A few weeks ago I met a senior vice president at a DC public relations firm. It being the post-season, we got talking baseball. He’s a huge fan. Season tickets to the Nationals. Weekend season tickets to the Orioles. He even moved to the Navy Yard area of DC so he could walk to games.
When I told him I’m a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, the mood shifted. “I loathe the Cardinals,” he said. “That’s impossible,” I replied. Nobody hates the Cardinals. We’re a well-run organization with strong values. Our fans are the best in baseball. Hating the Cardinals is like punching your mother. Even if you were tempted, you just wouldn’t do it.
But that Sunday at our church in Virginia, I was talking to the kindergarten teacher at our Lutheran school. She’s a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan. She introduced me to a new mother at church whose allegiance to the Cards was showcased on the diaper bag she was carrying around. As we all chatted about the Pirates series, the kindergarten teacher’s husband (a Nationals fan) interjected that he hated us and the Cardinals.
I found it jarring. Two people in the same week saying something I’d never heard in more than three decades of being a Cardinals fan.
After the Cardinals beat the Pirates in a tough 5-game series, Deadspin’s Drew Magary opined:
The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates last night, because the Cardinals don’t like it when another team like the Pirates or Nationals dares to threaten their self-appointed status as America’s Baseball Sweethearts. They’ll move on to face the GLORY BOY Dodgers in the NLCS, and somehow the Cardinals and their fans will brand themselves lovable underdogs to LA despite boasting a top-10 payroll. As Twitter user @Texasbound3 said, I wish the Dodgers could sweep them in one game, so that the world can move on from Cardinals Nation’s unending love affair with itself.
The Cardinals are f**king awful. They are Tim Tebow in baseball organization form. They are a church casserole made out of cream of mushroom soup and Minute Rice. They are a horrible family staring at a Norman Rockwell painting of itself. It’s no coincidence that sabermetric punching bag David Eckstein spent a few years playing for the Cardinals, because no team in any sport puffs up its grittiness credentials quite like this one.
Well then! Now don’t get me wrong. We all find East Coast elitist sneering to be persuasive, lacking in any sort of insecurity, and totally charming.
However, while the Cardinals aren’t hurting in the payroll department, we’re not actually a top-10 payroll team. The Los Angeles Dodgers raised their spending to $236.8 million this year (for perspective, that’s just about $100,000 behind the Yankees, who spend more than anyone else in baseball). St. Louis spends about half of the Dodgers, coming in at $119.3 million. Whether spending $117.5 million less than the Dodgers slightly disadvantages us doesn’t matter. We took the first two games in the National League Championship Series despite the disparity. We lost the third due to fielding mistakes and silent bats, not payroll differentials. But let’s not pretend that these are equivalent payrolls.
Still. It’s clear that there’s been an uptick in Cardinals hatred. What’s going on?
Legitimate vs. illegitimate negativity
Let’s first acknowledge some legitimate reasons for frustration with the Cardinals. When the Redbirds were about to dispatch the Pirates in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, the Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke, a Detroit Tigers fan, said:
#Cardinals just cut the heart out of yet another long-suffering fanbase. It’s what they do. #Tigers #Nats #Pirates
This is true. And it’s not just that they’ve done this, it’s how. As CATO’s director of multimedia Caleb Brown, a Cardinals fan, put it:
My sense is (and my experience may differ from yours) that the Cardinals have been great at pretty much precisely the right moments. 8-1 in elimination games in recent years?! That leaves a mark on people, especially since the Cardinals have really been beating teams that traditionally aren’t that good: 2006 Mets / 2006 Detroit / 2011 Brewers / 2011 Rangers / 2012 Nationals/ 2013 Pirates.
These clutch Cardinals wins sting all the more for those fans that thought this was their year. It wasn’t just the Pirates’ first winning season since 1992 (and one for which the amazing center-fielder Andrew McCutchen has a very good chance at the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award), but one that lifted the city’s spirits and transformed the organization.
And you know how some teams are always the victims of bad calls? While you could never make up for what happened in the 1985 World Series — literally the worst call in sports history — the Cardinals have been on the receiving end of some good fortune in recent years. They wouldn’t have even made it to the playoffs last year if MLB commissioner Bud Selig hadn’t added a second Wild Card slot. And then in that one-game playoff against the Atlanta Braves, they benefited from the hotly disputed “infield fly” call. Well, that and the Braves made multiple costly defensive errors, even though they were the best defensive team that year.
The Cards lost their mystical and magical manager Tony LaRussa in 2011 and still made it to the playoffs the next two years. With a brand spanking new manager Mike Matheny. They lost Albert Pujols and barely noticed the difference.
