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For 56 springs, St. Louis Cardinals players have been coming to St. Petersburg, preparing for each season and creating memories.

The guestbook of visitors is a roster of Cardinals legends, Stan Musial, Bill White, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith all among them.

But the Cardinals will add to the lore for only one more spring. Starting in 1998, St. Petersburg will be the setting for a new version of history when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays become the first team to hold spring training on a permanent basis in the city in which it plays.

On Tuesday, the Cardinals signed a letter of intent to move their spring training camp to a new field to be built in Jupiter and shared with the Montreal Expos. The Palm Beach County Commission approved the deal 6-1 and agreed to build the $25-million facility.

The Cardinals have 30 days to work out arrangements to share the new stadium with the Expos and turn their St. Petersburg lease over to the Devil Rays, but parties on all sides said Tuesday that a large chapter of St. Petersburg history was about to change.

The Cardinals, who were concerned over what impact the presence of the Devil Rays would have on them, said they were sad to leave.

"We literally agonized over the decision," new co-owner Fred Hanser said from St. Louis. "We didn't do it lightly and we didn't do it without feeling."

The Devil Rays, who envision players and staff living and working year-round in the bay area, were happy to come. "I cannot see any negatives," managing general partner Vince Naimoli said from New York. "I only see positives. This will make Tampa Bay a baseball mecca."

And St. Petersburg officials, who lost one tenant and gained another, said they were a little of both. "I think it's a very bittersweet day," city administrator Rick Dodge said. ". . . There's some sadness in this," Dodge said. "At the same time it was probably a very sensible business decision for them and fortuitously they were able to do it in a way that allows the Devil Rays to come. There is a real sense of sadness but there is joy mixed in with that."

The Cardinals said they were not leaving because of anything St. Petersburg officials did _ or did not _ do.

"The only thing that could have changed is to not have a major-league baseball team here," Cardinals president Mark Lamping said. "It's safe to say that long term, some time in the future, it would not have been right to have another team training here. It's just an indication of how far the community has come."

The Cardinals are signed to train in St. Petersburg through 1999, with two five-year options. But they were obligated to tell St. Petersburg by next summer if they wanted to execute the first option, and agreed to make a decision now so St. Petersburg could grab the Devil Rays. The Devil Rays are expected to assume the Cardinals' lease and make a commitment to train here long term.

Losing the Cardinals could have a negative economic impact on St. Petersburg in terms of lost tourism dollars.

St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce chairman-elect David P. Feaster, the Cardinals' spring banker, said, "My office is right across the street from Al Lang field and on game days in the spring, I'm able to take a very informal survey of license plates, and there's an awful lot of Missouri license plates in downtown St. Petersburg."

But Devil Rays vice president/general counsel John Higgins, a former Chamber chairman, said studies show only 2-3 percent of March tourists say they are here for spring training.

"There may be some people who follow a team but the large percentage of those people, they are in Florida and they go to spring training games," Higgins said. "That's different than packing up to come to Florida for spring training. That's a big distinction. We feel very confident the tourists will still come and come in larger quantities and want to see the local team."

Dodge agreed. "With the kind of the strong support the Devil Rays will get we will see some moderation in the loss of economic impact," he said. "We may lose some in the hotel industry and things like that keyed to travel, but we may pick up some other things having the local team in the community."

The tourism trade may also get a boost because the Cardinals are talking about playing a series of games each spring in the Tampa Bay area. "We'd like to do that so our fans in St. Petersburg will get a chance to watch the Cardinals," Hanser said. "It would be fun to come over and play the Devil Rays. The Cardinals are a St. Petersburg team, and the Devil Rays are the new St. Petersburg team."

Teams have spring trained in St. Petersburg since 1914 and the area has been known as the capital of spring training. "The Yankees and the Cardinals put St. Petersburg on the map," Mayor David Fischer said. "In their way, they were very instrumental in the development of this city. They brought people down here from the Midwest and East, and those people settled here.

"There's a very deep history of that happening here, and I think the Cards (owners) had a strong sense of that history. It bothered them that they might be the ones to depart."

Hanser and Lamping said it was difficult for the team officials to decide to leave. Members of the Cardinals family, many of whom consider St. Petersburg a second home, greeted the news with mixed emotions.

"It's surprising in a way because we've called St. Petersburg our home for so many years," Musial said from St. Louis. "It's a great training area and the fans supported us in spring training. We have so many friends there, we're going to miss St. Pete."

St. Louis catcher Tom Pagnozzi said the news was tough for him because he is one of three Cardinals players who own homes in Pinellas County. "It's definitely going to be a change," Pagnozzi said. "I just hope it's a change for the better since we're leaving."

"I'm sorry to see it coming to a close," said former Cardinals player and general manager Dal Maxvill. "There is an awful lot of tradition there in both directions. They couldn't have treated us nicer. I have nothing but fine memories."

One Tampa Bay businessman who also had mixed emotions was Claude Focardi. He was a young executive when the Busch family first bought the team and became the right-hand man to Augie Busch. Now Focardi, who started Great Bay Distributors in Pinellas County, is a limited partner in the Devil Rays.

"I'm devastated the Cardinals are leaving," Focardi said. "But it's a changing world, and I guess I've got to realize that. We'll all become Devil Ray rooters 1,000 percent."

The Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg from 1938-42, then returned in 1946 and have been here ever since.

They finished first eight times and won five World Series championships during the years they trained in St. Petersburg. But not all of the memories are pleasant.

Hotels in St. Petersburg, like some other southern cities, were still segregated as late as the early 1960s. Cardinals player Bill White drew national attention to St. Petersburg when he told the Associated Press of his concerns when he and other blacks were not invited to a Salute to Baseball breakfast sponsored by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

"When will we be made to feel like humans?" White told AP then. "They invited all but the colored players. Even the kids who never come to bat once in the big leagues received invitations _ that is, if they were white."

Former star pitcher Bob Gibson indicated Tuesday he had similar concerns. "At the beginning St. Pete was not a very nice place for me to live or have a nice time," Gibson said Tuesday from his Omaha, Neb., home. "My original memories are not very nice. But it did get better."

The Cardinals were party to another controversy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some St. Petersburg leaders questioned whether Cardinals officials were helping or hurting Tampa Bay's effort to land its own major-league team.

"I think the Cardinals were uncertain about what would happen in this city if major-league baseball came and certainly they had some ambivalence at some stages about the level of support they provided within major-league baseball to support us getting a team," said Dodge. "Toward the end of the process they were much more helpful."

In Jupiter, the Cardinals will get a new complex with six training fields and shared use of a new stadium with the Expos. "One of the benefits of the move is that we will have our training site all on campus," Hanser said. "That is a much more efficient way of operating."

Assistant Palm Beach County administrator Alan Tarlow said officials there were enthusiastic about landing the Cardinals.

The Devil Rays are excited to take over the St. Petersburg facilities, which include Al Lang Stadium, the Busch Complex and also use of Huggins-Stengel Complex near downtown St. Petersburg.

There may be some awkward moments next spring when the Cardinals play what amounts to a lame-duck season in St. Petersburg, but Lamping said they will make the best of it.

"It's nothing to be sad about," he said. "It's something to celebrate. Fortunately the timing worked out well. We can say our "thank yous' to the community next year and they celebrate the Devil Rays the following year."

For Lamping, it will be especially interesting. In late March, he bought a home here. "Who knows?" he said Tuesday as he left St. Petersburg city hall. "Maybe we'll keep the house."

_ Times staff writer David K. Rogers contributed to this report.