A sports dynasty's last innings in St. Louis?

The state legislature didn't OK a new stadium, leading to speculation about the team moving.

The Cardinals baseball team belongs to St. Louis in a way that few other professional teams can match.

When they first swung their bats here (1876), Ulysses S. Grant sat in the White House. The team predates television, radio, even the light bulb. It has notched more World Series titles than some pro baseball teams have had seasons.

So, when the Missouri legislature adjourned on Friday without passing a bill for a new baseball stadium in downtown St. Louis, even die-hard fans began to contemplate the unthinkable. The St. Louis Cardinals could move to the suburbs – or even (gasp!) across the Mississippi River to Illinois.

For some, the idea of the St. Peters (Mo.) Cardinals or the Cahokia (Ill.) Cardinals remains too bizarre to contemplate. But a number of St. Louis residents are angry enough about the club's pleas for taxpayer subsidies that they're willing to let the team go. It seems that the bigger and more powerful baseball becomes, the more isolated it can be.

If St. Louis is balking at keeping a 126-year-old sports dynasty, younger teams in the major leagues should sit up and take notice.

"We're supposed to subsidize something so a bunch of corporate people can get more luxury boxes? No way!" says Mike Nolde, who started attending Cardinals games as a child, in 1957. "If the Cardinals can't foot their own bills, then they should move."

A majority of Missourians agree. Two-thirds of likely voters oppose public funding to build a new stadium, according to a recent poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. City residents, by an even higher margin, disapprove of diverting city sales taxes for the project, according to a poll last year.

That lack of enthusiasm helped to derail the state's $644 million package of subsidies for a new downtown stadium and other projects around the state.

In Minnesota, the opposite scenario

Other cities, meanwhile, have ponied up cash to help their baseball teams build new stadiums. For example, on the day after the Missouri legislature adjourned without even debating the measure, the Minnesota legislature sent the governor a stadium financing plan for the Twins. The plan is seen as a possible way to stave off baseball's elimination of the beleaguered, low-revenue franchise. But management remains skeptical that the plan will work.

Here in Missouri, state budget pressures spoke louder than the Cardinals' threats to move. Legislators and the governor wrestled for weeks with trimming a $167 million budget deficit. Not helping the Cardinals' cause: the prospect of a player strike later on in the season.

The bill's failure prompted Cardinals' president Mark Lamping to hold a news conference Friday. "The Missouri legislature has sent a clear message that the state is not interested in helping to keep the Cardinals downtown," he said. While the team has not eliminated downtown as a potential site, it is no longer "the most likely site."

Besides the Missouri counties of St. Louis, Jefferson, St. Charles, and Franklin, the team is also considering four Illinois counties: St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, and Jersey. Some Illinois politicians are rubbing their hands with anticipation. Kurt Granberg, a Democrat from nearby Carlyle, Ill., and assistant majority leader of the Illinois House, wants to finance a Cardinals stadium by selling state-sponsored bonds. House Speaker Michael Madigan reportedly also wants to snag the team for his state. But Illinois faces its own budget crunch, which could dampen both politicians' and taxpayers' appetite for the measure.

A city that already has problems

If the Cardinals do move, fans worry about the impact on St. Louis. During the 1990s, the city lost a greater share of population than any other major American city. "We think it's just going to ruin downtown," says David Verseman, a lifetime fan and a consultant who lives in suburban Manchester, Mo. "Downtown is dead as it is except for baseball games."

And a move to Illinois would cut his stadium visits. "If I go to 15 games today, I might go to three or four if they moved over to Illinois," Mr. Verseman says.

Indeed, the current location serves a wide swath of fans. As the westernmost pro baseball team for decades until the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City, Mo., (and later to Oakland, Calif.), the Cardinals have historically drawn on a fan base that spreads through several states. With the advent of radio and the partnership of KMOX, the team reached out even farther.

"If you go through the parking lot, you see license plates from all over," says Larry Frank, who coaches high school baseball in suburban St. Louis but lives in Illinois. If the team can't keep its location at the intersection of three interstate highways, many regional fans would find it harder to come, he points out.

But it's the emotional relationship between team and city that keeps him hopeful that the Cardinals will find a way to stay. "To me, major-league baseball would be so different," Mr. Frank says, "if it were played somewhere else than downtown St. Louis."

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