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.

How not to enjoy what Aaron Judge is doing

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has been one of the biggest and best stories in all of baseball this year. While he held promise entering his rookie season, most experts figured he’d provide some low-average, low-OBP power. That he’d be a guy who, based on his size, could send a pitcher’s mistake 500 feet in the wrong direction, but who would probably be shown to have big holes in his swing once he’d been around the league a little bit.

Judge defied expectations, however, and has put together an amazing rookie season. He broke the rookie home run record yesterday with his 50th blast. He still strikes out a lot but so does everyone. He nonetheless has hit for a great average and has gotten on base at a fantastic clip. He has also showed some uncommon resilience, overcoming a lengthy slump in July and August and returning to the dominant form he showed in the first half while helping a Yankees team not many figured to be a strong contender into the playoffs. Such a great story!

Sadly, however, this sentiment, which appeared from a commenter on my Facebook page yesterday, has become increasingly common:

I’ve seen it in a lot of comments sections and message boards around the Internet too, including our own comment section. From yesterday:

This is not exactly the same thing we’ve seen in the past with other breakout home run hitters such as Jose Bautista a few years back. This is not an accusation that Judge is taking drugs or anything. It’s more of a preemptive and defensive diminishment of excitement. And I find it rather sad.

Yes, I understand that past PED users have made fans wonder whether the players they watch are using something to get an extra edge, but it really does not need to be this way. We’ve had drug testing in baseball for over a decade and, while no drug testing regime is perfect, it just seems bizarre, several years after Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did their thing — and a few years after Alex Rodriguez and others were caught and disciplined for trying to do more — to assume, out of hand, that great baseball performances are the product of undetected cheating. Yes, it’s possible, but such assumptions should not be the default stance, only to be disproved (somehow) at a later date.

The same goes for the juiced baseball, right? Yes, there is strong evidence that the baseball was changed a couple of years back leading to a home run spike, but aren’t all players using the same baseball? It’s also worth remembering that the season Mark McGwire hit 49 homers — 1987 — is strongly suspected of being a juiced ball year as well. It’s a concern that may be based in fact, but it’s a large concern over a fact thrown out with little regard for context to sketch out a threat that is either remote or without consequence.

The point here is not to argue that Aaron Judge is undeniably clean or that the baseball isn’t different. The former is unknown and the latter is likely false. The point is that it’s super sad and self-defeating to qualify every amazing feat you see with preemptive concern about such things. Years and years of sports writers writing McCarthy-esque “Yes, but is he clean?” articles does not require you, as a fan, to do the same. You can enjoy a cool thing in the moment. If it’s found out later to have been tainted, fine, we have a lot of practice in contextualizing such things and we’ll do so pretty quickly, but what’s the harm in going with it in real time?

I suspect the answer to that is rooted in some desire not to look like a sucker or something. Not to find oneself like many did, in the mid-2000s, being told by sportswriters and politicians that they were dupes for enjoying Sosa and McGwire in 1998. But that’s idiotic, in my view. I enjoyed 1998 and all of the baseball I saw on either side of it, as did most baseball fans. When the PEDs stuff exploded in the 2000s I reassessed it somewhat as far as the magnitude of the accomplishments compared to other eras in history, but it didn’t mean I enjoyed what I had seen any less.

Likewise, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of watching Aaron Judge this year. Why can’t everyone? Why is it so hard? Why have we been conditioned to be skeptical of something that is supposed to be entertaining? When your personal stakes are low like they are with respect to any sporting event or form of entertainment, it’s OK to enjoy things while they’re enjoyable and worry about them being problematic if and when they ever become so. And hey, they may not!

I promise you: if Aaron Judge walks into the postseason awards banquet this winter carrying a briefcase that unexpectedly opens and 200 syringes full of nandrolone fall out, no one is going to say you were dumb for cheering for him yesterday. It will really be OK.

Yadier Molina leaves game after taking two foul balls to the mask

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The St. Louis Cardinals have been eliminated from contention for the NL Central crown and are hanging on by the thinnest of threads in the race for the second NL Wild Card, two and a half games back of the Rockies with the Brewers in between. Last night those dim playoff hopes took what may have been a fatal blow thanks to a couple of foul balls that knocked Yadier Molina out of the game and, possibly, out for the season.

In the seventh inning of last night’s Cubs-Cardinals game Molina took a Kris Bryant foul ball off of his mask. It sent him to his knees. He gathered himself, set back up and, on the very next pitch, took a second foul ball, right to the mask. He was much slower in rising that time and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny immediately — and wisely — pulled Molina from the game.

Molina is being monitored for a concussion. Whether he has one or not, prudence would dictate sitting him down for the rest of what are likely the Cardinals final six games of 2017.