Monday, October 17, 2011

Why I love St Louis & baseball but not the Cardinals

Left-handed batting stance on the rock & roll road, ca. 1993.

I love St. Louis to death and love the game of baseball almost as much; yet the St. Louis Cardinals just battled through a Cinderella August worthy of the record books to win the National League penant and advance to the 2011 World Series, and I really don't care. Don't give a hoot. Didn't watch one single out of the National League Championship Series. I'd probably even silently root against the Redbirds in the Series, were it not for the fact that their American League opponent, the Texas Rangers, previously were owned by George W. Bush.

What gives? How the hell could all of these things be true?

Let me start with my baseball bona fides. I may be an oddball by many measures -- I read Turkish poetry for fun and make zombie movies based on Turkish poems -- yet I am a fully acculterated American boy when it comes to baseball. Not only did I memorize the backs of baseball cards, I have held onto my entire childhood baseball collection over an itinerant life that has included periods of being "between homes." Not only did I grow up playing the game, it was the one game I was good at. Most sports, I played precisely well enough to earn a starting position, wear a jersey on game days, attract the girlfriends who could be won in no other way. In baseball, I played third base, picked a mean hot corner, and always batted in the heart of the lineup, a line-drive hitter with longball power. I even played competitive baseball as recently as this century, when I co-founded a vintage baseball team that played barehanded ball by 19th century rules in New York City's Central Park. I played third base and batted in the heart of the lineup.

Baseball; okay. But St. Louis Cardinals baseball, and me?

Sure. I grew up on Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. I knew, like everybody knew, that we were sitting at the heels of genius there. I grew up on Ozzie Smith and Al Hrabosky -- magical, mystical, supernatural ballplayers and characters. Visual evidence exists of this: a photograph of me from a Granite City Halloween party in the early 1980s, when our entire friendship clique came in costume as St. Louis Cardinals players: a portrait of the artist (in my case) as a mediocre second baseman (Tommy Herr).

What happened? A whole lot of things happened.

I'm slightly phobic about filling out forms. I was really good at high school, but not good at all about applying to any colleges. So a guidance counselor sent a U.S. Navy recruiter to me. He filled out all of my forms, and suddenly I was a Navy Midshipman studying biomedical engineering at Boston University with a full-time job as a NROTC Cadet. I was also a fanatic for rock music suddenly thrown into one of the great rock music cities, Boston, with indie rock exploding all around me. I looked at my course schedule, my Navy billets, the gig calendars at Boston rock clubs, and I realized something had to go. My baseball fanatacism had to go, if I was going to make it through this NROTC university thing. And so the boy who used to interview himself as an imaginary famous baseball player while stocking shelves at Cohen's Market went pretty close to cold turkey on Major League Baseball. It amazes me to remember this, but I lived a year in Boston, able to replay in memory any number of Freddy Lynn catches in its center field, in the shadow of the Green Monster, and stepped inside Fenway Park exactly once.

I lived in Boston one year only. Me and the Navy didn't work out. That's another story. I ended up back home, though not in Granite City; now I was in St. Louis proper, at Washington University. There might have been time to take up baseball again, but not in the poring-over-box-scores-every-morning manner I was accustomed to -- especially not with this rock music thing taking me over, more and more completely. In fact, I ended up running away from the academy (where I was doing fine, at least on paper, the only place that really matters in the academy) to play rock music myself.

When I got off the rock & roll road towards the end of the 1990s, there was a window there when the St. Louis Cardinals might have won me back. This was exactly when Cardinal Nation, as Cardinals fans style themselves, lost its damn mind. The owners brought this big ugly redheaded guy with bloated muscles here from Oakland. His specialty was what I emphatically consider to be the single dullest play in the game of baseball, from the standpoint of a spectator: the homerun. It's the only play that ends with the swing of the bat. In every other play, even a foul ball or wild pitch, someone else has a chance of being drawn into the play, to make an even better play or perhaps some catastrophic mistake. In the quintessential team sport, however, the homerun is the most solitary play, the solipsist's play. Yet it ascended to dominate the game. Bloated muscles and a shallow, cowlike response to big stats from fair-weather fans turned the chess of team sports into a meat-musclehead strongman dinging a bell.

Remember: I was a third baseman. I like infield defense, not infielders watching a speeding white blip sail over a distant fence while the constipated strongman touches four.

