November, 2006: I write this as I am smack-dab in the middle of “3 Nights in August” by Buzz Bissinger. I love it. The honesty, the voice, and the full-fledged commitment to a great game. But, while I feel it important to note the book’s timely influence, this is not intended as a review, or response, to that book.
It should also be completely understood that I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan; tried and true, red white and blue, birds on the bat redbird fan. I have been a Cards fan since my dad called me into the living room during one of Ozzie Smith’s multiple All-Star appearances yelling “Hey, Kevin! Come watch this guy do flips,” and I did. The Wizard captured me.
I had always played baseball as a kid, and I was pretty good for a small town league in southwest Missouri, but I was nothing to write home about. I could hit, I could field, and on a special night, I could do both in a better than average way. I remember being the first 10-year old to ever pitch a complete game in Metropolitan Little League’s history. I struck out 9, walked one, and we won 19 – 4. I still have the ball.
I remember hitting my first home run over the left field fence. I was playing first base for a little league team that eventually won first place that year. Up to that point, I couldn’t really be defined as a hitter. I could hit for better than average consistency, and I could steal a base with what I felt was better than average speed. I had enough power to sting the ball, but I can clearly remember my father yelling at me during at-bats “Swing hard, Kevin!” I just usually never did. But one Saturday morning, I put a swing on the ball that just felt right. It wasn’t especially hard, but it was just right. The bat was in the right place at the right time from the start to the finish of my swing. And the ball left the yard.
I was shocked. I wasn’t swinging for the fences, and up to that point, I never considered myself a home run hitter. It just happened. You see, most people that have played baseball at any level know what it means to classify a player. Players are typically passionate, intellectual, or both. I was intellectual. That doesn’t mean I was smarter than the other players, and it doesn’t mean I thought my way through every play of every game, but it does mean I played the game in my head.
To explain this, let me start by explaining a passionate player. A player of this sort plays the game within his heart. He runs with a mean, grimacing look of determination on his face. He ‘gets dirty’ on nearly every play, at times over playing the ball because he’s trying to ‘leave it all on the field.’ He doesn’t think about what he does, he just does it.
I was not that player. Oh, I cared, and I loved playing, but I could not escape my own head. I played the game a captive of my own hesitancy. Doubts, theories, strategies, concepts, tips and techniques; it all became a convoluted mess of information in my head that distracted and terrified me. I became timid.
But when that ball cleared the fence, I lost all sense of thought, and for a time made the switch to passionate player, finally feeling the exhilaration of the game. It was a defining moment for me. I found my heart. Not just in baseball, but in life. I finally felt like I could commit my heart, my being, to something outside my head. I began to overcome some of my hesitancy, on and off the field. For the rest of the season, I hit four or five more dingers, including one in an All-Star game, but none felt as exhilarating, as freeing as that first one. It was amazing. I still have the ball.
I do not recount my own history for the arrogant purpose of telling my story. I tell it to communicate the history of a baseball fan. You see, I had played the game, and I had found a certain love for playing the game, but I was still not a fan of the game.
I can remember my dad, a self-employed carpenter for as long as I can remember, sprawled out on the living room floor in front of the television on Saturday afternoons. We almost always had a game on. Living in southwest Missouri, it was, more often than not, the Kansas City Royals. This was during the George Brett years. I feel compelled to remind baseball fans reading this that the Royals were not always as they are now. There was a time when they were winners. That time was then, and my father loved to spend a weekend watching a game.
I did not. I was very young and could not understand the fascination with a game played so mind-numbingly slow for so long. I could think of a hundred things to do for three hours on a Saturday afternoon during summer vacation, but watching a baseball game on TV was not among them. And then I saw Ozzie.
At first, it was a novelty. Here was a guy paid to play baseball doing flips on the field. My childish heart loved it, and I was hooked. I bought an Ozzie Smith t-shirt (which I still have), an Ozzie Smith figure (which I still have), and multiple Ozzie Smith baseball cards (once again, I still have them). When my baseball team was selling raffle tickets, I committed myself to selling enough that I won a box of baseball cards and fifty bucks. I immediately made my parents drive me to Tenth Inning, the local baseball card shop, and blew it all on Ozzie Smith’s 1979 Tops rookie card. I still have the card.
Of course, Ozzie played for the St. Louis Cardinals. It just so happened that my favorite color was red, the Cardinals were a Missouri team, and, having recently won the 1982 World Series, they were highly respected and well-loved. Voila – I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan for life.
