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In final days, memories fill Busch Stadium

ST. LOUIS -- Three giant cranes loom over the distinctive arched roof of Busch Stadium. Artwork, jerseys, and other items are scattered throughout the home clubhouse, waiting to be autographed. A couple of old green seats, once located behind home plate, have been left near Reggie Sanders's locker.

An attached note says, ''Please sign the back of the seats [in silver]. Thanks, Reg."

All signs that the end is near for the St. Louis Cardinals' home of the last 40 years.

Located just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium was an architectural marvel when it opened in May 1966, replacing rickety Sportsman Park and part of the wave of ''cookie-cutter" stadiums that revolutionized baseball architecture.

Four decades later, Busch has entered its final days. The stadium will come down just weeks after the Cardinals play their final postseason game, replaced in 2006 by a park going up right next door.

St. Louis hosted the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series last night, eight wins away from giving Busch a proper send-off with its first World Series championship since 1982 -- and its last.

''It's a great ballpark," Cardinals catcher Mike Mahoney said. ''The fans are unbelievable. There's so much history. There are times when I'm talking to the guys and we all say, 'I can't believe they're going to knock this place down.' "

Most of those circular monstrosities from the 1960s quickly faded from memory after they came tumbling down, the requiems of a now-despised era when every stadium looked the same.

Busch Stadium figures to be remembered differently.

Despite all the similarities with stadiums such as Cincinnati's Riverfront, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, and Philadelphia's Veterans, Busch had a few touches that distinguished it from the others.

Start with the roof, which doesn't resemble the sloped structures covering just about every other stadium from the '60s. Instead, Busch had a unique design with openings that mimicked the distinguished curves of nearby Gateway Arch.

The seating design stood apart, too. While the circular upper deck could have been swapped with Riverfront or Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the middle level stops not long after curving into fair territory on both left and right field sides, leaving a view of the outside streets and a conduit for fresh air to flow through the stadium during the brutal St. Louis summers.

Busch also was distinguished by its location -- just a few blocks from the mighty Mississippi River, not far from the city's most prominent man-made feature, the Arch. Before long, the new stadium was a landmark, representing one of America's greatest baseball cities.

''Going from that old ballpark -- it was a real old one -- and coming over here was something," said Red Schoendienst, the Cardinals' manager when they moved to Busch. ''It was really a pleasure."

Despite the usual signs of wear and tear -- leaky, groaning pipes and chipped paint among them -- Busch aged better than any of its contemporaries. Once shared with the NFL Cardinals, it became a baseball-only stadium after the football team moved to Arizona in 1988.

The Cardinals removed the artificial turf, planted grass, and dressed up the place up with a traditional paint scheme: green walls and facades, a perfect contrast to the bright red seats.

Although saddened a bit by the impending loss of their aging home, the Cardinals can't wait to get to their new stadium.

''Obviously, it's time," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. ''You see what the other new parks have done for the cities involved. It's definitely something we're looking forward to."

Plenty of amazing things happened at Busch. Bob Gibson's 17 strikeouts in the 1968 World Series opener. Lou Brock's record-setting stolen base in 1974. Ozzie Smith's game-winning homer off the Dodgers in the '85 NLCS. Mark McGwire's 62d homer in 1998.

And, while not a highlight for the home fans, this is where the Boston Red Sox completed a sweep of St. Louis for their first Series championship since 1918 last October.

Oh, it's also the place where the automatic tarp caught Vince Coleman during the 1985 playoffs.

Even so, he believes it's time to go.

A new Busch is waiting.

''This is still a good-looking park. But the new stadium will be better for the fans," Schoendienst said, standing behind the cage during batting practice.

''It's not like we're going to another state or another city. We're going next door. I look at it as progress."

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