Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Cardinal Way

I'm obviously thrilled the St. Louis Cardinals won the NLCS and are heading back to the World Series. But I think it's time to drop the sanctimony of "The Cardinal Way" that's brandished in articles like St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz's gloating piece after last night's win:
Reality-TV America might not have liked it much, but the Cardinals sent Mickey Mouse, the Goofy in right field and the whole Disneyland cast of characters back to Southern California to begin their offseason grooming.

Main Street America is headed back to the World Series.


The glamorous Dodgers were said to bring a freshness and brashness to a tired old national pastime that is losing popularity to other sports.

Supposedly the Dodgers of Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig were going to make baseball more appealing by hotdogging, taunting opponents with mouse impersonations, striking a home-run pose in the batter’s box (while hitting a triple), showing up umpires, throwing the ball to the wrong base or sailing it to the backstop.

By contrast the Cardinals and their fans were depicted as a stern colony of baseball Amish because they prefer solid fundamental play, gentlemanly superstars such as Stan Musial and success with reasonable dignity.

Where’s your sense of humor, you hopelessly uptight and dour Midwesterners! Didn’t you receive the telegram from Western Union? America was trying to tell you that the 1950s are over. Why didn’t you answer your rotary phone?
It goes on like that, but I think you get the point.

The Cardinals themselves helped start the culture-war narrative that dominated the NLCS by complaining about the Dodgers' supposed "Mickey Mouse" behavior during the series. But the media took it from there, and soon you couldn't read a story that didn't glorify one team's way of operating while bashing the other team's. (And let's not forget that the Post-Dispatch got this idiocy going by running an NLCS preview that painted the Cardinals as the protectors of the "proper" way to build a baseball team, as opposed to those evil, deep-pocketed Dodger owners.) Depending on your perspective, St. Louis (and the surrounding Midwest) was either a bastion of high moral standing or a place populated by the most thin-skinned, overweight, backwards hicks. (By comparison, the Dodgers -- and Los Angeles itself -- were spoiled, shallow poseurs or an exciting face of the future.)

The playoffs always bring out animosity between the competing fan bases, but as someone who lives in Los Angeles but is a diehard Cardinal fan, this series' vitriol felt especially mean and personal. It cut deeper because I think it exposed the sort of cultural stereotyping that does more harm than good in this country. Between the NLCS and the government shutdown, I've had enough red state/blue state tumult for a little while. Weirdly, last night when the series was all over, I thought of Barack Obama's terrific keynote address from the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.
As a Cardinal fan, the trumpeting of "The Cardinal Way" is especially silly -- and it's certainly the kind of nonsense that's beneath any intelligent sports fan. One of the things I dislike about other fan bases is their belief they're somehow more "deserving" of victory than their opponents. (This is akin to my endless annoyance when winning players thank God during post-game interviews, as if some divine being decided, yeah, Georgia Tech is definitely more worthy than Clemson and so He'll make sure they come out on top.) "The Cardinal Way" gets uncomfortably close to that territory -- it suggests that somehow the Cardinals have a monopoly on baseball excellence by dint of our moral superiority. It's not enough that we won: The victory has to mean something.

You know why the Cardinals beat the Dodgers? We were just a little bit better at key moments in the series. We caught a few breaks that they didn't. It could have easily gone the other way. Notions like "The Cardinal Way" project a false sense of surety in a world (and in a game) that is filled with uncertainty. Cardinal fans are often called "the best fans in baseball," which, as my good friend and fellow Cardinal fan Will Leitch points out, is the sort of thing that we take pride in but not something that we actively walk around bragging about. How unseemly would that be? But part of being "the best fans in baseball" means, I think, having a respect for and fascination with the eternal mysteries of the sport. And that means recognizing that nobody gets to claim ownership on the "right" way to play the game. Baseball is bigger than all of us: the Cardinals, the Dodgers and certainly "The Cardinal Way." Our trip to the World Series doesn't prove that our way of playing is "better" than Puig's. It proves that we won four games, and the Dodgers won two. And nothing more.