On Saturday night in St. Louis, Game 3 of the World Series will begin with the essential definition of the Cardinals largely determined by public opinion. They are a model organization which has produced, as measured by most metrics, oodles of talent. No one is really arguing this.
How Cardinals fans are regarded, though, has become one of the key battles of this postseason. On our site, Will Leitch has battled for them valiantly -- but Will is one of them, thus his arguments are rapidly dismissed by many, in the same way no anthropologist would be taken at face value about his own people.
Rany Jazayerli spoke for many on my Twitter feed, anyway, when he wrote this in Grantland: "Believe me, I get it. I understand why Cardinals fans have become as loathed as any supporters in baseball. I'm as tired as anyone of their golly-gee-whiz-we-just-can't-help-being-great-fans shtick, and I'm as exasperated as anyone that their shtick actually works. Players buy into the Best Fans in Baseball canard so much that they want to play in St. Louis because of it."
I'm a really big Rany fan, and at least he put forward an argument. I've seen too many people, normally lucid, just declaring that they hate the Cardinals and their fans, and they can't even say why.
But let's look at Rany's case. To accept it, we really have to work hard to separate perception from reality, and I'm just not sure we can. I've been to St. Louis several times this year for Sports on Earth, and several times over the past few years as well. The idea that Cardinals fans are different doesn't seem very odd to me. The Cardinals, to this anecdotal observer, seem to mean more to more people than other teams do in other cities.
Are there great fans everywhere, even among maligned fan bases in Tampa Bay and Miami? There sure are. If a fan maintains what we might call "the Cardinals fan ideal" for a team that makes fans really suffer, is that fan more impressive, individually, than the mass of fans who stick with the Cardinals through thick and slightly less thick? Probably.
I think some people take the idea that St. Louis is a better overall fan experience personally, as some kind of referendum on their own fanaticism about their own team. But it isn't. We're trying to get at two key ideas here, "different" and "more," and both in the aggregate.
Let me tell you how often I am chatted up about the Cardinals in St. Louis: all the time, almost everywhere. I don't mean once I tell someone what I do for a living. I mean, my shuttle driver from the airport, first thing, asked me if I had "Cardinals fever" last week. When I checked in at the hotel earlier this season and mentioned I'd be returning in October, the woman at the desk said to me, "Better book now, the playoffs are coming here. I hope so, anyway." Not in a bragging way; just in a matter-of-fact way, that the Cardinals are important, and they are omnipresent.
Not that this is a playoff thing; when I arrived back in August, the game was on in the shuttle, the driver living and dying with each pitch. In 2009, the rental car saleswoman expressed disappointment I wouldn't get to see the Cardinals play, since they were out of town. Nor is this a 2013 thing. I swear, when I arrived in St. Louis back in 2011, a few weeks after the season, and asked the shuttle driver how she was doing, her response to me was this: "Oh, fine. Just worried about Albert Pujols."
When I went for a run in Citygarden, the number of people (not just kids) wearing Cardinals attire was overwhelming. Every restaurant, every outpost. Cardinals red. Men wore Cardinals ties to the St. Louis Symphony, which, by the way, made a Youtube video in support of the team. (The trash-talking virtuosos, by the way, sounded off-key. It isn't how Cardinals fans usually talk. Loved the "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", though.) My point is, this isn't somehow localized within the ballpark.
But about that ballpark: It's a very different experience from playoff baseball elsewhere. Now look, I'm not going to have an argument with you about booing. If you consider that part of being a good fan, fine. But Cardinals fans, overwhelmingly, don't boo. Not their opponents, and certainly not their own players.
I've been to Citi Field as a Mets fan, cringing enough times when David Wright or Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran received this treatment from the home crowd, to know what it feels like from the inside. It's actually kind of crazy that you don't hear it in St. Louis. It doesn't take many boos to carry within a crowd. And it just doesn't happen, at least in my experience.