Through the years since that first All-Star game, I’ve developed a love for the game, and a special love for the Cardinals, and I now look forward to baseball season with a ravenous fervor. I am that guy – the one that calls in sick on opening day. If there’s a Cardinals game on, I’m watching it. I may not watch every pitch, but I watch it.
A friend who is also a Cardinals fan made an interesting statement to me. I had asked if she always watched the games. She said, “Well, I usually at least have it on in the background while I’m doing other things.” That’s it, right there. Do you see? She has it on in the background. For those of you who don’t share the same kind of love for a baseball team, let me explain.
A baseball fan – Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Yankees (although, perhaps less so than others), it doesn’t matter – a baseball fan is more than just a fan. They are a part of something. If I speak of the Cards win or loss the night before, I don’t say ‘they lost’ or ‘they won.’ I say We won, or We lost. I’m a part of it. Those who are not fans do not understand this inclusion. They say, “Why do you say ‘we?’ You aren’t part of the team, you know.” Oh, but we are.
I’m there with every pitch, every swing of the bat, every win, and especially every loss. I’m on the edge of the couch yelling, praying, and pleading. I’m on the phone at seven in the morning with three different lines trying to buy opening day tickets. I’m with the team when Ozzie Smith retires. I’m there when Albert Pujols is called up for his first Major League at bat. And, I’ll be there when Jim Edmonds retires a Cardinal (I hope). I am absolutely part of the team, and when they lose, I lose.
You see, the Cardinals won’t lose me in a trade. I won’t file for free agency, and there is absolutely no chance I’ll retire. In a time when life time contracts are a thing of the past, I am a Cardinals fan for life.
A college professor once asked us which is more real – a desk, or the idea of a desk? The point being that without the idea or the concept of a desk, a physical desk could not become a reality. Having become a reality, the desk could then be destroyed, burned, and erased from existence. But the idea, the concept, lives on. It is eternal. It existed before the desk, and it will continue to exist long after the desk is gone. It is like that with baseball.
I have been a Cardinals fan for more than twenty years. I buy the shirts, I go to the games, I cry, and I cheer. It has been this way as long as I can remember seriously watching baseball, and it will continue to be this way until I no longer have the strength to wrestle the remote away from the non-baseball fan in the room. I ask you, who is more a part of the team? Me, or the utility infielder who spends two seasons with the team before becoming part of the Yankees machine?
So, now perhaps you begin to understand. She has it on in the background because she is a part of it. It is the definition of Cardinals Nation. It does not refer only to the number and geographical scope of Cardinals fans. It refers mostly to the utter devotion, total inclusion, and loving sense of family we feel for our team. When they are on, it is our duty to watch and live through the game with them, win or lose. We don’t have to watch every pitch, or every swing, but we do need to be there, just like you need to be there when mom asks you to swing by on Christmas day for “just five minutes.” You do it because it’s family.
This is not about a St. Louis Cardinals fan. It is about a baseball fan. More specifically, it is about the voice of a baseball fan. It is a voice too often heard in a roar with numerous other voices, and rarely heard alone. But it is The Voice – the voice that matters. It matters more than the players’ voice, more than the coaches’ voice, and much more than the voice of analysts on ESPN or FOX Sports. It should be the guiding voice.
I do not pretend to know as much as the analysts, or the players, and heavens knows I don’t come close to the coaches, but I do know what it means to be a fan. There will be times when you say, “Oh, but he just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know how it works.” And you will be right.
I say to you that it does not matter. I am the fan. What I know is more important than what the experts know, because it is what I know that will shape the game through ticket sales, team loyalty, merchandise sales, and overall support. Professional baseball is a business. I know this as much as I hate it. I am the customer. No, the customer is not always right, but what they believe becomes what is right. My voice is important.
There are those of you that will say, “Well, your voice is shaped by what the experts tell you.” No, what I know is based on what they tell me. What I think of it is mine and mine alone. I am not a drone. I do not follow talk show hosts blindly into the night that is moneyball. I am not so foolish as to think players always mean what they say and say what they mean.
The baseball fan’s knowledge and understanding is in fact shaped by what is being spewed about by the experts. It is time for baseball to listen to the result. It is time they heard the lone voice of the fan, without the media, the glamour, the roar of 40,000 other fans. It is time they see the game through the humble eyes of an ignorant, isolated, limited baseball fan. Because in the end, what the experts think doesn’t matter. The ship will go down all the same; unless, that is, someone thinks to watch for the iceberg in the water.