Then I met a lady on a plane and ended up living with her in New York. I did the thing you have to do when you're living with a lady, I got my own job. I ended up editing the travel section of a magazine. Let's face it, that's not the most demanding job in the world. To a guy who had scraped and hustled for the Navy, studied at world-class research universities, figured out how to run a touring rock band from scratch, and eked out a living writing freelance journalism at a dime a word, it was kind of like being paid to do nothing. But suddenly I had to be at the same place all the time, with the same people (when I wasn't traveling to write a travel story). Like millions of office workers before and after me, I found myself with a little time on my hands to discuss athletic contests. I crept back into baseball.

I was in New York, okay? And the hometown team, the Cardinals, had fallen for the bloated strongman who dings the bell. What was I going to do? Go over to the Yankees? I went over to the Yankees. I got some good haiku out of my first visit to Yankee Stadium. Yeah, Yankee Stadium. I started to feel some of the old magic come back. But we are talking about the Yankees here, or much more disastrously, the Yankees' fans. Though they play their games in the Bronx, this was Manhattan's team, and Manhattan had become the rich man's island. This was the rich fan's team. I went over to the Mets.

I know, the Muts, I know, the Pond Scum. But the Cardinals had fallen for the ugly bloated redheaded strongman who dings the bell. I owed them nothing. The Mets were my hometown team now. I could even walk to the stadium, and I did just that many times. My best friend in New York lived right along the way, Rosco Gordon, the jump blues legend who recorded with Sam Phillips before Sun Studios, when Elvis was still strumming a tennis racket as a guitar and interviewing himself as an imaginary famous musician. I'd walk through Jackson Heights, pick up three snacks from three different ethnic kitchens, pick up the jump bluesman, and we'd watch the Mets at Shea.

Remember, I was a third baseman. The third baseman for the Mets in those days was Robin Ventura. That is, first of all, one of history's great names. Robin Ventura. It's ridiculous. And then I met the man, an incredibly nice man, and all those Mets, by coming up with feature stories for the (now defunct) Connecticut page of The New York Times. Robin Ventura lived in Connecticut, as did Todd Zeile, the kooky Mets manager Bobby Valentine (another immortal baseball name) and a number of other guys on the field and in the front office. My editor at The Times was a Connecticut guy and a baseball nut, always looking for a reason to green-light a Connecticut baseball feature. Connecticut and baseball have been very, very good to me.

My sketch of a cameraman made from the press box at the old Shea Stadium.
This next part is very important. The people who most need to hear it, Cardinals fans, will never hear it. I have tried to tell many Cardinals fans this, and they would not hear it. They never hear it. But it is true. Shea Stadium has the sharpest baseball critics in the world. When I say this to Cardinals fans, they say in a chorus, "No, Cardinals fans are the best fans in baseball!" And then I say, while that may or may not be true, in terms of cow-eyed adoration of the home team, it's not what I said. I said: best baseball critics. In Shea, they love baseball, but love or hate the Mets precisely according to how well or badly they measure up to the great game of baseball. I am not talking about see-sawing manic-depressively from cow-eyed adoration to drunken despondency that my team is out of the Wild Card race. I am talking pitch by pitch, infield adjustment by infield adjustment, pitching change by pitching change criticism of the game as the game is being played.

I moved back home. That's another another story. And I saw St. Louis sports through new eyes. It's really very simple. New York is a two-team town. It's a competitive democracy for sports fandom. Nowhere in New York can you say "the game," as in "can you turn on the game?" as if there is only one game in town. The game. In New York, there is always at least two games in town. Now don't get me wrong, I don't love New York. I vastly prefer St. Louis. But what I like about St. Louis least is what so many people from St. Louis thinks makes them so special: how much they love their sports teams. In fact, this is the most typical, bush league thing about this great city. Ever been to a college town on a game day? That's St. Louis, 162 days of the year, or more, if the Cardinals make it into the post-season. If New York is a competitive sports democracy, St. Louis is a rigid, inflexible, one-party system. It's the Soviet Russia of sports cities.

And lo and behold, these Cardinal fans now have embraced another California import who totally rubs me the wrong way. I never liked the cocky look of this manager. Eventually, he would take his upturned nostrils and self-infatuation to a conservative rally against President Obama organized by a cheap shot of a conservative talk show hack, but long before that he violated my sense of humanity once and for eternity when he threatened a press conference full of reporters with a fungo bat he was holding in his hands. Tough guy. Sorry, Charlie. I was done with you and your team, whichever that team might be and wherever it might be getting its taxpayer subsidies, then and forever.

There is that political point to be considered there, the paying for these owners to make money off us, but I won't whine about the "pay for my new stadium" game, which everybody plays, everywhere. Hey, I'd take some help refinancing my mortgage too, if I could get away with it, but I can't.

