Tommy Lasorda was famous for saying that he “bled Dodger blue”. Fans of
other teams also claim some sort of physical linkage with their respective boys
of summer at some level or other. Nowhere in major league baseball,
though, is that connection stronger, more binding, and more obvious than the
relationship between the St. Louis Cardinals and theirs, the most intelligent,
passionate, and warm-hearted group of fans any professional sports team could
Some sort of connection, a transcending radar love (with apologies to Golden
Earring) that emanates from Busch Stadium and touches some innermost antenna in
the red host makes this one of the most successful and endearing franchises in
major league baseball. Physicist Stephen Hawking might say that this
relationship is in four dimensions, spanning not only distance, but time.
Has it really been so long ago that the Gas House Gang roamed Sportsman’s
When the going gets tough, Cardinal fans feel it. They metaphysically
descend on the clubhouse and ownership with assurances that things will be
alright. They boldly forecast better days ahead while the sportswriters
condemn. They shake off negative vibrations from detractors and send them
to the north side of the Windy City where evil emanations belong. True
Cardinal fans are quick to defend and slow to criticize, preferring instead to
Conversely, the connection between the Cardinals and their fans isn’t built
on earned run averages, on-base percentages, and the other minutiae of
baseball. Not that Cardinal fans don’t converse easily in these terms and
can quickly and accurately decipher splits in pitching effectiveness in Shea
Stadium against lefties vs. righties. That’s just common sense. No,
this connection is on a much more spiritual, cosmic plane that exceeds any but
the most faithful of the world’s religions. Being a Cardinal fan, a truly
believing Cardinal fan, requires one to do things that the “fans” of any other
team would consider ridiculous and even inappropriate to do. To wit:
Perennial Triple A shortstop Stubby Clapp appears before a packed house for
his first major league at-bat. He is greeted with a standing
ovation. Stubby strikes out, and makes the long walk back to the dugout to
the tune of another standing ovation. Dodger fans would have gotten up to
go buy another Margarita if Stubby came to bat at Chavez Ravine.
Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his landmark 500th career home run in Busch
Stadium. His achievement is recognized with another standing ovation from
the Redbird faithful. His home run ball is returned to him by an Illinois
college student who said – now get this – that he wants nothing in return.
Griffey is so overwhelmed that he showers him with all sorts of wonderful
mementos. Junior would have somnambulated through his home run trot at
Expos Field in Montreal.
Larry Walker, a future Hall-of-Famer, is traded from the Colorado Rockies to
the Cardinals. In his first at-bat, he stands in the on-deck circle to a
sell-out crowed chanting “Larry, Larry, Larry”. Walker strikes out and
retraces Stubby’s steps to a standing ovation. The boos in Philly would
have been withering.
Tears come to 45,000 pairs of eyes every time they show the video of the
great Jack Buck leading the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley
Field wearing a Cubs hat. Then, just as he sings “Its root root root for
the Cardinals” he casts the blue hat into the stands and dons that beloved red
woolen icon with “StL” on the front. The legion goes crazy still, two
years after Jack’s passing. Pardon me while I stand up and dry my
eyes. It’s happening again.
And speaking of “Take Me out to the Ballgame”, can anyone else equate Stan
Musial playing that hymn of summer on his harmonica to “Ave Maria” sung by the
Luciano Pavarotti in the Vatican? I don’t think so.
Where else in baseball – where else in professional sports – could this love
affair endure for over a century? Does it affect the players? Oh,
yes. There is a mythical quality to this relationship that has created a
sort of “Field of Dreams” in reverse. If they will welcome them warmly and
embrace them into the Big Red Fold, these players will come. Professional
baseball in St. Louis is a destination, not one option of many, for legions of
jealous pros who truly make it, wish they had, or knew deep down inside that
they could never belong.
Because of this mutually heart-felt relationship, players come here, and stay
here, for less money, less flash, less celebrity, more love. There are no
Steinbrenners here, no Times Square, no fickleness, only sincerity. Once
part of the family, they are reluctant to leave, and when they do and come back
in a different uniform, they are again warmly greeted. They can check out
any time the want, but they can never leave.
Citizenship in Cardinal Nation requires an adherence to certain standards of
conduct. Loyalty given must be returned. Can the responsibility of
being a Cardinal be too much for some? Yes. How long did Garry
Templeton stick around after he flipped off the crowd? Who came in his
place but the Wizard, whose flag waves so proudly in center field.
There are certain standards for being a citizen of Cardinal Nation. No
money-grubbing, back-biting, blaming, or ignoring the media. Players need
not bring their egos. Being a citizen in this community requires grace,
goodwill, and visible service. Bad apples can stay on either coast.
When the young, great Albert Pujols said that his contract
negotiations were “strictly business”, we knew he didn’t mean it and that he
would wear the birds-on-bat for years to come.
The loving, nurturing relationship between the St. Louis Cardinals and their
fans have made some of lesser perspective dub St. Louis as the Best Sports City
in the Nation. They understate. The mutual bond that began in the
19th century defines a deeper, almost familial affection that can only be felt
and poorly described. Citizenship in Cardinal Nation is one of the
most deeply satisfying relationships directly outside the bounds of God and
family that can exist in today’s cynical society. It is an anchor, a
deeply-set root to a family tree with enough branches for the Gas House Gang, Ol
Diz, Gentleman Jim, Ducky Joe, Red, Stan, Kenny, Gibby, Jack, Ozzie, Albert the
Great, and - oh yes – you and me. It is baseball season, and it’s good to