Saturday, October 10, 2009

Life as a Cardinals Fan: Of Hope and Heartbreak

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. ~A. Bartlett Giamatti, November 1977

For those who know me well, it will come as no surprise that, at around 9:15 p.m. on Thursday night (October 8, 2009), I suffered a bit of a meltdown. You see, Matt Holliday dropped a fly ball. Not just any fly ball, mind you, but the routine, right-into-the-glove sort of fly ball that, on any other night, would have been caught, the final touch of a 2-1 Cardinals win. It was the bottom of the ninth inning in Game Two of the National League Division Series and the Cardinals were one out away from tying the series and sending it back to St. Louis. But then James Loney of the Dodgers hit a routine, soft fly ball directly at Holliday in left field. As the television camera panned on Holliday, the baseball sailed in his immediate direction, the game all but over; my fist was pumped, as Hannah (my daughter, and fellow Cards fanatic) and I were ready to celebrate the win with our customary high fives and fist knocks. Then Holliday dropped the ball. He tripped and fell face first to the ground, the ball dribbling away and rolling on the outfield grass like a live grenade, as Loney skidded safely into second. The rest is history. Ryan Franklin walked the next batter, yielded a game-tying single, walked another batter, and then gave up the game winning single to a 38-year old, washed up journeyman named Mark Loretta. I suffered a meltdown. I may have yelled a few profanities, I really don’t remember, my mind is a blank. In the immortal words of Jimmy Hoffa, “My memory fails to recall my recollection.”

The Cardinals had a surprisingly good season this year, winning 91 games with a team expected to finish no better than fourth place in their division. They are a resilient group, with solid pitching, good defense, scrappy determination, and Albert Pujols, the best player in all of baseball. They started strong and, come July, added stars to their arsenal – Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and Julio Lugo – which turned this seemingly mediocre bunch into not just pennant contenders, but favorites. But then Holliday dropped the ball. In the words of Chuck Tanner, “It’s hard to win a pennant, but it’s harder losing one.” I know far too well exactly what that means.

Books are written and movies made of the long suffering Red Sox fans, those poor souls who went 86 years without a championship; the Eastern Establishment and Hollywood glitterati have a soft spot for Red Sox Nation. Famous literary and political figures the world over profess an allegiance to that formerly cursed franchise. But Red Sox Nation has nothing on me. I live in Cardinal Nation – a soulful place where only the faithful dare dwell.

Cardinal fans are considered the best, most loyal fans in the country. We’re polite to a fault – we don’t gratuitously boo and throw objects at opposing players like they do in Philadelphia. In St. Louis, oceans of red swarm to the ballpark every night. One mustn’t be fooled, however, by our wholesome, Midwestern airs. Unlike Red Sox fans – and not to be too technical, but Cubs fans as well – who expect a black cat to show up when the season is on the line, or for the ball to roll through the legs of their aging first basemen, we expect to win. The Cardinals have had just enough historical success to create an expectation of winning. This is what sets us apart. We know we should win, that God is quietly on our side, that the world is not right if the Cardinals lose. But unlike those spoiled Yankees fans, for us, disappointment and despair are always one pitch away. It is only when you know that you are good enough to win, that you should win – when victory is within your grasp – and then, with two outs in the ninth, Holliday drops the ball and your All-Star closer suddenly forgets how to pitch, as four straight Dodgers reach base and turn certain victory into a devastating loss – only then have you truly suffered!

I have often thought that, when I retire, I will move to the Promised Land – uh, St. Louis, that is. No one in my family can quite understand this. After all, I am from New Jersey. No one told me when I was six years old that you were supposed to root for the home team. In second grade, we studied birds, and I fell in love with the cardinal, his bright red feathers accenting the smart, black trim around his beak. Then I discovered baseball, the smell of leather, the clean grip of the seams, the crisp sound of a wooden bat striking a hard, round ball, and the hopefulness of spring. A bond was created. The Cardinals won the World Series that year (against the Red Sox when the curse of Ruth still hovered over the harbors of Boston), and I was forever hooked. I knew then that my heart and soul lie along the Mississippi near the Gateway Arch, in the land of Gibson, Brock, and Musial.

Al Gallagher, who played four seasons for the San Francisco Giants in the early 1970’s, once said, “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem - once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” I do have another life – as a lawyer, father, and citizen. But during baseball season, all else is secondary. The quality of my day is reflected in last night’s box score, my spiritual and emotional well-being affected by the outcome of each game. There may be a complex explanation for all of this, and it would probably take a team of psychologists to figure all the ramifications. Until then, I will obsess over Holliday missing that fly ball, re-playing it over in my mind until I am convinced that he really caught it, that the Cardinals are still headed to the World Series. Perhaps someday I will grow up, develop perspective, finally realize that baseball is only a game, a pastime, a place of pastoral beauty, symmetry, and timeless perfection intended to soothe a weary soul. Then again, I think of Rogers Hornsby, the great Cardinals second basemen who hit .424 in 1924, who said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

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