Volume 3, Issue 67: You Satellite
"I've come all this way to hold your hand. I became a calendar while I was waiting."
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I was doing a radio interview about How Lucky last week when the reporter, who was doing a good job and had clearly read the book (a rarity, but a totally understandable one; asking someone to read a full book for a 10-minute radio interview is asking a lot, particularly when they have six other interviews coming in the next hour), paused and took on an oddly grave tone.
“So, my last question to you may be a sensitive one,” he said. I inhaled a bit. Do I have anything to hide? What’s my gotcha question? Do they know about the dead drifters? “The culture of baseball is changing, with bat flips and more players feeling more comfortably expressing themselves and showing joy. As a Cardinals fan, that must be incredibly irritating to watch. Does seeing all these players not Playing The Right Way make you feel wronged as a Cardinals fan?”
I think the question was 55 percent joking, and 45 percent serious, which was my cue to answer with a laugh and then affably explain that bat flips are cool and I don’t think old white Cardinals fans are any more reactionary than any other team’s old white fans (which is to say they’re all very reactionary) and that what I consider one of the top five bat flips of all-time came from a Cardinal in the ‘80s and that’s totally true and take it away Tom Lawless.
(Again: That was his second Major League home run. In the World Series! And not only does he flip his bat, he admires every second of it as he walks up the baseline … even though the ball just barely cleared the fence. And you know what? Nobody minded. There were not weeks worth of chat shows debating his sportsmanship. No pitcher throw at his head the next time he batted. No one postgame mentioned it at all. This “old-school” baseball silliness is faux tough-guy nostalgia for a time that never actually existed. Don’t get me started.)
I’ve been trying to pinpoint the exact moment that “Cardinals Fan” became a pejorative. In 2004, Red Sox fans were still praising the Cardinals for opening the doors to Busch Stadium for all the fans who had traveled to St. Louis for Game Four to come in for free to celebrate their World Series title. When the Cardinals improbably won the World Series in 2006, other than Mets fans angry at Carlos Beltran for doing his impersonation of a man trying to avoid a T-Rex on that third strike in the NLCS, I didn’t get a sense that the entire baseball world hated the team. The 2011 World Series was downright thrilling: There was joy and awe when David Freese hit that triple, and then that homer. I don’t even think I’d heard the term “Cardinals Devil Magic” back then.
I wonder if it began in 2012, when they ripped out the hearts of the Washington Nationals with guys like Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. By then, people were sick of the Cardinals, and this period coincided with that moment when our culture wars began to explode, when everyone began to retreat to their corners to find easy targets to stand in for whatever they hated most about the other side. The Cardinals, with their wide-ranging fanbase that spanned over many rural areas across the Midwest and the South, including the town I grew up in, and their proud embrace of “tradition,” a word that was beginning to slowly grow more sinister in the eyes of many, were a convenient target, and it is definitely worth noting that many Cardinals fans did themselves no favors in this regard, particularly after the Michael Brown shooting in 2014.
It is inevitable that politics and sports are always going to find themselves intertwined: Those who try to pretend otherwise are kidding themselves. (For crying out loud, there’s politics in grousing about bat flips.) But I’ll confess that using a person’s sports fandom as a signifier itself, that if someone likes the Cardinals (or the Red Sox, or the Cowboys, or whoever) means oh, they’re one of those people is a sort of sports determinism that not only doesn’t make sense but takes the fun out of everything. It turns the harmless tribalism of sports—for the next three hours, my team is good, yours is bad, the people who root for my team are my friends, the people who don’t are my enemies—into the ugly, quite-damaging tribalism of the real world. It makes sports as flat as we’ve stupidly made everything else.
But I am dragging myself into the weeds on this needlessly.
Like most sports fans—including my own sons, because they live in this house—my sports fandom was chosen for me before I even understood what sports were. My father took me to my first baseball game, at the old Busch Stadium, in 1982. Ozzie Smith did a backflip while running into the field, Willie McGee hit a triple into the gap, Darrell Porter threw a guy out at second and Bruce Sutter threw a splitter past some chump to win the game. Oh, I saw Fredbird. I was six years old and I was hooked forever.
The idea that any person’s favorite sports team, when they’ve been a fan of them their entire lives, could be any sort of choice at all, let alone some sort of insight into their values and mores, is absurd. There are sports mercenaries out there, whose fandom drifts from team to team, and while I understand this intellectually, I have no idea how they can possibly stay invested emotionally. Being a fan of a team is about history. It’s about feeling the same pain you did in 1984 and 1989 and 2005 as Sister Jean is running havoc all over your basketball team. It’s about watching Kyler Murray quarterback your team when you remember when a punter did it. It’s about having the one through-line of your entire life be a damned sports team.
