It has taken a couple of years to grow accustomed to it, but I've finally accepted it: My beloved St. Louis Cardinals have become the villain of the Major League Baseball playoffs that everyone is cheering to see lose. (The Wall Street Journal argues the Dodgers are more hateable, for what it's worth.) I don't like this Cardinals hate, but I cannot deny it exists.
I discovered this last season, after the Cardinals upset the favored (and generally likable) Washington Nationals. As I wrote on this site, that Game 5 comeback was thrilling, euphoric for Cardinals fans … and essentially despised by everyone else. The Cardinals in many ways have become the new Yankees, a team whose dogged insistence on continuing to win has made the rest of baseball exhausted and irritated by them. The Cardinals are the establishment. The world will always cheer for the insurgent.
The Cardinals animosity has been building over the last few years, thanks, I suspect, to three main factors.
- Tony La Russa. Suffice it to say, for all his success, he's not always the most universally adored character. Though his cats love him.
- The notion that the Cardinals have been "lucky." This started with the 2006 championship (won in large part by poor-fielding Detroit pitchers) and ended up including crazy 2011 NLDS against Philadelphia, the lunatic 2011 World Series Game 6, the infield fly call in Atlanta in 2012 and the Pete Kozma-Daniel Descalso Explosion against the Nationals in the 2012 NLDS. People who don't like the wild card often find themselves blaming the Cardinals for it. (That won't work this year.)
- All the teams in Their Year whose hearts they've broken. This one makes a lot of sense. The 2006 Tigers. The 2011 Phillies. The 2011 Brewers. The 2011 Rangers. The 2012 Nationals. Those are all teams who felt they were having Their Year, when everything came together, when their fans knew this was as good a shot as they were going to get. The Cardinals, with perceived inferior teams, came along and ruined that. Do that often enough and you'll get unpopular real quick.
This year might be the culmination of all that. The Cardinals kick off their NLDS on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the darling of this year's playoffs. If there were ever a team the Cardinals could ruin the Their Year of, it would be these Pirates, who have been waiting 21 years for this moment. That wild-card game at PNC Park, as Joe Sheehan put it, had the feel of a soccer game, a madhouse environment that clearly rattled several Reds players, most notably pitcher Johnny Cueto. It's tough not to cheer for the Pirates. The entire baseball planet will be on their side.
Except for me and my fellow Cardinals fans. When you are a fan of a team, they are always the underdog, because they are yours. (Even Yankees fans can feel this way.) In this way, all fans are the same. Which is why I've decided to make sure I understand the opponent for each playoff series the Cardinals play this year -- hopefully this isn't the only one -- with an interview with a diehard fan.
With the NLDS kicking off today, I exchanged emails with Dom Cosentino, a writer for Deadspin who lives and dies with his Pirates the same way I live and die with the Cardinals. (I've had him on my podcast before to talk Pirates.) To understand your foe, you must get in his head.
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So, first off, congratulations. You and I have discussed before what this would mean to Pirates fans, and now you are here. You are the biggest Pirates fan I know. You have all come so far. Now you must be crushed. I hope you understand. To quote Todd from "Breaking Bad," nothing personal. [POP]
So I have some questions for you:
1. How greedy are you? If someone would have told you before the season that the Pirates would have lost in the NLDS, you would have been elated. Why are you pushing so much? Why can't you be happy with what you have?
OK, so, thanks! But I'm not sure it's "greedy" to continue to root for more even though the Bucs have now come this far. I mean, do you know any long-suffering fans who reach a certain point in a postseason push and then, say, "OK, that's enough. This has been fun. Let's lose now." Of course not. The real joy from Tuesday night -- and I can't tell you how joyous it was to see a crowd that delirious in that ballpark on an October night -- is that it means there will be more baseball for this team. The division chase was fun. The home-field-for-the-wild-card chase was fun. Winning the wild card was fun. And now I want more fun. I hope this never ends.
To put it another way: The Cardinals have given you more enjoyment in the last eight years than baseball fans in Cleveland or Kansas City or San Diego will likely know in their lifetimes. Yet you don't sound very "happy with what you have," do you? Why should I? Why should anyone?
2. I'm kidding a little bit with that, but I am curious: Is there a sense of hunger going into this NLDS? Or is still just sort of awe?
I know you were kidding there, but only because Cardinals fans ought to know as well as anyone that feeling of never being satisfied. You could win five more World Series in the next five years, and you know what? That sixth year, you're still going to be bitching and moaning about something if they don't win it all again. And there's nothing wrong with that. Not a damn thing. We're sports fans. And sports seasons end, and then they begin anew, and all those feelings start all over again. That's the way it works. It's what keeps this interesting.
Now, to answer your question: Tuesday night and into Wednesday, my head was still spinning in wonder at everything that happened at PNC Park. Like, was that even real? For the longest time, I couldn't even envision a night like that. But then it came, and it was perfect. Absolutely perfect. But talk to me around 4:30 today. You damn well better believe that by then, I'm going to start staring at the clock and pacing nervously around the room again.
3. You've watched countless games at PNC, on television and in person. How different was Tuesday night? Can you guys match that? Or do you require Michael Keaton?
There was nothing like Tuesday night. Nothing. I've attended every Steelers home playoff game going back to the early '90s, and I'm not sure there have been many Steelers or Penguins playoff games that matched that sort of delirium in Pittsburgh. Maybe a couple of those Pitt-UConn basketball games when The Pete was really rocking. But that's about it.
For the 40,000 at PNC (and for the 200,000 who will claim to have been there), it was as if all of that anxiousness and dread that marked the last 21 years -- even this season, some sort of calamity always seemed to be lurking, right up until they clinched the wild-card home game -- had been washed away and people finally felt like they could believe -- really believe -- not only that any of this was possible, but that it was actually happening. It was a collective burst of relief as much as it was one of excitement. It was a way of recognizing that the future we have long been promised had finally arrived. Nights like Tuesday are why anyone who's ever rooted for a s----- team for an extended period of time hangs in there, even reluctantly. Because once the clouds pass and you finally feel the sun on your face again, you get a night like Tuesday on the North Side. It makes it all worth it.
Can it be matched? Ask me Friday afternoon, especially if the Bucs get a split or win two games in St. Louis. My guess is that Tuesday may not be repeated, but those fans are sure as hell gonna try. Michael Keaton and his Yuengling tall boy included.
4. Is there a particular cult hero on this team? Andrew McCutchen is obviously the superstar, but who's the scrappy guy everybody rallies around?
At midseason, I might have said Jason Grilli. But I really think it's A.J. Burnett. When they traded for him, it sort of felt like a lot of other deals they made in the past: Veteran guy whose best days might be behind him, but as long as he doesn't become another Matt Morris (to be clear: and he was never a Matt Morris), he'll do something to help them lurch toward mediocrity. But he's been great. He's been someone to count on every fifth day, and he's been unafraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, for better or for worse. And that attitude has had an impact on these guys. There's a swagger there that hadn't been there before. Burnett brings that, his teammates feed off it, and fans love it.
5. What's it mean to be facing the Cardinals? Do you hate the Cardinals? We hate the Reds, Brewers and Cubs a lot more than you, though I suspect the next week is going to change that a bit. Is it a matter of just taking out the division big dogs, or is there genuine animosity?
You know, my dad, who's in his 80s, always kind of liked them. When he was young, the Pirates were awful, and because he's a man of character, he hated the Yankees. But the Cardinals were always a mainstay near the top of the NL, they could be heard on KMOX, and they later had Stan Musial -- the Donora Flash -- who's from western Pennsylvania, which is something that means a lot to other people from western Pennsylvania. So my dad had a soft spot for them. I never had anything against the Cardinals growing up -- my hatred then was reserved for the Mets -- but La Russa changed a lot of that, for reasons I don't need to get into. La Russa and Pujols -- Pujols always seemed to just tee off on the Pirates. And now you guys keep finding these pitchers who are lights out, and even when Allen Craig gets hurt, a player like Matt Adams -- another western Pennsylvania guy, I might add -- steps right in. It's uncanny. And it bothers me. Even discussing this makes it bother me. Man. Enough. Enough with the Cardinals. Is it 5 p.m. yet? Wait. Where were we?
6. Seriously, why can't you be happy with what you have? You're gluttons, that's what you are.
So be it.
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First pitch for Cardinals and Pirates is at 5:07 p.m. Thursday. You can scream for the Pirates all you want. I know who the real good guys are.
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