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Volume 4, Issue 84: Down Neck
"It's not a destiny written in stone. People have choices."
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I do not know what the world has in store for me, or you, or my family, or your family, or any of us. We are on the cusp of a Presidential election season that already feels like it could be the end of everything; culture seems to be collapsing and reassembling itself with astonishing speed; it’s possible this planet is going to be unlivable in 50 years. The future is always uncertain—that’s why it’s the future—but I can’t imagine there has been an age since World War II in which everything felt so teetering on the edge of seismic, destabilizing, potentially destructive change. I look at the world my kids will inherit, and I am scared; I look at the world their kids will inherit, and I worry there will be no world for them at all. It is impossible to know what lies in store for all of us.
So you look for something you know will last—for better or worse.
This summer, I learned one thing about myself that I know will be true for the rest of my life. As everything peels away, as my children grow up and move off to their own homes to build their own lives, as my body grows old and frail, as the earth shifts beneath my feet, I can now say with 100 percent certainty what I will be doing when I am 90 years old, if I am so fortunate to live that long:
I will be watching the St. Louis Cardinals.
I’ve learned this year, this relentlessly miserable Cardinals year, that it does not matter how good they are. And it never will. It will not matter where I live. It will not matter if the greater sports fan marketplace shifts almost exclusively to pickleball and robot fights. It honestly would not matter if the Cardinals changed their nickname to the “St. Louis Will Leitch Is An Assholes” and every commercial break featured a player personally insulting me to the camera. (“Nice hair, dipshit,” mumbles Andre Pallante into the Bally Sports Midwest camera.) If 2023 has proven anything to me, it is that the Cardinals can make me deeply miserable for three hours every evening, can make me question everything I thought I understood about the universe and my place in it, can morph themselves into something unrecognizable and hideous … and I will still sit there and take it.
If you are not a baseball fan, you might not know this, and trust me I will try not to belabor it, but: My beloved St. Louis Cardinals, the organizing principle of the Leitch family for generations, are having a wretched, rotten season. After last night’s win over the Reds, they are 62-79, in last place in the National League Central and holding the second-worst record in the National League, ahead only the Colorado Rockies. If the Cardinals do not go on a historic run over the season’s final three weeks—and they’re not going to—they are going to finish in last place for the first time since 1990, when I was 15 years old. The team’s has been split up between two distinct sections: One in which they were hugely disappointing, and the other in which they were exactly as terrible as you thought they were and thus lost their ability to surprise. Both of these have been awful. And neither got me to stop watching.
I am not asking for pity; I, and we Cardinals fans, do not deserve it. Life has been good for Cardinals fans for a long, long time. This will be the first losing season since 2007, and only the second this century. (As a matter of comparison, the Cubs have had 11 losing seasons since 2000. But hey, who’s counting?) The Cardinals have won three World Series in my lifetime, each coming during a distinct, vitally important time in my life: The first year I ever watched baseball (1982), a year in which I went through the most personal upheaval I’ve gone through before or since (2006), and the year I became a father (2011). One of truly happiest moments of my life was watching the Cardinals win the 2006 World Series over the Detroit Tigers, in person at Busch Stadium, alongside my parents and 46,638 of my best friends, on a freezing night in St. Louis.
I love this photo so much that I once had it made into a stamp.
The St. Louis Cardinals have provided me so much joy in my life, and I have tried to return the favor. That we would be a Cardinals fan family was literally written in my vows. I have told my children that it is fine if they do not want to be Cardinals fans, as long as they understand that this will mean they will need to find a new house to live in. The amount of money I have given to this team is so vast as to be incalculable: Realize you are reading the words of someone who routinely pays hundreds of dollars for bobbleheads of humans named Gaetti, Ankiel, Hart and Lankford. Every year since I graduated from high school, I have made a trip with my father to Busch Stadium, a visit that is less a voyage of entertainment and more a pilgrimage to Mecca—an annual sojourn of worship. Now that my son William, named after his grandfather, is old enough to do so, I make the same trip with him too. I have traveled to London to see this team, to Denver, to Toronto, to San Francisco, to Philadelphia, to Dallas, to Miami; when the Oakland A’s inevitably move to Las Vegas, my father and I have already mapped our plans to spend a week in America’s home of infinite entertainment doing nothing but watching our Cardinals throw baseballs around the desert. I have literally written a whole book about how much I love this stupid baseball team. I’ll be handing over a portion of my children’s financial future to the billionaire private equity raiders of the DeWitt family for the rest of my life, and will do so willingly, even giddily. And I’ll still always feel like I owe them more than that.
