The more we love something, the less we know about it; the closer we are to someone, in many ways, the less idea we have of how the rest of the world sees them. My wife grew up in Georgia, and to friends of ours here in Brooklyn, she has the most delightful Southern accent. That’s news to me, though; I’ve seen her almost every day for five years and therefore haven’t heard it in at least three. (I remember noticing it when we first met. I guess she got rid of it?) What is familiar to us gives us the illusion of understanding it. This is why you don’t notice a co-worker has lost or gained 30 pounds until someone who isn’t looking at them all the time tells you. It’s the forest, the trees, all that: The more you know, the less you do. It doesn’t mean we love the familiar any less. Quite the opposite, actually.
Friday night, I sat at a table in the back of Foley’s, the best baseball bar in the world (if you pop in there on a random night, you might run into a former player or two and you will definitely run into a tipsy baseball writer), with about 200 St. Louis Cardinals fans. Since 2006, I’ve been one of the founding members of the Cardinals Fans In NYC group; we get together twice a month, and for every postseason game, to congregate with fellow Cardinals fans from all walks of life.
This is one of the absolute greatest things about sports: They bring together people who have zero in common other than their favorite sports team, and that team makes them best friends. We have Romney voters and Obama voters, bankers and artists, fundamentalist Christians and abortion rights activists, drug addicts and teetotalers, and none of that means diddly at Foley’s when the Cardinals group is together. Estranged from our team all year, when together, we are family. I am not over exaggerating when I say it is one of the most important things in my life. This is what sports are about.
So you can probably imagine what that place was like Friday night, when the Cardinals pulled off yet another lunatic comeback postseason victory to eliminate the Washington Nationals and advance to the National League Championship Series. When Daniel Descalso smashed that two-run single off Ian Desmond’s glove in the top of the ninth, the place exploded. I can’t say for sure, but in the 45 seconds after Descalso’s hit, half the bar, as purely a matter of movement and vibration, may have gotten to second base with the other half. It was pure euphoria. Nothing else in life makes me spontaneously break into screams like sports does. (OK, maybe a spider.) It is all you could want from sports; it is all you could want out of life.
After the Cardinals got the final out, we stayed and drank for hours, whooping and singing and hugging, and when I at last went home, I stayed up and watched highlights until the sun came up. (You think that’s excessive, you should see what we did after Game 6 last year. I’m pretty sure I still have some welts.)
It was pure, unadulterated bliss. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that, uh, that game depressed everyone else in the world.
I have spent so much time watching the Cardinals, reveling in their victories and agonizing in their defeats, that I had forgotten that the rest of the world was watching them, too. (I forget this sometimes, too. I love my sports teams so much that it almost seems strange that the other sports fans notice them at all. Sometimes I’ll see an Illini score on the ESPN crawl and it’s like Anderson Cooper doing a news item on how your cousin’s final exams at a college are going.) And the rest of the world, to my astoundment, hates the Cardinals. The rest of the world was cheering for the young, likable, fiery Washington Nationals, with their superstar youngsters and their facial hair and their natty natitude. The Cardinals weren’t the heroes to them; they were the brutish villains, the Cobra Kai, the Empire, stomping on the dreams of the upstart rebellion.
In that ninth inning, my fellow Cardinals fans and I saw the grinding, fighting, clawing exploits of a team that simply continues to refuse to lose. In the words of Joe Buck during last year’s World Series (in a quote my father is constantly texting me during games): “They just won’t … go … away.”
But no one else saw it that way. They saw a team that caught every break a team could possibly catch last postseason and was now doing it again, one that was hoarding all the good fortune from the baseball gods for themselves. They saw a two-time wild-card team taking out a better team whose time had come. They saw a franchise that has made the playoffs nine of the last 13 years, one that has won two of the last six World Series, knocking off the upstart team with the surging fan base, and they saw them as selfish bullies who didn’t deserve to be in the first place.
My Cardinals! My beloved, sweet, Best Fans In Baseball Cardinals! My comforting Midwestern oasis from this hard, wonderful city … bullies! The Cardinals are the Yankees now? How did that happen?
I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around this, so I tried to think of a parallel in another sport, with a team I don’t cheer for, to see if I could understand. The best I could come up with was the Indianapolis Colts during Peyton Manning’s run of playoff appearances. I’m sure for Colts fans, that was nothing but glorious (minus the lack of more than one Super Bowl). To me, I found them plodding, monotonous and dull. I wanted them gone. I’m sort of the same way about the San Antonio Spurs. (At least until last year’s team, which was legitimately fun.) I respect what they do and how they do it, but as an outside fan with no horse in this race, I’d rather see someone new.
That must be what it is with the Cardinals, right? (Along with lingering LaRussian polarization.) You’re just tired of us? That makes sense, one supposes, but it’s not something I can imagine. No one ever gets tired of their own team, and deep down, the rest of one’s respective league is merely Opponent. (I get so tunnel-visioned during Cardinals games -- as well as Illini and Arizona Cardinals games -- that what the other team is doing registers with me at the pitch of an adult to Charlie Brown. Wha-wha-wha-wha-wa-wa-wa.)
I’m not comfortable with the notion of the Cardinals as the bad guys, but, of course, no fan ever is. Diehard Yankees fans don’t see their team as this Evil Empire. To them, they’re just family, with all the flaws and eccentricities and lovable scars that come with that.
Which is probably the best way to explain fandom. They’re family. You can scream at them all you want because you know them, and you love them. But heaven forbid anyone else say a bad word about them. So even though I want you to know and love the Cardinals the way I do, I know you can’t, because they’re not family to you. So buzz off. My team, and those who love them like I do, that’s my family. Go Cardinals. My team is better than your team.
* * *
This is true for every fan of every team, except for the evil, monstrous, kitten-killing Cubs fans, obviously. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.