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.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: