In the modern Online culture, we tend to grade viral social media moments on a curve. If a comedian writes a funny tweet, that’s swell, but that is expected. But if Ted Cruz, very much not a professional comedian, replies to Deadspin soliciting requests for pictures of him playing basketball (I don’t remember the reason–it was almost two years ago, which in Online Time means I can’t remember if we had the internal combustion engine at that point) with a picture of celebrity doppelganger Grayson Allen in a game for Duke, it is treated as a tremendously powerful own. The reply was…fine, I guess, but there wasn’t really a “joke” here. But nobody expects Ted Cruz to make a joke; the mere fact that he (or his staff) displayed some modicum of personality was enough to placate the internet.
Kris Bryant is not a comedian, nor a particularly interesting person outside of when he hits and fields baseballs for the Chicago Cubs at a very high level. This isn’t a referendum on Bryant, really–there are billions of people who, if asked to be entertaining or otherwise compelling, would fall short. But most of them aren’t high-profile athletes. It’s weird that we expect the skills associated with playing baseball and the skills associated with verbal entertainment to correlate, but we also expect singers to be able to dance, comedians to be able to sing, musicians to be able to act…it’s all very strange, but it’s not particularly abnormal.
But late on Friday night, at a Cubs fan event, Kris Bryant EVISCERATED St. Louis, in the way that viral Facebook posts from tech billionaires eviscerate millennials for not buying homes because they’re too busy buying tide pods or whatever. In an interview with fellow former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, best known for once (probably) intentionally throwing at Alex Rodriguez and then giving up a monster home run to him in Rodriguez’s next plate appearance, Bryant first whiffed on an extremely obvious Nelly joke before rattling off such savage put-downs of St. Louis as “Who’d want to play in St. Louis? It’s so boring” and calling St. Louis “a place (he doesn’t) like to play”, while Dempster asserted he “wouldn’t even go there as a free agent”.
Bryant’s comments didn’t offend me as a Cardinals fan nor as a St. Louisan–they offended me as an appreciator of good trash talk. There was plenty of material ripe for the picking–we have food that nobody outside of St. Louis seems to like and our most famous monument is a tribute to people who left St. Louis as soon as they got the chance. But nothing.
When I woke up and saw this video, I hoped the story would quickly go away, because it isn’t interesting enough to justify an ongoing life in this constantly rotating news cycle in which we are forever stuck. But I knew better. St. Louis absolutely cannot take even the slightest of slights, which is what this was. Like, St. Louis is a more boring city than Chicago. This is undeniably true. I personally prefer it that way. But any implication of inferiority cannot stand. And that is where John Brebbia and Yadier Molina stepped in.
At this weekend’s Winter Warm-Up, the Cardinals reliever Brebbia was asked about Bryant’s comments, to which he replied rather concisely, “Cry me a river, loser.” But seeing as Brebbia is a somewhat anonymous member of the St. Louis bullpen, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect this quote to go unnoticed. To combat Kris Bryant, the Cardinals needed a player of equivalent popularity. The Cardinals needed Yadier Molina.
In an instantly viral Instagram post, the future Hall of Famer (look, if today is going to be all about aggressive online Cardinals/Cubs trolling, I might as well participate too) stated that leaders “do not speak bad about any city”, capping off the post with “only stupid players and losers make comments like the ones made by bryant and dempster”.
Yadier Molina has spent nearly a decade and a half living in St. Louis. While most Cardinals players only live in the area during the baseball season, Molina has very much made St. Louis his home. There is no part of me that questions his sincere love for St. Louis and that he truly disagrees with the assertion that St. Louis is “boring”. But I do suspect that a large part of the motivation for this post, and probably the largest part of it, is playing to an audience. And this is fine.
I’ve already jumped on my pointless soapbox this off-season that the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry is almost entirely fan-driven and that the players essentially act as avatars in the faux-rage of it, more like professional wrestlers than sincere partisans. Yadier Molina himself is part of this dynamic: when he was teammates with Cubs second baseman Javier Baez in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the duo’s chemistry both on and off the field for Team Puerto Rico was among the highlights of the tournament.
But even if Kris Bryant’s undeniable on-field charisma doesn’t translate to off-field charisma in interviews, baseball players are still undeniably entertainers first and foremost. I can mock Bryant’s ham-fisted delivery, but he did get a positive reaction from his fans, and he got a negative reaction from his enemies (which is in many ways more satisfying than the former). By the same token, Yadier Molina’s Instagram post was circumstantial. Had a random fan posted it, it wouldn’t have gotten any traction. Even if a different Cardinals player had posted it, it wouldn’t have meant as much. But for Yadier Molina, a visibly emotional player beloved by Cardinals fans for nearly a full generation’s worth of time, to stand up for St. Louis, is something which feels very significant. And once the Cardinals and Cubs square off for the first time this season, on May 3, there will be all the more intrigue, and the game will be better for having it.