Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Character of the St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are in the Championship Series this year, with hope of a World Series appearance, after an overpowering season in which they won 105 games, missing the franchise record for wins by one.

They are my team, my home team and the team I was raised to love; I have no choice if I am to be a baseball fan. And though what kind of fan you are and which team you're a fan of can say something about your character (and for Yankees fans, everything it says is bad), it's just as true that being a fan of certain teams is a determinist enterprise: where and when were you born and raised?

In my case, being raised in various areas of NE Arkansas, SE Missouri, and Western Tennessee, in the time just before the area was unfortunately saturated by the much-dread WGN (Cubs) and TBS (Braves) cable superstations, meant that I had to be a Cardinals fan, which wasn't a hard thing to be in the 1980s.

The Cardinals of that era had style (currently despised by sabremetricians) and had character; they were also successful, with a World Championship in '82, and pennants in '85 and '87. This period happened to coincide, for me, with that period in a boy's life before social awakening and girls are all that matters. When I was twelve years old I desperately wanted to be John Tudor. I loved it that the Cardinals could win by being smart, fast, and on defence, perhaps the best of all time. I loved it that our enemy was the New York Mets, composed of chawing white trash cokeheads, mega-mulleted (even for that era) whiners and, thus, media darlings.

In retrospect I love it that the Cardinals won by having a balanced lineup of one true slugger complimented by a few guys with doubles power and the rest with speed, decent on-base percentage, and skill at playing "small ball." A wonderful contrast indeed to the "ideal" modern teams composed of no-necks and fat fucks who can barely jog or catch. Long before Moneyball was the buzzword that sneering nerds and addled press alike espoused as Einsteinian genius there was Whiteyball, which built a team common-sense like, tailoring its traits to its cavernous home ballpark, employing cheap retread starting pitchers, and paying fair market rate for quality bullpen arms and Golden Gloves.

The current Cardinals team, of course, is more reflective of its era; it's full of sluggers, but to give it its due, also relatively speedy, spectacular defensively, and puts its best "stuff" pitchers (with one exception: Carpenter) in the 'pen.

Back then, Whitey Herzog was pretty good about getting rid of cancers and troublemakers and those who might create scandal. Cokeheads like Hernandez and Lonnie Smith were eventually shipped out (Hernandez to where he'd be most welcome: with the Mets). I'd like to think he would have rid the team of any cheaters. What John Birch Society nutballs there were in baseball were mostly where they belonged, in San Diego. In those days ballplayers were merely rich instead of obscenely, filthily, rich; far from judging the propriety of the general increase in their salaries, I bring it up only to mention that this fact probably insured at least a passable heterodoxy with regard to the players' politics. Nowadays, though, players are almost uniformly Republican if American, rightwing if foriegn, all of which makes an exception like Carlos Delgado truly exotic. And now of course steroided cheaters abound; and if the cheater happens to be a certain Left Fielder for the San Francisco Giants that is, like the current President, hostile and obnoxious to anyone who dares ask him a question, he is deified.

Of course back then the internet didn't exist, and so people weren't privy to as much of the ballplayers' personal lives and tastes as they are now. In reading about the musical tastes of the current Cardinals team I can only say, "would that were still the case". The Cardinals are as motley a collection of Country Music and Christian Rock enthusiasts than probably anyone else save freepers, who have all the intelligence and cultural literacy of the average australopithecine. Literature? I read in the print version of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (a terrible newspaper that is a disgrace to its name and heritage) that Third Baseman Scott Rolen's favourite novel is The Fountainhead. Too sad. While reliever Ray King is flashy, fellow reliever Steve Kline has an endearing earthiness schtick; First Baseman Albert Pujols is, seemingly, a moral paragon who actually might not be a hypocrite if only because of his absence of cant; and Outfielder Reggie Sanders enjoys a deserved reputation as the nicest man in baseball, I still can't help but think of this team as, privately, a bunch of Ned Flanderses.

But on the field they play with fire and respect; after winning the Division Series they took the field to shake hands with the equally mannered Los Angeles Dodgers, a nice instance of sportsmanship that would never come from (nor, to be fair, wasted on) the likes of, say, the whiny, bitchy, moping Chicago Cubs, a bunch of recalcitrant fucktards who should die and burn in hell. So, yes, the Cardinals have likeable traits.

