Busch Stadium just won't be the same next season without the Clydesdales, artificial turf and Jose Oliva hitting cleanup for the St. Louis Cardinals. But that's good news for baseball fans, because the St. Louis ownership group that bought the team from Anheuser-Busch last month was quick to approve personnel changes that should significantly upgrade the team.
After losing 142 games over the last two years—more than any other National League team except the San Diego Padres (144) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (147)—the Cards will head for spring training in four weeks with a new manager, Tony La Russa, and a revamped roster that packs more power and is loaded with steady veterans.
General manager Walt Jocketty spent a bundle to lure the highly coveted La Russa (two years, $3 million) and his sidekick, pitching coach Dave Duncan, from the Oakland A's, and that was just the start. St. Louis overpaid for free-agent leftfielder Ron Gant (five years, $25 million). But after finishing second in the bidding for free agents Craig Biggio and Mark Grace, they weren't about to let another impact player—Gant had 29 homers for the Cincinnati Reds last year—slip away. The Cards spent wisely in signing free-agent third baseman Gary Gaetti (one year, $2 million), who at 37 had 35 homers and 96 RBIs for the Kansas City Royals in 1995.
Last year St. Louis scored fewer runs than any other team, in the majors and hit fewer homers than anyone but the Philadelphia Phillies. No wonder, with players like Oliva (.142) batting cleanup at times. With Gant and Gaetti joining Brian Jordan, the team could have at least two 30-homer men in its lineup for the first time.
With franchise fixture Ozzie Smith, 41, coming off right shoulder surgery, the Cardinals traded three prospects to the San Francisco Giants for 26-year-old shortstop Royce Clayton. The pitching rotation got a boost with the acquisitions of righthander Todd Stottlemyre (14-7, 205 strikeouts last year) in a trade with the As and righty Andy Benes (combined 11-9 with the Padres and the Seattle Mariners), who was another free-agent pickup (two years, $8.1 million). St. Louis also signed catcher Pat Borders and outfielder Willie McGee to minor league contracts, and pitcher Rick Honeycutt and infielder Mike Gallego to one-year deals. More moves are planned, especially if closer Tom Henke (36 saves, 1.82 ERA in '95) follows through on his plans to retire.
"I've seen new ownership go crazy spending, but I don't think we've done that," says Bill DeWitt Jr., a limited partner whose group bought the club for $150 million. "Our payroll [projected to be $38 million; up from $28 million at the end of '95] will be a lot less than the high-payroll teams. We don't plan on going crazy."
The Busch family was one of baseball's best owners from the time it bought the Cardinals in 1953. But over the last couple of years chairman of the board August A. Busch III had grown disenchanted with a game plagued by labor disputes and skyrocketing salaries.
This year the grass will look greener in Busch Stadium—and not just because of the fresh sod.