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BenFred: First taste of fully open Busch was a bit flat, a sign Cardinals will have to earn their sellouts this season

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The crowd, like the team, was incomplete.

Busch Stadium was open for full capacity attendance Monday night for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and if you were expecting a full house — you probably should not have been — you were overly optimistic.

By a lot.

During the second-inning review of Yadier Molina’s successful tag of Marlins baserunner Adam Duvall, I counted 21 fans (not including the usher) occupying four third-level sections above a partially filled Big Mac Land. Down the right-field line, two couples had Budweiser Terrace’s top two sections pretty much all to themselves; how romantic! Even some empty green seats could be spotted from the press box, each one representing a missed chance for the who’s-who of St. Louis to mingle with supermodel Karlie Kloss.

Fans tried to start The Wave in the seventh inning. More like ripple.

There are all sorts of reasons that should be mentioned when discussing why an announced crowd of 24,281 could look around and see swaths of empty seats in nearly every section, along with some almost entirely empty sections. While this crowd was the largest of the season for a weeknight game, two earlier this season earned a bigger announced crowd — before crowd limits were lifted.

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Academics will spend years studying how quickly Americans jump back into big crowds, even outdoor ones, as we continue to ease out of the pandemic. Every person’s comfort level is different, whether they have made the choice to get vaccinated or continue to resist. Whether it’s a ballpark or a bar, just because it’s open doesn’t mean everyone who once went is ready to return.

Then there are the more familiar reasons, the ones that would have been true about Monday’s crowd regardless of the pandemic. Let’s face it. This game checked a few big boxes on the stay-at-home bingo card.

Monday night. Mundane opponent; sorry, Marlins. Sweltering heat. One car thermometer read 105 degrees before pregame interviews. I found out later that some fans who bought tickets and did attend were delayed by an issue with MLB’s ticket app that required them to line up old-fashioned style at a ticket window, leading to a later arrival.

Point is, this was not the game to make a non-nuanced point about the 2021 Cardinals and their fairly frustrated fans. So, let’s attempt to make a nuanced point instead. It seems safe to assume the Cardinals are going to have to truly earn their sellouts in 2021. The best way to do that is not giving out bucket hats and Molina-adorned powder-coated tumblers. It’s by stopping the tumble.

The Cardinals were a first-place team by 3½ games when they announced on May 19th, the same day they beat the Pirates 8-5 at home, that Busch’s attendance would be full starting Monday.

Since then they have been caught in a tailspin, one fueled by a combination of problems including injuries to starting pitchers; healthy arms who have been unreliable; a chilling effect on some of the little but crucial things the Cardinals used to do so well, like sliding across home plate instead of getting tagged out while attempting to cross standing up; a top half of a lineup that has cooled; and, increasingly, a front office’s continued delay in acquiring reinforcements from the outside.

Entering Monday’s series opening 4-2 win against the Marlins, the first of six consecutive series against teams with losing records the Cardinals must use to stop the bleeding, the Redbirds had gone 7-15 while being outscored by 51 combined runs. They had lost nine of their last 10, falling from first place to fourth in a span of 14 days. The last three Ls, a sweep at the hands of the Cubs at a raucous Wrigley Field, were the most painful.

“Let me (say) this correctly,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We enjoyed the atmosphere quite a bit at Wrigley Field. We need to make sure that song (Go Cubs Go) doesn’t play. . . . But that is what it’s supposed to be like. The atmosphere before the game. The interaction with the guys, the fans, batting practice, seeing (media) around. There was energy to the ballpark. There has been great energy here (at Busch) already, but having it at full capacity would be very meaningful on a lot of levels for us.”

The first taste of fully open Wrigley featured a mile-long beer snake of drained cups and a Cubs club that has surprised some by competing for the division lead despite future-thinking moves made by the front office entering the season. The first taste of fully open Busch was a bit flat. Did the best part of the Cardinals’ season end before a true, full sellout could witness it?

Nolan Arenado is not walking through that door. He’s already here. The Cardinals’ best candidate to make the All-Star team needs help beyond the team’s hope its injured players get healthy. The blockbuster offseason trade that put Arenado in red showed urgency. Will there be more?

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and his fellow front-office decision makers find themselves in a bind. The Cardinals, like when they acquired Arenado from the Rockies, prefer to make deals with desperate teams, not as the desperate team. They are the desperate team now.

Front offices fielding the Cardinals’ calls will drive up prices as a result. Doing nothing or close to it — the team’s playbook for the last five trade deadlines — is certainly an option, and maybe a smart one if the 2022 season is going to be scrambled by labor strife. But fans should not be expected to reward it. If Busch is going to really rock this summer, help has to come before it’s too late.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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