rally and were to sing the national anthem.

The grass was part of an $8 million renovation at Busch. The team, and the franchise, were also given overhauls.

Anheuser-Busch, which bought the Cardinals in 1953, sold the team to a group of 15 mostly local businessmen for $150 million. The team hired manager Tony La Russa, who won three pennants in Oakland, pitching coach Dave Duncan and a slew of other coaches.

And through a combination of free-agent signings and trades, the Cardinals have a vastly different look on the field. The same team that plodded to a 62-81 fourth-place finish last season is expected to contend for the pennant this year.

The moves are already paying off at the ticket window. Season ticket sales have reached 17,000, about 1,000 over last year. Because of new seats added as part of the renovation, the home opener crowd could be the biggest ever at Busch.

And they weren’t the only sports fans downtown Monday. Just a few blocks to the west, the Blues game against Winnipeg was to start about a half-hour after the Cardinals game. With more than 70,000 sports fans downtown, parking spaces were expected to be a rare commodity.

The baseball game was sold out, except for a few thousand bleacher seats that were to go on sale two hours before the game. Fans began camping out at the bleacher ticket window Sunday night; by early Monday afternoon, several hundred people, many huddled under blankets in the windy 45-degree weather, were in line.

``I’ve heard so much about the stadium and how they’ve changed it all,″ said John McDole, 17, as he and a group of friends played Wiffleball to pass the time. ``They’ve got a new stadium, a new team. It’s almost like getting an expansion team.″

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