The figurative smoke from this spring's ticket-sales boom had barely cleared when the St. Louis Cardinals announced late last month that 45,000 additional tickets would be made available to the public. Team spokesmen explained that portions of the left-field stands that had been slated for completion in midyear would be finished in time for the Cardinals April 10 home opener.
But the Cardinals failed to note that thousands of the newly available seats had been designed for disabled fans. So when customers queued up in the "virtual waiting room" at www.stlcardinals.com, many were offered the bleacher-bum equivalent of sneaking into a handicapped-accessible parking space without a permit.
"We've gotten several calls about it," says Kate Thacker, a spokeswoman for the disability-rights organization Paraquad. "We didn't know whether it was a computer glitch or what."
It was no glitch. Joe Strohm, vice president of ticket sales for the Cardinals, says the club opted to open up the wheelchair seats to the general public based on the strong demand for tickets to the spanking-new stadium.
"When a game is completely sold, we're offering accessible seating for sale," says Strohm. "At the old Busch Stadium, this wasn't an issue because we had far fewer wheelchair-accessible seats and they usually sold out to people of need."
Strohm says that while the old ballpark could accommodate fewer than 300 wheelchairs, the new Busch offers 728 spots designed for a wheelchair or, when sold to an able-bodied game goer, a folding chair. Tickets for the wheelchair-accessible spaces sell for the same price as seats in the section where they're located. Though the team's Web site distinguishes between "Wheelchair Space" and "Attendant Seat," Strohm says the two are exactly the same and consist of a concrete pad upon which wheelchairs and/or folding chairs can be placed. In response to ticket buyers' confusion, the team posted a message on the Web site noting that all spaces in "WC" sections could be equipped with a folding chair.
Gina Hilberry, an architect who served on a committee that advised the Cardinals on disability issues, says the ballpark has been praised for its accessibility. But news that the team is selling wheelchair spots to the general public came as a surprise.
"That is not a policy I was aware of," says Hilberry. "In committee we discussed how the team would determine whether people purchasing accessible seating actually qualified for the seats. But selling them to anyone? That never came up."
The Cardinals aren't alone in selling accessible seating to the able-bodied. Locally, spokesmen for the Rams and the Blues say their clubs put accessible seats up for grabs if a game is sold out. The San Francisco Giants, who routinely sell out games at AT&T Park, offer up some of their accessible seating.
"We keep maybe 50 to 100 accessible seats for game day," notes Giants spokeswoman Shana Daum. "You never know who's going to show up at the stadium in need of special accommodations."
Strohm says the Cardinals will implement a similar policy, holding on to 30 to 50 wheelchair spaces for ticket-holders in need of special accommodations come game day. The rest are fair game.
As of last week, the Cardinals, whose $29.78 average ticket price is third-highest in the major leagues this year, had sold out 13 dates. Strohm says the team anticipates sellout crowds for all 81 home games this season.
"We'll hold on to some of the accessible seats for a while, but if a game is sold out we're going to let those tickets go at some point," he adds. "I think everyone will agree the accessible seats are a big improvement over the old stadium. They're much closer to the field, and the views are incredible."