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October 17, 2013

The most insufferable fans in sports live in St. Louis

America has turned on the St. Louis Cardinals.

The backlash started, more or less, with last week's Drew Magary takedown on Deadspin, which featured these memorable lines about the team's fans: "You are poorly disguised Yankees fans in ugly Christmas sweaters carrying a Jell-O mold to your neighbor's door. And your constant attempts to turn every October into an extended production of Our Town makes me want to hang myself with a extension cord."

The Cardinals are a very good baseball team. Their fans have every right to be happy.

You can't blame the rest of us for not sharing their joy, though. Familiarity breeds contempt; people are tired of seeing the Cards in the post-season. Also, fans need someone to hate, and the Yankees are more likely to inspire pity at the moment.

Here's another theory for the backlash: People are finally getting nauseated at the pious gloss that's endlessly smeared across this "storied franchise." Just before the Dodgers series got underway, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch transformed it, predictably, from a handful of baseball games into a morality tale: "This isn't just a clash of cultures, but of architecture. Bankrolled vs. Built. The Best Team Money Can Buy vs. the club now being called The Best Organization in Baseball. One of the teams was built from the draft up, the other from the pocketbook down." Guess which team was which? (Hint: The story was accompanied by a cartoon featuring Rich Uncle Pennybags of Monopoly fame in a Dodgers top hat, clutching a big sack of cash.)

If we needed another reminder that this was a team that plays the game the right way — The Cardinal Way — we got it after Game 3, when Carlos Beltran criticized the Dodgers' young Cuban star, Yasiel Puig, for inappropriately showing emotion when he hit a triple. (Imagine!) Of course, Beltran is a Cardinal, so he didn't want to sound mean about it. "I think with time," he said of Puig, "he will learn that you have to sometimes act a little bit more calm."

The reality is that for the last 15 years or so, we've been fed a narrative about this special team and its special fans by a number of Cardinals-loving broadcasters and writers, including Tim McCarver (a long-time Cardinal), Joe Buck (who grew up in St. Louis and is the son of legendary voice of the Cardinals, Jack Buck), Bob Costas (who started his broadcasting career in St. Louis) and Buzz Bissinger (author of the Tony La Russa love letter, "Three Nights In August").

We've heard all about the "down-to-earth" Stan Musial playing his harmonica in overalls on "Hee Haw." And about the radio station, KMOX, which has been carrying Cards games pretty much since the team's 1926 World Series against the Yankees. We've been told, repeatedly, that Cards fans are so humble that they applaud opposing players when they make great plays — that they are the best fans in baseball.

The Cardinals are, evidently, a first-class organization with a rich history and loyal fans in a great baseball town. (Never mind that St. Louis is otherwise not so great: The nation's third largest city at the turn of the 20th century, it is poverty plagued, racially polarized and has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950.)

I'm not disputing this. The trouble is, we are constantly being told to admire them. Holding up the Cards — and their fans — as some sort of baseball ideal doesn't just make them annoying. It implicitly denigrates every other team in baseball and their respective fans. That includes Dodger fans, who kept coming out to the park to watch their team during some pretty dark days over the last 10 years. It's one thing for Cardinals fans to celebrate their organization's values. It's another thing for those values to be inflicted on the rest of us, especially when all we really want to do is watch a ballgame.

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