By Matt Crossman
I love St. Louis, and I loved living there. I love the people and the neighborhoods and the food. I love how the city has a unique and distinct identity. Some of my most important friendships were formed there. My first child was born there. Some of the best years of my life were spent there. I expect one day I'll move back there, and if my second stay is like my first, I'll live happily ever after. St. Louis feels like home to me as much as my real home.
But the baseball fans there annoy me to no end.
With the Cardinals winning a do-or-die game at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday and advancing to the NLCS, we will be inundated, as we always are, with reports about the awesomeness of St. Louis baseball fans. If you doubt their awesomeness, just ask them: They'll verify it for you. Over and over again. Especially now, considering how awesome the fans were in Pittsburgh, the St. Louis crowd might fear losing its title.
I moved to St. Louis in 2000 to work for Sporting News -- the Bible of baseball -- and soon it became clear that 95 percent of the people in the city could have written the epistles in the Good Book. It reminded me of the obsession in Detroit, my hometown, with the Red Wings, only turned up eight or 10 notches.
Like any obsession, this one is twisted.
The first sign that something was off came when I told someone I was going to a game. "Where are your seats?" the person asked. To say "behind home plate," was to say I grew up "on Earth." I started eavesdropping. When people talked about going to the game, they talked about what section they would sit in, and everybody would know where those seats were. The whole stinking town had the stadium layout memorized. How many games do you have to go to for that to become ingrained in your head? Maybe this is normal... but I've also lived in/near Detroit, Philly and Charlotte, and I've never heard people talk like that anywhere else.
The next whiff came when I learned of the vast gulf between Tony La Russa and Ozzie Smith. I won't bore you with the details except to say fans really and truly wanted to play a part in healing the chasm that formed when La Russa (more or less) forced Smith to retire by not playing him. They wanted these two rich, famous and successful men they had never met and would never meet to get along better. The entire city played marriage counselor. The fact that once Smith retired, the men had no reason to have any kind of relationship, strained or not, seemed lost on them.
(Side note: St. Louis has an awesome outdoor theater called the Muny. One year, Smith played the title character in The Wizard of Oz. He had a line something like, "around here, people call me the Wizard," and of the dozen or so shows my wife and I saw there, the applause for that one line had to be 10 times the next highest. The place went crazy, folks. There is not a line in the realm of possibility that would have merited such applause if La Russa had starred in, say, Cats.)
I started to turn against Cardinals fans when they kept referring to themselves as the "best fans in baseball." Whether it is or was true is beside the point. Who brags about something like that? They aren't bragging about the team, they are bragging about themselves. (It's become sport, actually: A Twitter handle called @BestFansStLouis has steadily increased in popularity by retweeting not-at-all flattering and mostly-inappropriate comments from Cardinals fans.) They love that honorific nearly as much as they love the Cardinals, and that's creepy. St. Louis is the most self-referential place I've ever lived. The Post-Dispatch puts in bold the name of everybody who ever lived there, and "lived there" is defined as "once had a layover at the airport."
I have a theory that all of this traces back to the city's massive inferiority complex. It used to be an important city, but now, not so much. It wants to be as important as Chicago, so every little thing it does well it blows all out of proportion, and every slight, real or imagined, is magnified. For example, St. Louisans will probably get mad when I say St. Louis-style pizza tastes like somebody poured ketchup on a piece of cardboard, then shook a cat until it coughed up a fur ball, and then served the cardboard, ketchup and fur ball and called it pizza.
The final straw came in 2006. The Cardinals beat the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS with a 9th-inning home run by Yadier Molina. On the radio the next day, some yutz called in to complain that Joe Buck was not enough of a St. Louis homer when he described the action on the national broadcast. I know it's not fair to take one fan's ridiculous comment and apply it to an entire fan base. But if that entire fan base is going to call itself the best in baseball, well, it must adhere to higher standards than that.
Cardinals fans have called themselves the best fans in baseball so many times they have started to behave the way they think the best fans in baseball should behave. They pride themselves on how much they know about the game, how well they treat every player, how much they cheer -- and at all the right times, too! For example, when good things happen. They even cheer when an opponent makes a good play, but that's only because running out on the field, patting him on the head and taking him to Ted Drewes for frozen custard afterward would be frowned upon.
They cheer sacrifice flies as if they prefer that over a hit. Jason Simontacchi played three years for the Cardinals, and I swear fans gave him a standing ovation because the equipment manager spelled his name correctly on his jersey. It apparently never occurs to them that if they cheer really loudly for a play that isn't all that great, it diminishes the cheers for a truly great play. They are either condescending or displaying a lack of discernment between plays worth cheering and plays not worth cheering. The best fans in baseball would know the difference. Put another way, Cardinals fans are a giant, red-clad, 8th-place participation trophy come to life. If they called themselves that, I'd love them again.
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