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Ballpark Village rising into view at Busch Stadium

Wrigley-like rooftops part of the experience scheduled to open by 2014 home opener @philgrogers

ST. LOUIS -- Sometimes it seems that nothing changes beneath the Gateway Arch.

Clydesdales roll around the warning track every October at Busch Stadium, or at least it seems that way. The Cardinals can be counted on to have a balanced team that shows mental toughness when weaker teams crumble, running rundown plays the way that the late George Kissell once taught Julian Javier and Tommy Herr.

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When Joe Kelly throws his first pitch to the Dodgers' Carl Crawford on Friday night (Game 1 set for 7 CT on TBS), it will mark the eighth time in 14 years that the Cardinals have been in the National League Championship Series. You can be forgiven if some of that success has run together, even as it has taken place in two ballparks, adjacent to each other. The look and feel of the new Busch has been different than the old place across Clark Street, as it opens up in the outfield, giving the fans with the best seats a spectacular view of the Arch.

But quietly, with few opposing teams even noticing, a major change is taking place beyond the visitors' bullpen in left field. The Cardinals' Ballpark Village development is in the late stages of construction, including a feature that would have fried Ron Santo's toupee.

Only workers were there on Thursday, watching the Cardinals and Dodgers work out. But a replica of Wrigley Field's trademark rooftops is due to open by April 7, when the Reds visit for the 2014 home opener.

You could say it's the best thing the Cardinals have stolen from the Cubs since they got Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio.

Bill DeWitt Jr., the Cardinals' chairman and chief executive officer, admits that the red-bricked structure does bear more than a little resemblance to the three-flat brownstones running from the corner of Sheffield and Waveland in the area known as Wrigleyville. He isn't apologizing, especially given the revenue that the property will generate for the team as part of a major restaurant and entertainment development, which the Cardinals have had in the planning stages since 2004. It is being built in a partnership with the Baltimore-based Cordish Company.

"I'm a big fan of Wrigley Field,'' DeWitt said. "I think the rooftops are a major characteristic of Wrigley Field, and I'll certainly say there's some inspiration from that for our project.''

The under-construction rooftop has not been a civic secret in St. Louis. But a lot of people around Major League Baseball seem unaware of it, and many Chicagoans were shocked when told about it on Thursday.

This included some Cubs season-ticket holders, including Lin Brehmer, a Chicago radio icon who has an unconditional love affair with all things Cub. He giggled when told what the Cardinals are building.

"Ha, ha, ha, ha,'' said Brehmer, who has worked mornings for WXRT since 1991. "If the people of St. Louis, with the second most World Series championships in history, want to convince their fans that watching the game from a long way away, from great heights, is a good idea, I'm all for it."

Beth Mannino, a distributor for a mutual funds company, was quick to call the Cardinals "copycats'' but admitted there is much about the rival St. Louis franchise the Cubs should strive to duplicate.

"If they'll share player development with us, we'll teach them how to run a rooftop,'' Mannino said.

Ballpark Village has largely been the creation of Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III. He had the vision for the rooftop and oversaw its design, assuring himself at every stage that the 330 fans per game who buy tickets to get the unusual experience will also get a decent view to go with their creature comforts. He made several visits to Wrigley Field rooftops while his project was in the planning stage, and says the new seats will be about 500 feet from home plate, like those near the intersection of Waveland and Sheffield, not down the lines at Wrigley.

DeWitt III says that ticket prices for the experience, including food and drink and a visit to the Cardinals' museum and Hall of Fame, will be market-driven, with a tentative price range of $60-100, depending on the opponent and day of the week. Details haven't been finalized, but it's likely that the team will be allowed to consider the tickets sold for the rooftop as part of the Busch Stadium crowd, in essence expanding capacity beyond 45,000, even though the new seats are separated from the ballpark by a two-lane street.

Cardinals players have watched the project take shape throughout the season. It became clear what was taking shape when they returned from a late-season road trip and found the risers in place above the third level of the building's skeleton.

Kelly says he hopes the fans watching from the rooftop will be "just as wild as at Wrigley.'' He said he is going to go check out the view as soon as hard hats and yellow vests are not required for those visiting the construction site.

"I'd love to sit out there during a game, but that's probably not going to happen,'' said Kelly, who faces the Dodgers' Zack Greinke in the NLCS opener. "But I am going to go out there and sit some time. I'm really looking forward to having that out there next year. That whole Ballpark Village is going to be something special.''

Reliever John Axford, who has spent the last five seasons visiting Wrigley with the Brewers and Cardinals, agrees with Kelly.

"Early on this season, you could see something being built, but then when the top part went up, you could see it was so cool,'' Axford said. "It's going to be fantastic. It's a perfect mix with Ballpark Village. It is really going to fit the ballpark. It was open out there, and it still is. It doesn't block your city view. It looked like something ought to be there before, and now it's there. It's great.''

Andy Tader, a Chicago beer rep and lifelong Cubs fan, initially had a hard time wrapping his head around the idea of a rooftop at Busch Stadium.

"Wow, that's crazy,'' Tader said. "It's kind of funny how they're trying to mimic what we do up here. That's part of our mystique, but everybody's copying everybody now. I guess anything goes when the Red Sox can put seats on top of the Green Monster. We're trying to copy other parks with the Jumbotron [at Wrigley Field] now, and St. Louis is doing rooftops. Go ahead and let 'em. Things change.''

Mannino wonders how rooftop parties will fit in with the character of Busch Stadium. She said she's always enjoyed watching games in St. Louis because the crowds are more serious about baseball than many people at Wrigley Field.

"It's surprising to me because their fan base is so baseball savvy,'' Mannino said. "I've been to the rooftops and I don't like it. You don't watch the game, you can't see it .''

Don't bother inviting Brehmer to the Busch Stadium rooftop. He says he almost always turns down invitations he gets to go to those at Wrigley Field, preferring the feel of his terrace-level seats behind the Cubs dugout. He's not a big fan of modern ballparks and could do without many of the proposed renovations in Chicago, although he says he'll happily tolerate them if they help make the Cubs consistently competitive.

"I'm one of those soon-to-be-curmudgeons -- no Jumbotron, no skyboxes, no wave,'' Brehmer said. "I take a lot of pleasure sitting in the treasure that is Wrigley Field, keeping score with a pencil and a scorecard and, I know this is revolutionary, watching the game. I don't need rock music and sausage races. The baseball is enough. I know I'm a dinosaur. I'm a stegosaurus with two brains. My kind will be extinguished in years to come.''

Sooner or later, everything changes, even at Wrigley Field and beneath the shadow of the Arch.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals