ST. LOUIS -- Mark Attanasio was a devoted stickball player and a Yankees fan in the Bronx long before he made millions as a financier and bought the Milwaukee Brewers. Those boyhood memories have a way of seeping into your bones and shaping your world view, and they're awfully tough to shake.
How tough? During a family trip to Mexico last week, Attanasio was thrilled to find that minor league radio broadcasts are available over the Internet. While his fellow beach-goers were smearing on sunscreen and nursing frozen margaritas, the Brewers' boss was listening to Ben Sheets pitch 2 2/3 innings in a rehab start for the Double-A Huntsville Stars.
Given Attanasio's hard-core orientation, it was tough for him to resist boarding his private jet and flying to St. Louis to watch his team help christen the new Busch Stadium on Monday. This, in a nutshell, is what he saw:
The sky was a flawless shade of blue and the temperature was pushing 70 degrees. The majestic Clydesdales circled the field to the Budweiser theme as a prelude to Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial and St. Louis' other Hall of Famers waving to the crowd from red and white Ford Mustang convertibles.
"The Clydesdales trotting around the warning track might be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen at a ballpark," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I watched them and it was absolutely gorgeous. Stan and Red weren't quite as gorgeous."
Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, St. Louis' latest MVP winner and Cy Young Award winner, threw out the ceremonial first pitches to Willie McGee and Gibson, the last Cardinals to win those awards. Then Mark Mulder went to work, pitching eight strong innings, hitting a home run and injecting the place with a euphoria that even a shaky bullpen couldn't obscure.
But it wasn't Mulder's all-around game, or Pujols' gargantuan home run, or even the disappointing 6-4 loss that will stick with Attanasio. He'll remember that he was one of a handful of the 41,396 fans in attendance not clad in red. Cram them all into one spot, and they look like a giant blood clot.
"I travel all over the country and I don't know if you can see another city where literally every fan wears the team colors the way Cardinals fans do," Attanasio said. "We saw people outside our hotel at 9 in the morning walking around in Cardinals clothes. I think that's what strikes me even more than the ballpark -- the fans here."
After four decades of watching their beloved Cards play in a park that had grown tired and stale, the loyal fans of St. Louis have joined the ranks of their brethren in Baltimore, Cleveland and more than a dozen other baseball towns. They have new digs to call their own, and even in the can-you-top-this era of ballpark construction, the new Busch Stadium seems to hit all the right notes.
The combination of brick facades, arched openings and exposed steel trusses makes for a fitting tribute to the local architecture. The Stan Musial statue outside Gate No. 3 is a signature gathering place, and the personalized, engraved bricks on the sidewalk give the place a homey feel.
And while the view beyond the center field fence doesn't match the one at, say, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals did a nice job of bringing downtown St. Louis into the equation.
"How can you beat this?" Brewers catcher Damian Miller said. "New ballpark. Beautiful day in St. Louis. And then you look out there and see the Gateway Arch."
From a pure ballplaying standpoint, the new Busch doesn't feel like home yet to the St. Louis players. But they're eager to embrace its nuances. Center fielder Jim Edmonds took note that the hitting background is fine, but the gaps are more spacious and will produce more wear and tear on his 35-year-old legs. The new Busch probably won't hold the heat like the old park, and players won't feel as if the fans are on top of them as much.
"I was trying to figure out where the balls and strikes and the outs are posted today," Edmonds said. "Those are things you get comfortable with as a player. When you have to start looking for them all over again, it takes some adjusting."
The new park's debut comes at an interesting time for the St. Louis franchise. For the past two years the Cardinals have won a combined 205 games and taken the National League Central division by an aggregate 24 games over Houston. But the Cardinals skimped on offseason spending in spite of their new ballpark revenue. And if they look hard enough into the future, they might see a new rivalry or two developing.
Maybe it's with Milwaukee. The Brewers have assembled an intriguing mix of young talent and solid veterans, and after a spring of hype as one of baseball's designated dark-horse teams, they radiated energy during a 5-0 start. When closer Derrick Turnbow appears on "Cold Pizza" and Geoff Jenkins drops by "Baseball Tonight" in the same week, you know the Brewers have established a higher profile.
The Cardinals came out strong with three straight wins against Philadelphia in Week One but have looked a bit wobbly since. They dropped three straight to the Cubs in Chicago over the weekend, and in an 8-4 loss Sunday the St. Louis bullpen threw 12 straight balls in the eighth inning. Closer Jason Isringhausen capped things off by surrendering a grand slam to Michael Barrett to lose the game.
Still, La Russa was quick to signal for setup man Braden Looper and Isringhausen in the ninth inning against Milwaukee. They preserved the win for Mulder, but just barely.
"One homer ain't going to kill me," Isringhausen said. "As long as they keep calling my name, I'll keep going out there."
It's possible that baseball in St. Louis, always an enjoyable proposition, could be even more fun in 2006. Commissioner Bud Selig was in town for the new Busch debut, and amid the inevitable barrage of Barry Bonds and steroid investigation questions, he observed that a "special" baseball town has a venue to match its fervor.
"There's no question our sport got hurt by cookie-cutter ballparks," Selig said. "I used to say that if you had too much to drink one night and you woke up the next day, there were five places you could have been in and not known where you were. They looked alike. You couldn't tell one from the other."
That's all changed, of course, with the spate of new ballparks. Boring old Busch Stadium, the Cardinals' home for 40 years, was demolished in December and is now a construction site.
The present and future of St. Louis baseball sits right next door, and it's easy to find. Just look for the ballpark dressed in red.