But then I also can't fathom how the chump hometown fan is exactly the last person suited up for this game with an iota of geographic loyalty. The owner of the team may not live in the team's town (the Cardinals' owner doesn't). The players play for the highest bidder, wherever that bid may be paid. That's the way the fans want it, presumably, because they holler pretty fast for the owner to let any player go who's fading in exchange for the next better thing. Everybody is always looking for the next team, or the next player. Everybody is in it for the money or the glory, except Joe Chump Hometown Fan. Joe is supposed to root robotically for whoever happens to be playing for whoever happens to be owning the team that happens to be situated in his town -- until, of course, the owner moves his hometown team to another hometown. And then they wait for another owner to move another team to their town so they can love that team and only that team with that same cowlike look in their eyes.

I don't get it. I grew up in the Free Agency Era, which started right here in St. Louis, by the way, in 1969. I was a boy of three probably chasing a baseball across the carpet when Curt Flood said hell no, I don't want to go. I want to stay. And by wanting to stay in St. Louis instead of submitting to a trade to another city's team, ironically, he paved the way for a game of baseball where nobody stays in one place anymore. Except the chump hometown fan, who even when he or she moves, is still supposed to remain nostalgically loyal to the team that happens to be situated in their hometown, until it isn't.

I'm not like that. Take me and the Mets. It's over. They've moved on, and I've moved on. The Mets I cared about are gone from New York. Robin Ventura is now managing up in Chicago (I'll have to find a reason to go and say hello). Todd Zeile is producing movies (I'll have to find a reason to go ask him for money). Bobby Valentine talks about the game on TV and has a city job in his Connecticut hometown. They might be somebody's Mets, but they're not mine anymore.

I now live in a house with two females, and one TV. I think you know what that means. I haven't seen a television in years, at least not the one I co-own. I could listen to baseball on the radio, but I still prefer music, if I have to pick one or the other. In fact, I would say it's time for me finally to retire as a journeyman freelance baseball fan. I quit. I'm out of here. If the game ever decides to remember me for my contributions to the game, not that I expect it will, and I have to pick a jersey to wear when I enter the Cooperstown of freelance baseball fans, it won't be the Cardinals jersey. It won't be the Red Sox jersey. It won't even be my most recently Mets. It will be the Sans Souci Poeteasters, my imaginary dice baseball team composed of nothing but poets. But that's another another another story.


J. Moad said...

I get this in part. To me this is a form of nostalgia being expressed for a game that is and will always be in flux, changing and evolving in some way, even if in a small bits. It seems that the nostalgia was born from an aberration in Cardinal history (one that the Mets and most teams aren't above engaging in, after all). I guess for me, being away for so many years, missing the game and living in Europe where I couldn't watch or hear it, made me really enjoy coming home and listening to Mike Shannon. It took me back to those days in fifth or sixth grade, and I remember falling asleep to the games and even listening to some of them at your house or my house as we studied those old baseball cards (I still have all mine, as well). Being away from the local media, I've been oblivious to LaRussa's politics, but have admired his scrappy way of doing whatever it takes to win and not being a manager who relies on the long ball. I love his commitment to great defense at the expense of the bat (sitting Freese or Berkman in late innings). Yes, the game has morphed into one dominated more and more by money and distant, aloof owners who are committed to profit above all else, it seems... but as a fan, and as a former scrappy shortstop who loves nothing more than a beautifully turned double play or an impromptu squeeze catching a pitcher unaware, I accept the imperfections all around the game as I sip a few beers and listen or watch a game that I can't help but love. I am, imperfect as well, after all, and the game is a part of me. There is no other sport that lends itself so perfectly to poetry as that game without a timed ending... a game that can go on and on as long as we're willing to be a part of it all...

Anonymous said...

It's just another form of "lonely life bullshit" (LLB) as far as I can see it. We are so starved to connect to our fellow humans that we will lie to ourselves, turn a pile of bullshit into a blessing, just to have the feeling of being in it together. It's like fuel for small talk under the guise of meaningful talk. Other manifestations of LLB are far too many to list. Of course, there are so many real things that we overlook in the process, but things that matter can be a bit overwhelming.

JvK said...

If you grew up as a child going to Busch Stadium, odds are you will become a Cardinal fan. Or you might not. Nothing wrong with that. If you grew up in Granite City, odds are you will have many good childhood memories of Granite City. Nothing wrong with this either. So stop all the judgement and just enjoy baseball....any baseball.

And describing Tom Herr as a mediocre second baseman is not only inaccurate but insulting. So now that LaGenius is gone.....Go Cardinals!!!!!