It’s a question that comes every baseball season, and when the playoffs arrive dropping temperatures only serve to raise that many more eyebrows.
To answer such an inquiry, one most go back further than simply this year’s World Series. Further than tales of two Carpenters and “the Wrench,” and further than David Freese‘s Game 6 heroics. Further than Yadier Molina‘s two-run shot at Shea, and current Cardinal Carlos Beltran‘s series-ending strikeout care of Wednesday's Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright.
For the answers to this oft-asked question don’t live in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York or any other National League city. They live buried in the sunken ditch of a place called Oakvale. They live along the base-paths of Anna Murphy, and in the minimalistic bleachers at Carter and Tusoni Field’s.
My love for all things red and winged goes back nearly a quarter century, to a time when the likes of Paul Ambrose and Robbie Maloney were teammates, to the days when Blake Bellefeuille, Jimmy Hill and Mark Furbush were the best the game had. I’m talking about an era where three innings were guaranteed, but six frames made you a star.
I’m talking about Framingham (Mass.) Little League.
From the time I first tugged on my too-small polyester jersey, up until the time I graduated to Babe Ruth, I was a Cardinal. And so was the rest of my house. My dad coached, turning his New Jersey quips of “hit it hard some place,” and “God gave you two, use ‘em both!” into town lore. My mother drove the carpool, and toted vats of pink lemonade. And my sister sunk into her “My Little Pony” lawn chair, night after night, and game after game, finding the entire experience both boring and gross.
A miniature redbird adorned the top of the dugout fences, with symbolic pettings of the creature supposedly yielding good luck prior to playoff at-bats. In my five years as a “Framingham Cardinal,” we never brought home the big prize, coming close a few times, including a devastating World Series loss to the Royals in ’88. But where my teams may have fallen short, the seasons spent in red only served to fuel a passion that would last long after the final pasta plate was cleared at the annual Little League banquet.
I recall during that first season, asking my dad “hey, how are the Cardinals, like, you know, in real baseball?”
He tried to explain that the 162 contests along the Senior Circuit had no bearing on the 16 I would play that spring. But it was too late. A Cardinal I had become, and in my mind there was little separating Whitey Herzog from the man who tossed BP to handful of tikes lucky enough to connect on one of six swings.
Of course, in all likelihood this happy tale would have run its course were the “real” Cardinals not such a thing of beauty. If St. Louis were not the world’s greatest baseball town, if Busch Stadium didn’t host the league’s savviest and classiest fans and if the franchise didn’t consistently do things “the right way,” I admittedly might have lost the love somewhere between Syracuse, NY and Charlottesville, Va. But it is, it does, they do and I didn’t.
Year after year, the Cardinals seemingly manage to roll out a competitive club, leveraging home grown talent into a team that embodies the spirit of the city and the game. Not everyone likes the Cardinals, but almost everyone respects them.
Never reliant on one swing or one slugger, the St. Louis Cardinals avoid the temptation of becoming crippled by long-term contracts, opting instead to let stars walk, trusting that the farm system can grow the next crop of leaders and legends.
As veterans move on, hungry newcomers seamlessly fill the voids. Bob Gibson influences Chris Carpenter who mentors Michael Wacha. Dizzie Dean shovels to Ozzie Smith who flips to Freese. Stan Musial was “The Man,” Albert Pujols “El Hombre,” Allen Craig “The Wrench.” And what began as “Whiteyball” grew under the grinding of Tony La Russa and now lives almost uninterrupted with Mike Matheny.
It is for all of the above reasons—and more—that this boy from Boston loves the squad from St. Louis. Contrarily, it’s these same reasons that summarize my disdain for the Red Sox.
And as the Cards and BoSox meet in this year’s World Series, the second such pairing in nine years and fourth all-time, I once again find myself caught in a rundown between my town and my team.
Full disclosure: I was once a Red Sox fan. In the mid '80s. I thought Dwight Evans and his turned-in, toe-tapping stance was a thing of beauty. But like Mookie Wilson‘s grounder down the line, it got away from me. Actually, I found the Red Sox significantly more likable when they were a bunch of scrappy also-ran’s that couldn’t solve a curse and win the big one. But a funny thing happened when “The Idiots” rallied from an 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees, going on to top the Cardinals and capture their first championship in 86 years: They became wickad freakin’ annoying, dude.
I’m not sure whom I enjoy less, the many classless players, or the obnoxious fanbase. Every time they play “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway, I feel like vomiting in my chowdah. Why is that song the Red Sox’s seventh-inning anthem anyway? Neil Diamond‘s from Brooklyn! Of course, the fans—all of whom appear to have no hair, goatees to compensate and work off of a 25-letter alphabet—are only as irritating as some of the players.
Has baseball ever seen as big a punk as Jonathan Papelbon? Dude had a couple of good years, confused himself with Mariano Rivera, and thought dancing in his compression shorts made him a predecessor to “Magic Mike.”
Curt Schilling? He was a solid pitcher, often times exceptional in big games. However, somewhere along the way he grew more passionate about the mic than the mound, deciding that he was to become the conscience of the game, assuming the baseball community cares to hear from him on every controversial topic and tidbit. His famed “bloody sock” effort in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS? Vastly overrated and enhanced by his own agenda-pushing. Send the garment to the Hall of Fame. Leave the player behind, along with his failed video game company.
As for this year’s men of “the Monstah,” the “get beard” campaign is so typically Boston and perfectly nauseating. Watching Saturday’s clincher versus Detroit, I couldn’t help but notice the collection of clowns—Jonny Gomes, I’m talking about you—who think that unruly facial follicles somehow embody a unique idea. Hey Red Sox, the NHL called. The “playoff beard" ain’t nuthin’ new.
Of course all this isn’t to say that some of the Red Sox aren’t good guys. I always thought Theo Epstein and Terry Francona were all class. Dustin Pedroia is pound-for-pound (note, that’s only about 165 lbs.) as good a player as there is in the game. And having spent a handful of years’s covering sports in Fort Myers, Fla.—aka “Red Sox Nation, South,” where Boston holds Spring Training—I’ve interviewed David Ortiz and I can report with certainty that Big Papi is a cool dude.
However, there is just something about the Red Sox culture that gets under my skin. Being from Boston I respect the Celtics (Larry Bird had some chutzpah, did he not?). And I’ll watch Tom Brady run a two-minute drill with three receivers from Medford any day of the week. I’m not a huge hockey guy, but I know the B’s are a class organization, and their barn is always rocking. But the Red Sox? They just are not my cup of tea. Or chowdah. Or frickin’ Sam Adams.
All of which makes the 2013 World Series that much more meaningful to me. My favorite club versus the squad I like the least. Redbirds, Red Sox. All class, and anything but.
So, if you prefer homegrown talent to overgrown beards, or you like the double-switch more than a DH that likely can’t find his belly button, let alone field his position, I welcome you to grab a Budweiser, and climb aboard a bandwagon pulled by the world-famous Clydesdales. But I warn you: Once you’re a Cardinal fan, you may stay that way for life.