For those refined gentlepeople who prefer the cerebral grace of baseball to the plebian savagery of football, October is the greatest of months. Will Leitch looks at each of the eight playoff combatants. Now up: The St. Louis Cardinals.
Here are facts about the Cardinals' first game this season, a 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
**** The cleanup hitter was shortstop Khalil Greene, who might be a lesbian.
**** The third baseman was Brian Barden, who won the Rookie of the Month award for April and now plays catch with his daughter.
**** The left fielder was Chris Duncan, who had disc replacement surgery on his spine. By the July, the Cardinals were so eager to get rid of him that were willing to trade him for the least popular Red Sox player in recent history and totally infuriate the team's pitching coach.
**** The closer was Jason Motte, who gave four runs in the ninth inning to cost his team the opener.
To be a fan of any sports team involves an endless amount of rationalization and compartmentalizing. On July 2, 2009, the Cardinals were tied for first place, and I could not have cared less about Julio Lugo, Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa and John Smoltz. I hoped the Cardinals could go get themselves some help to surround Albert Pujols' historic season and the career years from Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, but that was only a theoretical notion, a plea for a deus ex machina to come and save us, to vanquish the looming Cubs dragon.
And then the reinforcements came, and suddenly, the nearly 34 years I've spent obsessing over the St. Louis Cardinals — making them the centerpiece of every human interaction, every event on the social calendar, every moment of walking around and breathing — coalesced in these new fellows. I've watched at least 130 Cardinals games this season, and you get to know the new guys. I can impersonate perfectly Holliday's little leg kick he uses to generate power, I can pinpoint exactly why DeRosa plays third base like the second baseman he is, I can recognize Lugo's absurdly scrawny arms from 500 yards away, and I can tell the exact parameters of Smoltz's epic bald spot. These guys, in the span of two months, have become members of my family.
Yet it still feels a little untoward. The Cardinals do not have a long history of mercenaries — ignoring, conveniently, that pretty much every baseball player is a mercenary by nature — and it feels a little like cheating, in the same way that the surreal lottery ticket of Jeff Weaver that came up in 2006 felt like cheating. (Seriously, his ERA that postseason was 2.42 in five absurdly stressful starts against the best lineups in baseball. It is unfathomable that that happened.) It is possible, probably even likely, that Holliday, DeRosa and Smoltz will all be playing for other teams next year (or, in Smoltz's case, golfing). We are making one run with them, and then we will send them on their way, a one-night stand that pops up every few months or so, the kind you nod to briefly, a nod both of you hope nobody noticed. There are no overarching storylines, no 24 years between titles, no long-suffering superstars making one last lap for that elusive ring. This is a moth-ridden quilt with temporary patches. The Cardinals will be a good team next year, and for a few years after that, perhaps even in perpetuity. But this Holliday/DeRosa/Smoltz business is a one-shot deal. How much did you root for Karl Malone and Gary Payton when they made their desperate attempt at a title. More to the point: How much did Lakers fans care? I love cheering for Matt Holliday; I even, stupidly, bought a Holliday 15 jersey. But I'm aware I won't get much use out of it. We're renting him.
That is to say: A championship always means something different to fans than it does to a team. If the Cardinals win the World Series this year, it'll be a joy to be shared with my fellow Cardinals fans, with my family, with all the souls who followed the ups-and-downs of a Frankenstein monster of a team, one that put it all together for one crazy August and was mostly listless (outside of Pujols, Wainwright and Carpenter, of course) the rest of the way. It'll be something we'll always remember. It'll be something that changes us forever. For Holliday, Smoltz and the crew, they'll have spent three months the best possible way one can spend three months, and they'll have made themselves a helluva lot more money. That's great.
But I think our way, the way fans do it, is way better.