So as a result, you feel the importance of playoff baseball at Busch Stadium, without the contrast between cheer and boo. It happens through cheering only, a monochromatic sound that stands out more than it otherwise would, once you've gone to other venues. Covering the NLCS, Dodger Stadium was picturesque and lovely, filled with thousands of Dodger partisans. I loved seeing baseball matter to them, just as I did seeing it matter to the Cardinal faithful.
It was just different.
And really, that's the most you'll get from Cardinals fans. They don't generally walk around -- again, in my experience -- putting down other fan bases. They take pride in their own. Really, there would be something un-Midwest about it if the fans went around bragging. (The stadium scoreboard is the only place I saw or heard the "best fans" claim in St. Louis.) If you engage them, ask them, they'll acknowledge it is different in St. Louis. Asking a fan base -- fan short for fanatical -- to be humble to the point of self-deprecation is awfully silly.
Really, the problem here is that we've come to assume arrogance of fans goes hand-in-hand with team success. That's been true in many other instances. We've met enough put-upon fans who finally win and unleash their anger on us -- or front-running fans who root to be part of the winning side -- to assign that behavior to Cardinals fans prematurely. A woman I met last weekend didn't tell her daughter to move her wedding to November because obviously, the Cardinals were going to win. What she said was, "I asked her to move her wedding, just in case the Cardinals go to the World Series. I know I won't be able to give the wedding my full attention until baseball season ends."
Obviously, some of the awful behavior you see from fans of other teams, you get in St. Louis, too. There's that Twitter account, @BestFansStLouis, which proves little other than that some of the worst things human beings say are said on Twitter, and those who support the Cardinals are not immune. Then again, I root for a team who had a fan arrested this week for threatening players and management of the team he roots for. I don't believe Mets fans would view him, or the many other disturbing things Twitter has to offer from Mets fans, as representative.
But if we're trying to actually determine whether there's any merit to the idea that Cardinals fans really do stand out, what is better than the huge sample size of an actual crowd at Busch Stadium? Or PNC Park? Or Citi Field? (Well, OK, maybe not Citi Field.)
Absent the hate you find everywhere else, there's just ... cheering. There's polite applause for the other side. The "Best Fans" argument, it seems to me, boils down to this: Those who show up do so often, and they support their team unfailingly, while acting in a civil way toward opponents -- not universally, mind you, but to a greater extent than at other stadiums. There's a subjective leap that calls this atmosphere better. Or, as Cardinals fans say, "It's just different here."
Well, isn't it? And why on earth should the fact that the Cardinals are winning a lot change anything about how we regard this behavior by their fans? You want to root against the Cardinals because they've won so often lately -- I get it. You want to hate the Cardinals and their fans? Makes no sense to me.
The Budweiser Clydesdales marched in lockstep around the warning track, prior to Game 1 of the NLCS. Old-time organ music played. A sea of red-clad fans were standing at their seats, clapping in time to the music, giving extended standing ovations to, let's face it, some horsies. It was 45 minutes to first pitch. I'll be there again on Saturday night, and I'm really looking forward to it. I have no rooting interest in this World Series. I could no sooner root for the Cardinals, or anyone other than the team I've supported since childhood, than I could accept an argument that Carlos Beltran is soft.
Maybe the Red Sox are better on the field this year. The atmosphere will change, though, when the series shifts to St. Louis. Is it true that Cardinals fans can't help being great fans? No. This is an active choice made by a crowd 50,000 strong, again and again, to cheer their own and treat opponents with civility, noticeably. And if the players who actually play in front of these fans feel that it's different, for easily discernible reasons, exactly how is that perception different than the reality?
I'm a baseball fan. Busch Stadium, not to mention St. Louis as a whole, is a special place for baseball. I'd like the Mets to beat them every time they play, but Cardinals fans will receive no hate from me -- not even if the Cardinals are in the playoffs for the next 1,000 years.