Memphis Mafia

In Search of The Best Fans in Baseball

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ST. LOUIS — The idea that the St. Louis Cardinals boast The Best Fans in Baseball started during the runup to the 2004 World Series.

No, wait. It was definitely in the 2000 NLCS against the Mets.

Wait, that isn’t right either. Clearly it began during the 1998 home run chase pitting Mark McGwire against Sammy Sosa. I am sure of it.

Or is it even older than that? Tony La Russa said it not long after he took over the Cardinals managing job.  Peter Gammons used to say it on his old “Diamond Notes” segments in the early 90s. This thing has been going on for at least 20 years, right?

Actually, the Cardinals have been said to have The Best Fans in Baseball for as long as I can remember. And it’s been said long enough and loud enough that we’ve gone through several backlashes and backlashes to the backlashes of the entire notion. It’s to the point now that no one talks about whether the Cardinals actually do have the Best Fans in Baseball. Everyone talks about everyone talking about the Cardinals having the Best Fans in Baseball.

But here’s a funny thing about all of it: usually the ones talking about it (and talking about the talking about it) aren’t actually Cardinals fans. Indeed, I can’t ever remember an actual Cardinals fan claiming to be part of the legendary Best Fans in Baseball, even if many silently — and perhaps a bit smugly — allow the moniker to be assigned to them, all while they maintain plausible deniability. What’s more, very rarely does anyone actually ask actual Cardinals fans if they think they’re the Best Fans in Baseball and, if so, why.

So I decided to do that before Game 3 of the World Series. I set out from my hotel, walked to the ballpark and stopped as many Cardinals gear-clad folks I could find to ask them what they think about this meme that will not die.

First stop: Bridge Tap House on Locust Street, as I figured real fans would be pregaming with some beer and grub. There I encountered Randy Blackburn, 60, of Omaha and his son Brian, 32 of Denver.

“Absolutely,” Randy said when I asked him if Cardinals fans were the best. Why? Because he had lived in between 15 and 20 cities over the course of his adult life and he Cardinals fans were the most widely-scattered and committed folks he’s encountered. Brian agreed, though he noted that “In recent times it’s been easier to be a Cardinals fan. They’re a winning team. They keep players for a long time,” he added, noting that it’s easier to become a more passionate fan for a player you’ve watched develop over time.

I left the Blackburns to their lunch and met Dave Doig, 74, of Townshend, Montana, his daughter Kristie McManus, 49, of Great Falls, Montana and her son Tyler Wolf, 26, of San Francisco:

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Their answers to the Best Fans in Baseball question? “Yes,” Yes,” and “Absolutely,” respectively. Doig said “they have the best looking uniforms in the game” and cited Stan Musial as reasons why the Cardinals both attract and maintain baseball’s best fan base. McManus said “I’m my dad’s biggest fan and he’s a Cardinals fan, so that’s why I love them!”  I looked to her father to see if he blushed, but noted nothing but pride.  Oh, and Game 3 was to be the first-ever Cardinals game Mr. Doig would see in person. It certainly put lie to the notion that the best fans, whichever team they root for, have to have their butts in the seats at the ballpark in order to support their team. Doig has been doing it for most of his 74 years from afar.

Father-daughter love isn’t the only basis of strong Cardinals fandom, however. Sometimes it can be passed on from bro to bro:

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From left to right we have John Nelson, 21, Jim Costello, 24, Wilson Nelson, 24, Patrick Sherlock, 22 and Patrick Nelson, 18, all from Memphis Tennessee. Also from left to right, here are their answers to “Are Cardinals fans the best in baseball” and “why?”

