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For local youth, Cardinals provide field of dreams

Team's longstanding program brings amateur games to Busch Stadium

ST. LOUIS -- Long after the fireworks had gone off and the Cardinals had offered their congratulatory high fives following Saturday's win, the Busch Stadium grounds crew prepared the field for the second game of the day's doubleheader.

There was a fresh set of player introductions, another rendition of the national anthem and new video board material. All this for a pair of local high school programs -- in this case, Marquette Catholic (Alton, Ill.) and Hillsboro (Mo.) -- whose day would be highlighted by playing on the same field as the city's Major Leaguers.

It's a scene that plays out after almost every day game the Cards play and is a byproduct of the organization's amateur game program, which began 39 years ago.

Almost four decades after St. Louis' Lutheran North and Lutheran South met in the first such high school game, the Cardinals anticipate hosting 30 of these games this season. Most will feature area high schools from Missouri and Illinois, though programs from as far as Kentucky and Iowa have participated in the past. So, too, have nearby junior colleges.

It's one of the many ways the Cards have enhanced area amateur baseball.

"It's very important, because that is our future fan base," said Joe Strohm, vice president of ticket sales. "They are fans now, but they are going to be our fans forever. And it's very important to reach them at the grass-root level, because we want them to be fans of the game."

Nearly 3,000 kids will play on the field as part of this program, which also serves as a fundraiser for the various schools that participate. The Cardinals provide those teams with discounted tickets to a Cards game, which the schools can then turn around and sell at a higher price to supplement their budgets.

"From that aspect," Strohm said, "it's a program that's a win-win across the board."

The Cardinals also partner with over 50 area youth baseball associations, inviting those teams to participate in a pregame parade at some point each season. Over 20,000 kids, Strohm said, will walk the Busch Stadium warning track and then enjoy a Cards game this year through this initiative.

The program started in the 1990s as part of the Cardinals' efforts to win back fans following the 1994-95 labor strike. Participation increased after the team moved to Busch Stadium III, because the organization could no longer host as many amateur games. The transition from AstroTurf to a grass field added those limitations.

Approximately another 4,500 kids will parade around the ballpark as Redbird Rookies. Those children are part of a program the Cardinals created to offer youth baseball leagues for free to those who may otherwise not have access. The Cards are also heavy financial supporters of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) Program.

Through all of these outreach efforts and others, the organization hands out about 150,000 complimentary tickets each year.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB and like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for
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