But there's one other small misgiving: ownership. Bill DeWitt heads the investment group that owns the majority of the team; he is a personal friend of George W. Bush, for whom he is also a major fundraiser. Not surprisingly (considering such a nasty association) the team a few years back tried to get a large chunk of corporate welfare in the form of a new, publicly-financed stadium. Despite much lobbying ($$$), the voters wouldn't buy it. The Cardinals will still get a new stadium, but it'll be mostly privately-financed. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the team this year, and I listened with rolling eyes and churning stomach as the language-mangling dipshit bloviated to the Cardinals' radio team after the ceremonies. (Most of the players go out of their way to say they like Bush.) Make no mistake, DeWitt is in thick; while it'll take several steady years to reach the vileness of Cincinnati Reds owner Carl Lindner, DeWitt is doing his best in Republican stoogery, even though it's doubtful he can reach Lindner of United Fruit Company's scale in that other Republican virtue: being a menace to the Third World.

Where DeWitt is blandly cronyish, former Cardinals owner Gussie Busch was a high-visibility goofball and lovable (at least from a distance) grouch who lived to a Nestorian age and never stopped personally cheering the Cardinals until the last. Need I also add that he was not a Republican? Though personally he had many Republican traits (baronial, ruthless, stingy), he, out of loyalty to FDR, became and remained, for a long while, a Democrat, even after it was, so to speak, no longer profitable to do so. Why "loyalty"? Because Gussie lived and worked through the Prohibition Era, which nearly ruined his family's company, and which, with FDR's leadership, was ended in 1933. Though he was very much Big Business himself, perhaps Gussie, on some level, knew what H. L. Mencken knew: that "Big Business [i.e., Republicans] was in favor of Prohibition, believing that a sober workman would make a better slave than one with a few drinks in him." Whatever he was, Gussie was no dummy. That is, until 1968, when he lavishly supported the campaign of Richard Nixon, and in whose adminstration a family member, one Peter Flanigan, was installed.

After forcing his father out of the company, Augie Busch, Gussie's son, allowed the old man to keep control of the Cardinals. At Gussie's death, the team went back to the company, which promptly sold it. Unlike Gussie, Augie Busch, a chilly and severe man, didn't care much for sports or the limelight: he wasn't about to continue in Gussie's high-profile capacity. Nor was he ever loyal to the party that had saved his industry from his fellow robber barons; Augie was always Republican to the core. But he wanted to concentrate on beer; the team was sold to DeWitt's crew who, to be fair, actually spend more money (which is not saying much, but it is saying something) on the team than did the Busches.

It's just the nature of the system that the Cardinals' owners have, through the years, been a general menace to the public interest. Often, considering their tight-fisted ways, they've been a menace to the game. Gussie Busch had an interesting persona and had a respectable loyalty for a long spell, but that's about the best that can be found in the whole lot. As they get more wealthy, the players, too, are bound to be crappier political citizens. But so what, they play baseball -- and play it well -- and that's what really matters.

Is it an irony then that the Cardinals now come back from the political and cultural hellhole of Texas (a state I heartily encourage to secede from the Union so that it can, as it has long wished, bring back the public firing squad, encourage lynchings, catapult the homeless into tornadoes' funnels, reinstitute slavery, install Tom DeLay as Fuhrer, and make sweet sulphury crude oil the national beverage) down two games to three to the perennially hapless Houston Astros, half of whom are as goofily-bearded as the average mullah, and which is yet another team that has a cozy relationship with Bush?

Who knows what happened down there, but it's time they showed that they had character as a team. For the first time this year, they're behind and have their backs to the wall. Time to show some mettle. And however tacky and dreadful their tastes and opinions are as private citizens, as a team they are likeable and as an entity (team, city, fans, tradition, owners) are damn preferable to both the Astros and the Yankees. More importantly they, like everyone else still alive in the playoffs save the damnable Yankees, are due for a World Championship.

If anyone but the Yankees wins it all this year, I'll be pleased; if the Red Sox win it all, I'll be very pleased; if my St. Louis Cardinals win it all (hopefully after pasting New York 87-0 in a four game sweep, forever destroying the demonic power of the Yankees that is the Nexis of Evil in the baseball world), I'll be ecstatic.

**Edit -- I had to clean this up quite a bit -- I'm still not happy with it -- but I'd hoped it would be good enough to merit my first Clutch Hit, but then I suppose I'm doomed to disappointment.