  • John: “Without a doubt, times ten!” and “We bleed red.” Which is a good point. You don’t see Rockies fans bleeding black and purple.
  • Jim told me his reason for loving the Cardinals, but it was 100% totally unprintable even on the Internet. It was outrageously filthy, actually, but in his defense he meant it as a compliment to the fine women of St. Louis. Whether they would take it as such is doubtful, however.
  • Wilson” “F*** yeah,” to the first question. He said St. Louis had the best strip clubs in his experience as well. At this point I was beginning to wonder if these guys were truly here for the World Series.
  • Patrick Nelson: “You’re g***amn right they are.” He did not say why, but you can’t doubt his commitment to the notion.
  • Patrick Sherlock asserted: “Best team in baseball, dude.” There was simply nothing else to discuss.

Walking away from these lads made me think that maybe, as is the case with every other baseball team, the Cardinals have some fans who are into them simply as an excuse to eat hot dogs, drink beer and party. Which is perfectly fine. Indeed, many worse things than rooting for a baseball team have been perpetrated for far weaker reasons than those. But still, I didn’t feel like anything was setting Cards fans apart.

Thankfully, I soon ran into Sam Nash, 53, of Davenport, Iowa, Lorenzo McNamee, 40 of Moline, Illinois and Angie White, 43, of Bettendorf, Iowa, who got things back on a more conventional footing:

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Nash noted that it was hard not to root for a team with some of the greatest players ever. McNamee said Cards fans were the best due to their knowledge and appreciation of their team’s history. White summed it up best, though: “We’re the best fans because we came all the way from Iowa with no tickets and are here just for a chance to get into the game.” Hard to argue with that.

I really enjoyed meeting all of these Cardinals fans, including many others I spoke with but who didn’t want to go on record about all of this. Maybe because they, like most of us, realize that for as much fun it is to talk about these things, it’s ultimately a silly topic to debate.

Every team has its segment of rabid fandom. Every team experiences moments where enthusiasm peaks and the entire city or region seems to coalesce around the local nine. Usually it’s during a playoff or World Series run. But it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes that wave of team spirit erupts over silly things like a player’s hairstyle. Or a play on a player’s name. Sometimes it corresponds with attendance surges, but sometimes not. Heck, even the Cardinals — while always drawing well — have only led the NL in attendance twice in the past 25 years. And as Mr. Doig shows, you don’t have to be at the park to be the best fan you can be.

Who are baseball’s best fans? It’s a question which demands an opinion, not an actual answer. And an opinion that is further removed from data and objective reasoning than most opinions are because it’s an opinion about something that is itself, by definition, irrational. Fervor over sporting events which don’t truly turn on fan fervor and loyalty for an entity that, by its very nature, is comprised of players who are there by virtue of business dealings and a defacto lottery, not concomitant loyalty. We’d die for them in ways that they’d never die for us. Nor, in our more lucid moments, would we ever expect them to.

But just because it’s silly doesn’t mean it’s phony. Here, in St. Louis, on the streets around Busch Stadium before a game which could prove to be the key turning point in the World Series, these fans are jacked to the max. They put their lives on hold for a night or three — or if they traveled from Montana, maybe more — to root on their guys. And when you see and talk to them you feel like maybe — just maybe — they are The Best Fans in Baseball.

Until you see a fan who put his life on greater hold and traveled much farther to cheer on the visiting nine:

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That’s Edward Lima. He’s a Red Sox fan. He came to St. Louis for the game. From Mexico City.

Best Fans? Everyone has a claim.

Dee Gordon reinstated from PED suspension

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
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The Miami Marlins have reinstated second baseman Dee Gordon from his suspension.

Gordon, of course, has missed the last 80 games while serving his drug suspension. He’s coming off a minor league rehab assignment and will be the everyday second baseman for the contending Marlins. He was hitting .266/.289/.340 with three doubles, two triples, five RBI, 13 runs scored, and six stolen bases in 97 plate appearances when he was popped. He was replaced by Derek Dietrich, who hit a nice .275/.366/.398 with 22 extra-base hits, 30 RBI, and 26 runs scored in 314 PA in Gordon’s absence, so don’t expect a tremendous upgrade at second down the stretch, even if they get a nice upgrade in the utility and depth department.