That’s what being a fan of a team really is. In 30 years, everyone involved with the Cardinals right now will be gone. The players, the owners, the front office staff, maybe even the stadium itself. But I will still be there, and so will my sons, and so will all the other Cardinals fans. They are the only history these teams have. They’re the only thing that sticks. That’s what being a fan is. The Cardinals are my team because they are my team and they will always be my team. They could all go out onto the field wearing shirts saying, “Will Leitch, Specifically And In Particular, Sucks,” and I would still cheer for them. They have followed me wherever I have gone and wherever I will go. Everything outside of it, the “best fans in baseball,” the ebb and flow of public opinion, even the team’s success or (lately) lack of it, none of that matters. It’s all just noise. They’re my team. Your team is your team. That’s what this is. What else in our lives are like that?
The Cardinals are my dad putting me on the back of his motorcycle when I was seven years old, taking the tour-hour trip to Busch and grabbing six-dollar bleacher seats 20 minutes before first pitch. They are me pretending to do Jack Clark’s swing in Little League. They are me reciting all of Jack Buck’s best calls. They are my grandmother watching Albert Pujols hitting a walk-off with my father then going to bed and dying in her sleep. They are my mother going through chemo but still making sure to say goodbye to the old ballpark while they’re building the new one.
They are gathering with Cardinals fans friends in New York City and collectively losing our minds during 2011 Game Six when everyone thought my wife was giving birth. They are going to Busch Stadium with my son for the first time, sitting through a four-hour rain delay and getting to go to every single section of the park, as he giggled and soaked in every last details. They are grousing texts about Mike Shildt bunts, they are the first five minutes of every conversation with my father, they are my son bounding into my room at 6 every morning asking if the Cardinals won. They are nothing larger than those moments, which is to say they are everything.
This week, I am heading to Busch Stadium. I am going with my father. My son and I are going together in August. I have been to Busch Stadium at least once every single year since 1981 … except for 2020, the year of the pandemic, the year everything stopped. This is the longest I have gone without going to Busch Stadium, either Busch Stadium, since I was five years old. I have been all around this world, and I have lived in Mattoon, and Champaign, and Los Angeles, and New York City, and Athens, Georgia. My life changes constantly. My parents no longer live in my hometown; my childhood home sits abandoned and in disrepair. Everything changes, every day. But I can still get back to Busch, and sit with my dad, or my son, and watch the Cardinals, watch my team, with a stadium full of people who care about the same thing that I care about. It’s silly. It’s just sports. But it’s a constant in a world that never stops shifting. It won’t feel like I’m going to a baseball game this week. It will feel like I’m going home.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Let’s Try to Have a Good Faith Discussion About Naomi Osaka, New York. They asked me to write on Osaka, and I agreed only if I could do a back-and-forth with myself about an extremely complicated situation. This is the sort of sportswriting I actually love to do the most.
Why Are All These Fans Suddenly Acting So Crazy? New York. A theory: The pandemic!
These Knicks Have Some Linsanity to Them, The New York Times. Well, they did.
In Defense of the Handshake, Medium. I am pro shaking hands, and if I get a chance to shake your hand, I’m going to.
The Ideal All-Star Ballot, MLB.com. Nailed it, this is the only one you need.
Buy, Sell or Hold: Every Team in Baseball, MLB.com. The NL East is such a mess.
Your May All-Star Team, MLB.com. I missed Ryan Tepera here, I’ll grant it.
What If This is As Good As It Gets for the Knicks? GQ. It probably is, sad to say.
Emma Stone Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Cruella and The Favourite.
Your Most Surreal Images of the Pandemic, Medium. Sometimes you just want to dash one off.
The Thirty: Every Team’s Iron Man, MLB.com. This was a good idea that I’m not sure I quite paid off.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed the outstanding “A Quiet Place, Part II,” as well as “Cruella” and “Plan B.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are definitely worrying.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Asking the American people to pay attention to Donald Trump again is inviting political backlash,” John Stoehr, The Editorial Board. This is an excellent daily news analysis newsletter that allows me to keep an eye on what’s going on politically right now without getting buried by it. Very much worth your time.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
Short Cuts Performances (Using Only the Actors With Names on the Poster)
Robert Downey Jr.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
But they’re all so good.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I am sorry I have fallen behind on these. I have a lot of bookplates! I will return! Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“16 Days,” Whiskeytown. One of the great things about Spotify is that I can just spend a couple of days listening to Whiskeytown, then move onto something else, then come back in two years and do the exact same thing.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
This, I believe, is the actual final week of Little League Baseball. William made the All-Star Game. He is wearing his hair long because he’s pitching now and “pitchers have long hair.”
As a former longhair myself, I can very much dig it.
Have a great weekend, all.