The two phrases that will make a baseball fan’s head spin the fastest today might be “The Best Fans in Baseball” and “The Cardinals Way”. With the Cardinals unexpected, and mostly unexplainable, success heading into the 2015 All Star Break, it is understandable how these words that Cardinals fans say with genuine pride are often linked to a deep loathing of the team. Instead of being upset about this, Cardinals fans should embrace the angst because it means that the team, and by proxy, the fans are relevant. I fear the day that nobody is talking trash about the Cardinals because that means they have fallen from the headlines to the forgettable.
But are the Best Fans in Baseball and The Cardinals Way a real thing or just something invented to give us comfort in the face of all this disrespect ?
Well, they are real, but maybe not in the way that you might think. Let me explain.
The Cardinals Way
The Cardinals Way is very much a real thing, dating back to the days when the Cardinals minor league farm system was spreading faster than the latest Kardashian selfie on Twitter. The phrase is often associated with George “The Professor” Kissell, a minor league infielder in the 1940s and then manager and later coach in the Cardinals system. It may mean different things to different people over the years, but the essence is paying attention to details, execute the fundamentals, honor the game (written and unwritten rules), honor the uniform (those that came before you) and work together as a team. Nobody in baseball taught it better and to more players than George Kissell.
Is this unique to the Cardinals ? No, that’s absurd. But it is one of the few things that ties together the various managerial and ownship eras of the last half century, from Johnny Keane to Mike Matheny, the Busch family to the DeWitts. Bill DeWitt, Jr. clearly understands how much Cardinals fans value The Cardinals Way as an identity and has made it a very public part of the team culture and marketing programs to this day.
That is not to say that everybody wearing the uniform has followed the code. Those that didn’t were frequently shown the door, often in a hastily arranged deal. Once such example was during the cocaine scandal of the 1980s. That hit the Cardinals very hard and cost them fan favorites such as Lonnie Smith, Keith Hernandez and Joaquin Andujar. But the Cardinals Way persisted and good times returned, albeit for just a little while.
The big misunderstanding here is that The Cardinals Way is no secret handshake ritual that is guaranteed to win a championship nor is it somehow unique to the Cardinals. Over the long haul, it has been a recipe for success, and thanks to the stewardship under the current owners, it remains that way today. It is also good to remember that it has not always been that way.
While an entire generation of Cardinals have have never experienced a time when the Cardinals have not been successful, the truth is that there have been many dark times over the last half century. Woeful times in fact. I am referring to 1965-1966, the entire decade of the 1970s, first half of the 1990s and curiously 2007-2009. While those teams were abysmal, almost laughable at times, they were every bit The Cardinals Way as the team that just swept the Cubs in some of the scrappiest baseball that any Busch Stadium has seen. It just didn’t work for other reasons – a critical injury or two, players aging and not being replaced or the front office not spending the money needed to lock up or acquire key talent needed to compete. It is hard to believe, but that is true, especially under the Fred Kuhlmann era. Apparently it takes more than just “The Cardinals Way” to win – it actually takes some talent. And a front office that cares about success.
Perhaps we should be talking more about “Mo’s Way” today as that probably has a bigger impact to the Cardinals recent success than the teachings of George Kissell, Johnny Keane, Hub Kittle or any of the other legends from the Cardinals past.
Best Fans in Baseball
So what does The Cardinals Way have to do with The Best Fans in Baseball ? If you have been following along, quite a bit actually. Showing up every night cheering on a winning team is easy to do – ask the Washington Nationals or Atlanta Braves. In October.
There are a number of aspects to the Best Fans in Baseball that should bring a touch of respect to Cardinals fans. Sure, giving a standing ovation to Shane Robinson or Daniel Descalso is the kind of thing St. Louis is known for. Again, the big stars are easy to cheer for, but Cardinals fans love their scrappy overachievers just as much, if not more. It may not be logical, but it is so St. Louis.