To make room for Gordon, the Marlins designated utilityman and sometimes hero Don Kelly for assignment. Sad jams.

Chris Sale called “a competitor” for stuff that gets most guys called “head cases”

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox reacts during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Chris Sale has had an eventful week.

On Saturday he was scratched from his start and subsequently suspended for five games for cutting up the 1976 throwback uniforms the team was scheduled to wear, making them unusable. That cost the team over $12,000 and cost the Sox their best pitcher hours before game time.

On Monday Sale gave an interview to Scott Merkin in which he apologized to fans and teammates and explained his rationale for the uniform shredding. Even if his act was over the top, there was a core of understandable motivation at least: Sale said he voiced his displeasure with the untucked jersey months ago and asked to not pitch on a night they’d have to wear them because he believed it would mess with his mechanics and/or mental state. The Sox didn’t heed his request and Sale took issue, as many probably would, with what he felt was the business of throwback jerseys taking precedence over on-the-field stuff.

Of course, there are still some pretty big problems here. Mostly having to do with the facts that (a) the Sox have people on staff who could’ve optimized his jersey any way he needed it to be optimized if he had asked; (b) ballplayers have been wearing throwbacks for a long time now and, even if they don’t like them, they tend to endure them; and (c) he’s a ballplayer who needs to suck things up sometimes like every single ballplayer ever has done. There are a ton of things ballplayers are expected to do which are insisted upon by the business folks. It’s part of the gig.

A little more seriously than that is the fact that Sale pretty publicly threw his manager, Robin Ventura, under the bus :

“Robin is the one who has to fight for us in that department,” Sale said. “If the players don’t feel comfortable 100 percent about what we are doing to win the game, and we have an easy fix — it was as easy as hanging up another jersey and everyone was fine. For them to put business first over winning, that’s when I lost it.”

An undercurrent to all of this is Sale being fairly obvious in voicing his desire to be traded.

Today Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story about Sale’s week. It’s sourced largely by Sale’s friend Adam Eaton who defends Sale as a passionate competitor who just wants to win and how all of this stuff of the past week was about his desire to do so. The headline of the story buys in to all of that:

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We heard much the same along these lines when Sale blasted Sox brass following the Drake LaRoche stuff during spring training, going on an expletive-filled rant in a meeting behind closed doors but then bringing the same noise, albeit cleaned up, in front of reporters after it all became public.

Chris Sale is who he is, of course, and I’m not going to too harshly judge who he is. He’s an amazing pitcher and, as most athletes will tell you, the mental part of the game is almost as important or, maybe, even more important than the physical part. Asking Sale to be who he isn’t would probably be counterproductive in the long term.

But I am fascinated with the way in which someone who has behaved like Sale has behaved is described. He’s a “competitor” whose objectively disruptive and literally destructive behavior is explained away as merely a function of his desire to win. His friends on the team, like Eaton, are sought out for damage control and spin and his detractors, which there are likely some, aren’t quoted, even anonymously. He has publicly called out his manager as not wanting to win as much as he wants to please his bosses and he has likewise called out his manager’s bosses and has welcomed a trade, yet we aren’t seeing stories about how that’s a bad thing for the Sox’ clubhouse.

I don’t much care for that sort of stuff, actually, as I suspect most clubhouse controversy stories are somewhat overblown and overly dramatized. But those stories have been go-to tropes of sports writers for decades, and I am trying to imagine this sort of story about players who aren’t Chris Sale. Players who don’t have as friendly a relationship with the media as he has or who don’t have clubhouse allies who do. I feel like, most of the time, a story about a guy who who has done the odd things Sale has done both this week and last March would play a hell of a lot differently.

How does this all play of it’s Yordano Ventura? Or Yasiel Puig? Or Jose Fernandez? How does this play if it took place in the NBA and it was Kevin Durant who shredded up a bunch of short-shorts on 80s throwback night? How does it play if it’s Cam Newton?

I bet it plays differently.