All right, we need to get something straight, and we need to get something straight fast. I have never, ever, ever ever ever ever ever, heard a Cardinals fan refer to him or herself as "one of the best fans in baseball." I'm sure it has happened. I've just never seen it. And I hang out with a lot of Cardinals fans.
This notion, that Cardinals fans are always walking around patting themselves on the back, telling everyone they run into, "Hey, did you know that I'm part of the best fans in baseball? Well, I am," appears to have secured its place in the public consciousness. It's ridiculous. Humans don't talk like that, particularly ones as earnest and cheerfully dopey as Cardinals fans. The only people I've ever heard anyone refer to Cardinals fans as the best fans in baseball are:
- Opposing fans or media members saying so derisively;
- Players on the field describing the experience of playing in St. Louis.
The last 24 hours have unleashed a torrent of disdain for the Cardinals and their fans, most notably from Drew Magary at Deadspin, who does this sort of thing better than anyone on earth. (Drew's Why Your Team Sucks series is a brilliant experiment in discovering which teams' fanbases are the most sensitive about their public image. The Cardinals rank undeniably high on that last; Drew says he received more "Hate Tweets" in response to that column than any other he's ever written. He got so many that I, who am briefly mentioned in the column, got some too, caught in the Hate Tweet crossfire.) All this disdain comes with the territory: When you win as many games as the Cardinals have, and have broken the hearts of so many teams in the postseason over the last few years, as the Cardinals have, people are going to get sick of you and thus angry at you. Over the last eight years, the Cardinals have ended the postseason dreams of the Mets, Tigers, Phillies, Brewers, Rangers, Nationals and Pirates. That's a lot of fanbases spitting in your general direction.
So Cardinals fans don't think they're the best fanbase in baseball, or at least not any more than every fan thinks they're part of the best fanbase in baseball. But I feel obliged, as someone for whom his Cardinals fandom is central to my life, a critical aspect of my entire existence, to stick up for us. If you were to try to figure out the best fanbase in baseball, you could make a case for several teams. The Yankees. The Cubs. The Phillies. The Dodgers. The Giants. The Red Sox. The Tigers. And, yeah, the Cardinals.
Because Cardinals fans could probably use an antidote to all the bile yesterday, and because Game One of the NLCS kicks off at Busch Stadium tonight, this is how one might make that case.
10 Reasons Why Cardinals Fans Might Be The Best Fanbase In Baseball
- They really do cheer opposing players when they make a great play. This actually happens. You'll even see it in the NLCS. If Hanley Ramirez makes a diving stop to throw a Cardinal out, or Clayton Kershaw loses a no-hitter in the eighth inning, Cardinals fans will give them standing ovations. Now, you can mock that if you want. You can call that "fake classiness." But you cannot deny that it happens, all the time.
- They love their players even when they leave. When Dodgers centerfielder Skip Schumaker or infielder Nick Punto are announced any time in this series, they will receive huge ovations as well, probably even if they get a base hit. Both were pivotal parts of the 2011 World Series team, and the Cardinals fans will never forget it. Eventually this is even going to happen to Albert Pujols.
- Everyone just wants to be Stan Musial. Want to know where this whole notion of The Cardinal Way -- winning, and doing so with class, dignity and reserve -- came from? Stan the Man. When Musial died in January, there was actual wailing in the streets: The biggest cheer you'll hear at Busch this week will be when they play Stan playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on his harmonica. Musial set the example for this whole franchise. The team, the organization and the fanbase looked at Stan Musial and said, "I want to be like that." It's difficult to find a better model.
- The Winter Warm Up. Every year around MLK Day, the Cardinals have a big Winter Warm Up event at a hotel downtown. It's basically just a bunch of Cardinals signing autographs, but Cardinals fans attend this event like a dying man crawling through a desert being offered water. (You can actually buy tickets to this event three months in advance.) The winter in St. Louis, when there is no baseball, is a barren, horrible thing; the Winter Warm Up is the first sign that it'll finally end. The entire Cardinals fanbase is an embodiment of Rogers Hornsby's quote: "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
- They always, always come out to the games. Busch Stadium is at the center of everything in St. Louis, and is always, always full. Season capacity this year was 94.6 percent, second-highest in baseball. Last year? 91.6 percent, fourth. Every person within 200 miles of Busch Stadium spent the last 48 hours -- since the end of the Pirates game -- desperately scrambling for tickets to the NLCS. (If you can help my dad, who's still searching, out, let me know.)
