One of my favorite twenty-first century St. Louis Cardinals teams was the 2003 team. This may seem a bit odd. There is no objective reason for me to hold a candle for the 2003 Cardinals–they were a pretty good team, finishing 85-77, and they were buoyed by typically excellent seasons from Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, and Scott Rolen, as well as perhaps the best season of the storied career of Albert Pujols. But ultimately, despite leading the division entering September, a rough series at Wrigley Field, in which the Cardinals lost four of five (there was a rainout made up in there), the Cardinals fell to third place and missed the playoffs for the only season in a seven-year stretch.
But the 2003 Cardinals also existed at a convenient time for me to watch a ton of baseball. It was, in baseball parlance, my age-14 season. I was a nerdy kid in the summer in which Moneyball was released; I was old enough to be fully invested in the Cardinals but also young enough that I had no competing obligations. I watched every game. I watched Baseball Tonight at least twice a night. I devoted untold hours to playing Baseball Mogul 2003 on the computer while eating junk food after the rest of the house had gone to bed.
During the seasons which spanned my time in college, 2007 through 2010, I didn’t watch nearly as many games. That this was, by the extraordinarily high standards of the Cardinals organization, a mediocre four-year stretch, certainly contributed a bit to my relative apathy, but also I was just busy. The season started as my semester workload necessitated my paying more attention to finals than sports. I worked most nights during the summer. In the fall, I had more free time at night, but by that point, I wasn’t emotionally invested. You can call that being a bad fan if you want. In some ways, that’s exactly what it was. Had the team been better, would I have paid more attention? Probably.
One of my three favorite sports movies of the last decade was the 2009 Patton Oswalt vehicle Big Fan (the other two are The Damned United, which is undeniably a sports movie, and Silver Linings Playbook, which is wrongly dismissed by the haters and losers as not a sports movie). Big Fan falls somewhere in-between: it is, to put it in its simplest terms, the story of the biggest New York Giants fan in the world, and how this is an impossibly sad thing to be. Being a “big fan” in this cinematic universe–and arguably in reality–is not an accomplishment, but rather an indictment of a life poorly lived. Oswalt’s Paul Aufiero is not a role model, but somebody who fundamentally misunderstands how unimportant sports are. When Paul is physically attacked by his favorite team’s star linebacker, he refuses to press charges or sue, because doing so would hurt the team, a team which has no idea nor any regard for the fact that Paul exists.
The Cardinals have been extraordinarily relevant since 2011. Not only are they consistently in contention for the postseason until the very end of the regular season, but they haven’t really run away with it either. In seven seasons, the Cardinals have played a grand total of three games after being eliminated from postseason contention, all last season. The Cardinals have not played more than three games in a season with nothing on the line–the 2015 Cardinals played a meaningless series to close out the year against the Atlanta Braves. They were swept. Sound familiar?
Recent struggles of the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals notwithstanding, the team remains very much contenders for a postseason berth. Perhaps this is an indictment of the pervasive non-competitiveness of a large swath of Major League Baseball teams, but the Cardinals could be in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth by the end of the upcoming series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
There is an undercurrent of cynicism about the current Cardinals that I think is partially rational (the team has been six games under .500 since Dexter Fowler’s Sunday Night Baseball walkoff home run completed an early May sweep against the Chicago Cubs) but also more than a little bit fueled by fatigue. Only the New York Yankees have a longer streak of winning seasons than the Cardinals, and most franchises don’t come close. The Chicago Cubs were a very bad team as recently as 2014. The 2011-2013 Houston Astros had a 56-106 record in their best season. The Cardinals haven’t had a break.
This is obviously a world’s smallest violin situation–a team isn’t going to get sympathy for being so good that fans become completely jaded and treat the sport as a chore, but to an extent, that’s what’s happening. And this isn’t what baseball is supposed to be.
New England Patriots fans surely don’t get bored of their team’s incredible run of success because it’s a once-a-week event to follow an NFL team. In baseball, for a longer season in terms of months in which games are played, the regular season is over ten times as long by game count because you only get a day off every couple weeks. It does become a bit of an obligation. It is somewhat antithetical to the romanticism Cardinals fans have, say, towards Mike Shannon, an announcer who ceased even trying to be a technically “good” announcer at least fifteen years ago. For a team with such immediacy, the folksy Midwestern charm and associated imagery of sitting on the porch, drinking a Busch, and listening to the game with only passing interest in the outcome is the opposite of the reality.
Of course, the Cardinals shouldn’t tank just to give fans a break–that’s completely ridiculous. But fans should feel that they have the right to take a break themselves. Enjoy life. You don’t have to watch every single game to be a “real fan”, and even if you did, being a “real fan” doesn’t hold any significance to anybody but yourself. The Cardinals aren’t going to move due to lack of fan support, and even if they did at some point, your individual decision to not watch or attend games isn’t going to be the breaking point. You don’t owe them a thing.
Again, if you want to watch every single game, please do! As somebody who runs a St. Louis Cardinals website, I really appreciate the team being good because it means page views. But how you spend your leisure time isn’t a referendum on the purity of your soul. We live in a culture of crowd shaming–Twitter dweebs like the proprietors of @BestFansStLouis fulfill the fantasy of mostly anonymous billionaires by criticizing working-class people for insufficiently bankrolling the yacht class, while media sycophants like ESPN Radio’s Barrett Sallee mock those who would dare spend their free time seeking shade rather than marginally improving the visual fullness of Busch Stadium in nearly hundred-degree heat. To say that the general tone of sports business analysis favors the owners over a group that could be classified as “the people”, be it the less wealthy players or the far less wealthy fans, would be a dramatic understatement.
Cardinals fans as a whole aren’t going to change the persistent belief that fans owe the owners anything, but you as an individual certainly aren’t going to pull that off. So don’t try. Enjoy yourself. Maybe some time away will energize you in the future. Baseball is supposed to be fun. If it feels like an obligation, it isn’t doing its job, and if it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, you are not required to patronize it.