Tommy Lasorda was famous for saying that he "bled Dodger blue". Fans of other teams also claim some sort of physical linkage with their respective boys of summer at some level or other. Nowhere in major league baseball, though, is that connection stronger, more binding, and more obvious than the relationship between the St. Louis Cardinals and theirs, the most intelligent, passionate, and warm-hearted group of fans any professional sports team could ask for.
Some sort of connection, a transcending radar love (with apologies to Golden Earring) that emanates from Busch Stadium and touches some innermost antenna in the red host makes this one of the most successful and endearing franchises in major league baseball. Physicist Stephen Hawking might say that this relationship is in four dimensions, spanning not only distance, but time. Has it really been so long ago that the Gas House Gang roamed Sportsman's Field?
When the going gets tough, Cardinal fans feel it. They metaphysically descend on the clubhouse and ownership with assurances that things will be alright. They boldly forecast better days ahead while the sportswriters condemn. They shake off negative vibrations from detractors and send them to the north side of the Windy City where evil emanations belong. True Cardinal fans are quick to defend and slow to criticize, preferring instead to "suggest".
Conversely, the connection between the Cardinals and their fans isn't built on earned run averages, on-base percentages, and the other minutiae of baseball. Not that Cardinal fans don't converse easily in these terms and can quickly and accurately decipher splits in pitching effectiveness in Shea Stadium against lefties vs. righties. That's just common sense. No, this connection is on a much more spiritual, cosmic plane that exceeds any but the most faithful of the world's religions. Being a Cardinal fan, a truly believing Cardinal fan, requires one to do things that the "fans" of any other team would consider ridiculous and even inappropriate to do. To wit:
Perennial Triple A shortstop Stubby Clapp appears before a packed house for his first major league at-bat. He is greeted with a standing ovation. Stubby strikes out, and makes the long walk back to the dugout to the tune of another standing ovation. Dodger fans would have gotten up to go buy another Margarita if Stubby came to bat at Chavez Ravine.
Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his landmark 500th career home run in Busch Stadium. His achievement is recognized with another standing ovation from the Redbird faithful. His home run ball is returned to him by an Illinois college student who said – now get this – that he wants nothing in return. Griffey is so overwhelmed that he showers him with all sorts of wonderful mementos. Junior would have somnambulated through his home run trot at Expos Field in Montreal.
Larry Walker, a future Hall-of-Famer, is traded from the Colorado Rockies to the Cardinals. In his first at-bat, he stands in the on-deck circle to a sell-out crowed chanting "Larry, Larry, Larry". Walker strikes out and retraces Stubby's steps to a standing ovation. The boos in Philly would have been withering.
Tears come to 45,000 pairs of eyes every time they show the video of the great Jack Buck leading the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field wearing a Cubs hat. Then, just as he sings "Its root root root for the Cardinals" he casts the blue hat into the stands and dons that beloved red woolen icon with "StL" on the front. The legion goes crazy still, two years after Jack's passing. Pardon me while I stand up and dry my eyes. It's happening again.
And speaking of "Take Me out to the Ballgame", can anyone else equate Stan Musial playing that hymn of summer on his harmonica to "Ave Maria" sung by the Luciano Pavarotti in the Vatican? I don't think so.
Where else in baseball – where else in professional sports – could this love affair endure for over a century? Does it affect the players? Oh, yes. There is a mythical quality to this relationship that has created a sort of "Field of Dreams" in reverse. If they will welcome them warmly and embrace them into the Big Red Fold, these players will come. Professional baseball in St. Louis is a destination, not one option of many, for legions of jealous pros who truly make it, wish they had, or knew deep down inside that they could never belong.
Because of this mutually heart-felt relationship, players come here, and stay here, for less money, less flash, less celebrity, more love. There are no Steinbrenners here, no Times Square, no fickleness, only sincerity. Once part of the family, they are reluctant to leave, and when they do and come back in a different uniform, they are again warmly greeted. They can check out any time the want, but they can never leave.
Citizenship in Cardinal Nation requires an adherence to certain standards of conduct. Loyalty given must be returned. Can the responsibility of being a Cardinal be too much for some? Yes. How long did Garry Templeton stick around after he flipped off the crowd? Who came in his place but the Wizard, whose flag waves so proudly in center field.
There are certain standards for being a citizen of Cardinal Nation. No money-grubbing, back-biting, blaming, or ignoring the media. Players need not bring their egos. Being a citizen in this community requires grace, goodwill, and visible service. Bad apples can stay on either coast. When the young, great Albert Pujols said that his contract negotiations were "strictly business", we knew he didn't mean it and that he would wear the birds-on-bat for years to come.
The loving, nurturing relationship between the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans have made some of lesser perspective dub St. Louis as the Best Sports City in the Nation. They understate. The mutual bond that began in the 19th century defines a deeper, almost familial affection that can only be felt and poorly described. Citizenship in Cardinal Nation is one of the most deeply satisfying relationships directly outside the bounds of God and family that can exist in today's cynical society. It is an anchor, a deeply-set root to a family tree with enough branches for the Gas House Gang, Ol Diz, Gentleman Jim, Ducky Joe, Red, Stan, Kenny, Gibby, Jack, Ozzie, Albert the Great, and - oh yes – you and me. It is baseball season, and it's good to be home.