The interesting truth is that the Cardinals haven’t really lost all that many impact players to free agency or unpopular trade deadline deals, so we sort of have to cheer for the little guys. Albert Pujols is the only big name player in recent years that “took the money and ran”. Larry Walker and Chris Carpenter retired as a Cardinal, Jim Edmonds was injured and in late career decline as were Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman. I’m hoping that some of that is not lost on Jason Heyward as he ponders over his first free agency contract. Of the current core of players, only Lance Lynn seems likely to take an early walk out of St. Louis. Maybe that’s why we get so attached to the little guys.
But it’s more than that. Cardinals fans gladly cheer for an opponent player when he makes a great play on the field. There is no tradition of throwing back home run balls, though some careful observation shows that Cubs fans may actually be keeping those balls, throwing junkers back on to the field. None of this is unique to Cardinals fans, it is just the rule in St. Louis and not the exception. Oh, there have been times when Cardinals fans were poor sports – the 1985 NLCS against the Dodgers was one such time, but those have been few and far between. Heck, we even learned to embrace Will Clark though Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto still seem to rankle Cards fans.
I think the real essence of Best Fans in Baseball lies in remembering when times were not as good as they are now but treating the team with the same respect and admiration. That certainly required some effort in the early 1990s when Joe Torre always seemed an inning too late in making pitching changes and Germimo Pena could not stay out of the hospital.
The other day, one of my Twitter buddies sent out this little reminder
@cigarmike In 1995, Rich DeLucia led the St. Louis Cardinals with 8 wins. 8. Those were dark days.
Mike forgot to mention that DeLucia was a relief pitcher! Dark times, indeed. Yet the memories of that era are fond ones, not downing in angst. And the fans did not stay away from the ballpark as they have been doing in places like Houston.
Let’s also not forget the 1970s when Gussie Busch traded away Willie Montanez, Steve Carlton, Jerry Reuss, Bake McBride, Mike Torrez, Richie “Dick” Allen, Reggie Smith and Jose Cruz. Yet we came back night after night to watch the ones that remained, such as Silvio Martinez, John Fulgham, Jerry Mumphrey, haplessly playing the game until Whitey Herzog came along and rebuilt the team into a new generation of winners.
Maybe it is during those bad times that you really learn to appreciate the beauty of the game and not just the outcome – the game within the game. For a couple of decades, that’s all we had.
Best Fans in Baseball does sound a terribly pretentious, but it is sure easier to say than Least Bandwagonny Fans in Baseball. At the end of the day, both are true. Not that there aren’t great fans of every team – there certainly are and we members of The Best Fans in Baseball should remember that. Red Sox Nation and Yankees fans are just as rabid, though perhaps more on the bandwagon side of things and certainly with a more abrupt vocabulary, but I would never question their enthusiasm. Dodgers fans buy tickets and either show up late to the games or not at all. Giants fans kill all others with their use of social media and swarming the All Star Voting system. Perhaps they are worthy of the title of Best Fans of their Team, sure. Of baseball as a game, maybe not as much. As with The Cardinals Way, BFIB is not an exclusive club. It is, though, an accurate description of the unique relationship between the fans and players in St. Louis.
If George Kissell was the architect of the Cardinals Way, who turned Cardinals fans into the Best Fans in Baseball ? That one is easy, thanks to a wonderful comment from Wayne Grote (thanks, Wayne!). For decades, the broadcast team of Jack Buck and Harry Caray taught us how to be fans of the game, not just the home team. Harry was the emotional fan, with his voice and word choice matching what he was seeing on the field while Jack was the technician, carefully describing every little detail and explaining why it was important. They were both quick to praise opposing players when they made a great play as they were to criticize the home team when they did something wrong. As with The Cardinals Way, Jack and Harry were not unique to St. Louis. Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Jack Brickhouse and Vin Scully were legendary broadcasters and equally loved by their listeners, but there is something different about how the lessons stuck with Cardinals fans.
Once we can all admit that the Cardinals Way has not always worked and that there are fans of other teams that love their players as much, though perhaps differently, than in St. Louis, we can move past all of this silliness and get back to watching and appreciating the game of baseball.