This is what being a sports fan is: Being infinitely tied to something that has no actual bearing on your life in ways that are tighter than they are to all the things that actually do. Do you realize how bizarre it is that there is nothing—literally nothing, not moving, not being terrible for 40 years, not randomly deciding to start pummeling me with fungo bats the minute I walk in the stadium—that the Cardinals could do to make me stop cheering for them? If you told me, “Will, here is $400 million, as well as the ability to invoke the sort of positive societal change you care deeply about simply with the snap of your finger, and all you have to do to keep it is simply never learn the score of a Cardinals game the rest of your life,” I would absolutely agree to try and then I’d blow the whole thing when I sneaked a peek at the first ESPN scroll I came into contact with, probably about 20 minutes later.
And if I ever had any doubt that any of us this were true, I have only this dreadful Cardinals season to remind me. The Cardinals have not played a game of any actual import in several months, which has not stopped them from losing most of them anyway. Their hitting is inconsistent and lethargic, their defense is shoddy and indifferent, their pitching so horrific that I’ve found myself wondering of some of their starters should consider maybe pitching with their other hand, hey, it can’t hurt. Oh, and maybe worst of all: The Cubs are good. And yet: On and on I watch. If I am home when the Cardinals are playing, the game will be on my television, and if I am out, I will pull out my phone to check the score the first moment I have to myself. The Cardinals keep losing, and that the games are meaningless does not make those losses feel any better. There is no reason to do this to myself. Yet do this to myself I continue to do.
Why do this? Thursday night was a reminder. On Thursday, I went to Truist Park in suburban Smyrna, Georgia, to watch my terrible Cardinals lose again, this time to the emerging juggernaut that is the Atlanta Braves. I did not go because I thought they would win, or because a win, even if it happened, would make much difference in my life. I went because I got to go with two different human beings named William Bryan Leitch.
We sat in the stands and watched a man named Adam Wainwright, a man I have never met and have no relationship with but nevertheless has been a part of my life for more than 20 years, pitch in person for the final time. I first heard his name in December 2003, when the Braves traded him to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew; I called my dad and we talked about how we wouldn’t miss Drew much and that we hoped the new pitcher we got would turn out to be someone useful. I was at that stadium in 2006, when he threw the final pitch that won that World Series and led to that immortal picture of my parents and me. I watched him pitch when I took my son, a person I couldn’t imagine having existed in 2006, to his first Cardinals game; William went home in a Wainwright jersey. I took my parents, in their eighth decade, to visit Europe for the first time this last summer just to see him pitch. And Thursday my father and his grandson, a boy who is going to be a man before I can blink, went out to say goodbye to him. Adam Wainwright has no actual bond with the Leitch family, and neither does his team. But that doesn’t mean that what he is, and they are, aren’t inextricable from my life, and my dad’s life, and my son’s. They connect my son to me, and me to my father, and my father to his, and on and on. I couldn’t turn away from them any more than I could turn away from my own family. The Cardinals aren’t my family. But what they represent—what they are to us—absolutely is. And always will be.
So. Thus. There will be a time when I am in my 80s or 90s, and my grandchildren, or my great-grandchildren, or the robots that have enslaved them both, will come to visit me in whatever floating retirement community I happen to live in at the time. They will prop me in a comfortable chair, perhaps one that rotates, maybe even levitates, and they will place a bowl of Werther’s Originals next to me, and perhaps an empty glass they will tell me has bourbon in it, and I will believe them and pretend to drink out of it. And they will turn me in the direction of the Cardinals game, whatever the Cardinals are by then, whatever baseball is by then, and I will watch, because I have always watched, because it will be my place of comfort, of routine, of the memories of the friends and family I have shared so many Cardinals games with before, my place of peace and routine and comfort. The world outside will be uncertain and confusing. But the Cardinals will always be familiar. The Cardinals will always be home. Even when they stink. Maybe especially when they stink.
Oh, and don’t get me started on the Illini.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The NFL Remains Indestructible, New York. If it can spin Damar Hamlin into a feel-good story, it can do anything.
My Annual Look at the Best MLB Player at Every Age, MLB.com. The last time Wainwright will make this list.
I Wrote about the Orioles, My Well, the Cardinals Are Out of It So I Need Someone to Root For Team, MLB.com. I even like that they’re already annoyed with Jack Flaherty.
I Did the MLB Power Rankings This Week, MLB.com. Your weekly reminder that I merely compile these rankings, they are not my personal rankings.
Grierson & Leitch, we talked about “The Equalizer 3” and then two truly great movies: Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” and Chris Smith’s “American Movie.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are still talking about this team.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we recapped UT Martin and previewed Ball State.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Rise and Fall of ESPN’s Leverage,” Ben Thompson, Stratechery. I’m writing about the whole ESPN-Charter mess for The Atlantic next week, but this is an excellent, very in-the-weeds piece that describes how this is a very different situation for ESPN than it might look at first glance.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Trying,” Bully. I just discovered Bully, and if I were in college right now, I would be listening to Bully constantly in my dorm room. I might go back to college just to do so.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I have 6,000 words done on the new book. I have no idea if they are good. But I do they have been written. Which is enough for now.
Have a great weekend, all.