To Billy Findley, Busch Stadium’s playing surface is The Pieta. It is his sculpture, his obsession, his signature. Most people just see grass. Findley sees his fingerprints.
To notice a blemish is to utter something unflattering about his family member. It’s hurtful enough for Findley to see it. It’s a dagger to hear an outsider mention something.
So to watch the Cardinals head groundskeeper trudge alongside his boss at halftime of Saturday’s curious four-quarter experiment between Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri was to observe a man approaching meltdown. “I wouldn’t call it one of his happier moments,” confirmed Findley’s boss, Cardinals vice-president of stadium operations Joe Abernathy.
The Cardinals often offer up interesting things. There was the dysfunctional press box that in part moved the Commissioner to withhold the All-Star Game until an upgrade occurred. There were the pivotal free agent signings of Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran and the inscrutable two-year embrace of Ty Wigginton, who didn’t make it past the All-Star break.
Saturday, however, may have topped them all.
A team two days from its season-ending seven-game home stand and less than two weeks from another postseason experience invited two collegiate herds to play a Football Championship Series game on Baseball Heaven’s bluegrass. Two schools with total enrollment of 30,546 drew 14,618 for the first-ever football game at new Busch Stadium, which marketing types promote as baseball’s equivalent of hallowed ground.
Kickoff was still an hour away when Findley noticed turf coming up as linemen went through drills. Even the kickers’ sideline ballet rubbed bare spots.
By the time Abernathy and Findley took their halftime tour, the turf looked as though it had staged a cattle drive followed by a rodeo capped by a monster truck pull. (In hindsight, such an all-inclusive extravaganza would have generated a wider revenue stream while exacting no more damage.) Findley at one point stooped to lift a 2-foot-long grass pelt. He didn’t tap it down or use it to replace damage elsewhere. He merely carried it with him as a souvenir from a worst-case scenario come true.
The Cardinals have successfully hosted the Dave Matthews Band, U2 and an international soccer friendly on premises during the baseball season, always allowing at least a four-day buffer between the event and the local nine’s return. Saturday afternoon the club handed Findley and his crew a blighted surface with less than 48 hours to fix it.
“We’d love to have more time but Billy and his guys will make it work,” Abernathy said.
PHOTOS: FOOTBALL AT BUSCH
Abernathy asked that his groundskeeper not be pulled from his work to perform an interview. One can understand how Findley might say something impolitic about a situation that demands he re-sod more than 100,000 square feet in the time it takes some folks to change a tire and an oil filter. For several hours Findley stood by helplessly watching 300-pound men trample his work. Now he was being told to fix it and quickly.
Southern Illinois disposed of host Southeast Missouri 36-19 after the younger, smaller Ohio Valley Conference foe threw them a third-quarter scare. Salukis tight end and Kirkwood grad MyCole Pruitt finished with five receptions that included a touchdown. DeSmet grad and Oregon State transfer Malcolm Agnew rushed for 127 yards and the game’s final score. Southeast Missouri boasted that it brought 26 players from the St. Louis area into the game. One of them, Soldan alum Paul McRoberts, gashed the SIU defense for 133 yards and two touchdowns on five catches.
Those parts of the afternoon were cool. Once down 16-7 the Redhawks punched back after intercepting consecutive passes. They pushed a team that pushed Illinois in Champaign three weeks earlier. The exposure was a positive for two rivals that draw their oxygen from the region. Yet players and coaches from both teams noted questionable footing on the sand-based grass field. By halftime the field was pocked by swaths of missing turf. Five feet shy of the warning track Matt Holliday patrols, a square, foot-deep blemish was left where the north goal post stood.
“It was a little bit slippery,” said SEMO head coach Tony Samuel. “Guys were losing their feet. The game slows down some when you are thinking about every plant, every cut.”
Samuel still thought the day a rousing success. Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon called the experience “unforgettable” for his team and appreciated the novel stage. Privately, representatives from both institutions doubted the game would return at the same time under similar conditions.
Best case: Cooler, more moist weather would have allowed the grass to retain deeper roots and better withstand Saturday’s onslaught. The Cardinals hoped to import four truckloads of sod from a Colorado farm.
Worst case: Pretty much what happened. Thursday night’s rain and Friday’s day-long soaker followed an extended smoldering and dry period that had left the outfield a slip-and-slide zone. Conditions were dicey enough that the Cardinals and the two schools discussed canceling the event, which would have forced SEMO to host the game Sunday. Recent flooding in Colorado imperiled some grass farms just as the Cardinals decided they would need 13 truckloads of sod.
“There was an option to cancel the game,” DeWitt said. “It turns out a majority field replacement is required. But the thick cut sod you have will likely perform better for us than what was there already. The question became whether there were (safety) issues with the football game?”
Holliday, Jon Jay and Beltran will serve as final judges. “It was already kicking up when the baseball players were on it,” Holliday on Saturday told Post-Dispatch baseball scribe Derrick Goold. “It’s something you think about — the condition of the field, how it’s going to play and what a football game would do to that. And you think about at this point of the season, being in a pennant chase and the timing of it. You don’t want anything to keep the field from being at its best.”
We were once assured Busch Stadium would be a baseball-only venue, an unsullied palace for the erstwhile best fans in baseball. If the club now feels it wise to diversify the facility’s purpose, we get it.
But come on.
Isn’t there some corner within the organization where hosting a football event in November makes more sense than two days before the regular season’s final home stand? Doesn’t the manicured arch within the stadium outfield look better than leftover sidelines? Do we really need to see a playing surface still coming together at the seams?
“Sod is your ultimate security blanket on these issues,” DeWitt said, citing recovery from the U2 bacchanalia. “We’ve done it enough to know what it takes to respond. We feel good about how it will perform on Monday.” DeWitt predicted the field would be in “marginally better shape” than when the team left town.
Yet one needed only look at the head groundskeeper and his boss Saturday afternoon to realize the delicate bluegrass wasn’t the only thing being unduly stressed.