But being good — which is really what we’re talking about here — is not sufficient reason to dislike an organization. You have to have some other factor, such as that your team has insanely deep moneybags to chase World Series rings. The Yankees are a good organization, albeit one that didn’t make it to October this year. But any organization topping Major League Baseball’s salary chart should be. Being able to throw money to get all the best position players might make you a World Champion. It also makes you hated by the fans of those teams with fewer resources.
The Yankees 27 World Series titles, 40 American League pennants and 50 playoff appearances make them insufferable. The Cardinals top the National League in World Series wins with 11 World Series titles and 18 National League pennants. Tired of the Yankees? Of course you are. Everyone is. But being tired of the team with 11 World Series titles doesn’t make sense.
The Cardinals, despite Magary’s imagination, are known far more for the hard work of team development than they are for their salary offers. Back to Brown:
The Cards don’t have huge payroll … they invest in talent, but they let that talent leave when it gets expensive … they pick up veterans who have good years ahead of them. Their farm system is great … they have a program for players about how they ought to conduct themselves on and off the field … and Cardinals (at least since the ‘roid-driven home run race) have stayed out of the headlines for the wrong reasons. YOU CAN’T HATE THE CARDS!
Cardinals’ development of players is legendary. As Grant Brisbee put it last month in a discussion of which team is the best run in the Majors:
But here’s what I’ve been thinking about all year: a 13th-round pick who doesn’t play his first professional game until he’s almost 24. He was a third baseman, but scouts weren’t sure if he could stick at the position. When he was 26, he reached the majors for good, and he switched to second base because that’s where the organization had a need. Now he’s one of the most valuable second basemen in the game.
If Matt Carpenter is with any organization other than the Cardinals, does he make it out of Double-A? Maybe. Does he realize his potential worth at an up-the-middle defensive position. Possibly. Does he turn into one of the most valuable players in baseball?
I don’t think that’s a very controversial opinion, either. Look at the odd career paths of the Cardinals’ hitters:
Yadier Molina – Questionable-to-bad hitter until his mid-20s, perennial MVP candidate thereafter
Allen Craig – Semi-prospect who was old for his league at most of his stops, current destroyer of pitchers
Jon Jay – Second-round pick who’s put up better numbers in the majors than minors at a valuable position
Matt Adams – Husky feller who’s hit everywhere he’s played
David Freese – Pilfered semi-prospect acquired for the husk of Jim Edmonds
Cardinals owners and management would rather spend $200 million on the league’s best scouting and farm system than on one aging and declining player. The fact that Cardinals fans are among the most loyal ticket buyers in baseball helps encourage this strategy.
You can’t hate the Cards.
The Cardinals and their fans certainly have not been tested too hard in recent years. And because of the, um, unfortunate situation of the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals don’t even have a great rivalry going, even if the National League Central is a competitive place. And yes, the rally squirrel era was somewhat unfortunate. You don’t have to love the Cardinals for the enthusiastic, passionate, loyal and civil fans (with surely one of the larger diasporas out there). You don’t have to appreciate Cardinals uniforms — the best looking in baseball.
And, yes, it is frustrating to see a team play as well as the Cardinals do, with such a great team relationship as they have, year after year — if it’s not your team. No one says you have to love them. But you can’t hate them. It just reflects poorly on you. If the Cards were cheating their way to these victories, if they were buying them, if they were rude on and off the field … then fine. But in the absence of that, hatred is not a healthy option.
If the Cardinals crushed your dreams this year or last, it’s good to be upset about it. When the Pirates lost Game 5, in fact, second baseman Neil Walker forced himself to watch the Cardinals celebrate. He wanted to see Adam Wainwright scream toward heaven. From Yahoo:
“That’s about as low as you can go as far as your emotions as a professional athlete,” Walker said. “Losing is obviously no fun. But you want to remember that feeling. You want to remember what it’s like getting here and not winning.”
He went on to say that he wanted to feel the joy the Cardinals were feeling. See, that’s a healthy response.
If you hate the Cardinals because you need a few more months to recover from them beating your team, that’s fine. But if you hate the Cardinals because, like Drew Magary, you hate Midwesterners and their casseroles and churchgoing, you may want to reconsider.
Sports teams should not be idealized extensions of ourselves. We should not lose ourselves in them. They are mostly just money-making enterprises with the millionaire athletes, taxpayer-funded stadiums and offensive beer prices to prove it.
But the organization and community of St. Louis does aim to promote good sportsmanship, a value the club has spent many decades cultivating. There’s a reason why Stan Musial’s statue at Busch Stadium is inscribed as it is.
In a world with O.J. Simpson and Aaron Hernandez, it may be harder to uphold sports as an outgrowth of American values. But just because there’s been a breakdown in some places doesn’t mean that ball clubs that at least try to uphold values should be loathed.
And they won’t be. No matter how much Deadspin or others try to make Cardinal hatred a thing, it’s not going to happen. Stop trying to make Cardinals hatred happen.