They travel as well as any fanbase in the country. If you've ever been to watch your team play the Cardinals in your home stadium, you know this. Cardinals fans have a way of turning whole sections of opposing stadiums bright red. It has become a tradition in September, when the Cardinals are often playing teams out of the pennant chase, that opposing stadiums because de facto home games. We sort of just cheerily invade.
- Players are family here, and they know it. In 2004, the Cardinals traded for Larry Walker late in the season. As he came to the plate for his first at-bat, he received a standing ovation. He struck out on three pitches. He then received another one. There is a reason the Cardinals have been able to cultivate and keep players, have been able to trade for stars and keep them: They know it's different in St. Louis, and they want to stay. Scott Rolen, who gleefully re-upped with the Cardinals shortly after they traded for him, said, "Baseball is so special to them that as an organization, you have a lot to live up to. You feel like you owe it to the fans to put your best foot forward. They adopt you as their own. You become part of their lives." Ask any player which stadiums they love playing at: Busch Stadium is always near the top of the list. Ask them which franchise they'd love to play for: The Cardinals are always near the top of the list. The reason is not the facilities: It's the fans. We can all get online and have fights about "real" fans, but the players, they live it, they know. They know what's special about St. Louis.
- The last home game of the season, when everybody sings the National Anthem. It's a tradition: The team doesn't have an anthem singer for the final home game. The whole crowd does it, and it's deeply moving, every year. Here's the last one at the old Busch Stadium.
- The fans are the reason the Cardinals can compete. The Cardinals don't have a wealthy owner willing to spend billions on whatever player he wants. They don't have a massive cable contract. They don't even have that sweetheart of a stadium deal. What they do have is a fanbase that will support them no matter what … and is willing to be patient. The Cardinals have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, and one of the reasons they do is because they've been allowed to be smart about keeping talent around. There aren't angry calls to trade unknown prospects for veterans at the deadline, moves for the sake of making moves. The Cardinals fans, in a way that's not always healthy, trust their team. There aren't moves made to placate the fanbase because the fanbase is always placated. This is an enormous competitive advantage: The Cardinals front office can make decisions based entirely on whether or not they're good ones, rather than how it will "play" with the fanbase. The greatest example of this, of course, is what happened with Albert Pujols. This was a man who had been compared to The Man, who seemed destined to play his entire career with the Cardinals. But when he wanted more money than was wise for the Cardinals to pay, the team walked away, in large part because it knew the fanbase would understand. And it did! There was little ill will toward the team or toward Pujols. And the team is much, much better off because of it.
- It's a family thing. The Cardinals fanbase is so broad in part because KMOX, the radio station that, save for a brief blip a few years ago, has been carrying the Cardinals for more than 60 years, had so much coverage: You could hear Cardinals games from Denver to Arkansas to Washington DC. Thus, in large part people are Cardinals fans because their grandparents were Cardinals fans. It is woven into the fabric of generations of families: The Cardinals are just part of who you are. This is true of all fanbases, of course: It's a central tenet of being a sports fan. The Cardinals just have the advantage of more history than most franchises. This is baseball: Its present is always wrapped up in its past, for better or for worse. And the Cardinals have a lot of past.
Look. I'm sure this piece infuriates certain people, who will think it's just another Cardinals fan claiming he's better than another team's fans. And there are obviously awful Cardinals fans out there, just like with every fan base. And when your team wins as much as the Cardinals have, you're going to have tons of critics, particularly in this social media age, and some of them will even have some good points, in their own crude way.
But this idea that there isn't anything special about Cardinals fans, that this has all just been made up as some sort of self-aggrandizing exercise, is ludicrous. The Cardinals have a loyal, devoted fanbase, and it is one that has had a direct effect in the success of their team. The Cardinals are the Cardinals because of their fans, something the franchise understands and cherishes. You can make fun of it: It's easy to make fun of. But it's something that is real. And it's something that the Cardinals, and their fans, should be proud of. The Cardinals may or may not have the best fans in baseball. But their players, their team, think they do. And that's all that matters.
The Cardinals will take the field tonight for their eighth National League Championship Series in the last 14 years. If having the rest of the baseball world cheering against the Cardinals is the price of that success, I don't know a fan in baseball, in St. Louis or otherwise, who wouldn't happily pay that.
In other words: Stand proud, fans. Go Cardinals.
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