There are 81 of these things. The first home game of the regular season for the St. Louis Cardinals doesn’t count for any extra in the standings than the 22nd home game, nor the 54th home game, nor the 78th home game. Its impact is not what it is, but what it represents.
22% of days during the calendar year include a St. Louis Cardinals home game. During last year’s most sparsely attended game at Busch Stadium, 33,448 people convened as a collective one. The vibrancy of a Cardinals home game day reverberates through the city in ways other events do not and cannot. A St. Louis Blues game, while in the arena, is a phenomenal spectactor experience, but the sheer volume of people keeps gameday culture more confined. Even, say, a similarly attended Busch Stadium concert can’t compete. If you go to a Billy Joel concert and then go out to a bar afterward, the bartender isn’t going to ask if he played “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, but if you’re there with an army of fellow fans in Yadier Molina shirseys, you’re probably going to be asked how the game went. And it’ll be because they genuinely care about the result.
I’m a baseball nerd who has many friends who are also baseball nerds and thus I have countless conversations about baseball nerds things. I’m the kind of guy who will pull out his phone on a Friday night at a bar and quiz his friends on who led the 1996 Colorado Rockies in FanGraphs WAR, and then get really annoyed when they guess Andres Galarraga (come on, do you even positionally adjust, bro?). But what baseball games in St. Louis provide is a backdrop for casual fandom. Baseball needs casual fans to survive, and in the end, it’s probably much more relaxing and fulfilling to be one than the kind of lunatic who lives and breathes with every pitch.
I’ve never been a big believer in trying to explain Cardinals-related things through the prism of “this is what makes St. Louis special”. I’ve never lived in another MLB city (heck, I’ve only been to six other MLB cities, and one of those was just the airport) and I simply don’t know that any of the St. Louis baseball traditions actually do make us special. But I do know that those St. Louis traditions make us St. Louis. It occasionally gets us mocked, but it gets us identified. Maybe that’s the most important thing.
Last week, a social media hubbub arose after a St. Louisan named Alek Krautmann tweeted a picture of what he labeled “the St. Louis secret of ordering bagels bread sliced“. As somebody who has lived in St. Louis for three decades, I should note that I had no idea until last week that this was a St. Louis thing–I thought it was more of a “people are ordering bagels for an office and this is a cheaper way to make sure everybody gets at least part of an Asiago Cheese bagel because some selfish jerk is going to hog them otherwise” thing. I’ve only seen it done with St. Louis Bread Company bagels (note: if you ordered bagels in St. Louis from a “Panera”, they are going to be stale, as no Paneras are located nearby; I will call them Panera when they are actually Panera locations). I would never request a bagel that I am eating be sliced like bread, but I’ve had it that way before, and if somebody offered me a bread-sliced bagel, I wouldn’t throw a tantrum about it, but also I’m not a bored coastal elitist with infinite time on my hands.
Every stage of the great “St. Louis-style bagel” controversy was familiar and predictable. Somebody proclaimed a thing “St. Louis-style”, with the bizarrely boisterous implication that St. Louis had perfected something which nobody had ever been innovative enough to implement previously. National snobs rose together to declare somebody’s personal food preference to be a grand abomination unworthy of consideration. And finally, St. Louis united behind a cause to which they were more or less conscribed. It didn’t matter if you loved, hated, or (as I suspect was the case in the vast majority of cases) were apathetic to these stupid bagels–their existence represented St. Louis.
The St. Louis Cardinals represent St. Louis in an even more direct way. That none of the players on the St. Louis Cardinals are actually from St. Louis doesn’t matter; the people on that field are representing your city and they are representing you. And if we’re going to care deeply about something as trivial as an unpopular taste preference, baseball is going to galvanize us.
Today, at Busch Stadium, every living member of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame is expected to attend pregame festivities. These Cardinals legends, along with current members of the team, will parade around the field along with the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales in a massive celebration meant to unite the past and present of the most successful organization in National League history. And as far as pageantry goes, it’s hard to top.
But the ceremony only lasts about an hour, and most of the Cardinals dignitaries will go back to the private lives which they have so richly earned the right to live. And while the current Cardinals will, of course, remain, they won’t have a ceremon every day. What will remain is the overwhelming sense of meaning behind Cardinals baseball. It is the knowledge that there is a direct line between the Cardinals of 2019 and the Cardinals of our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents.
My grandmother, currently 91, attended two games of the 1944 World Series between the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns. At the time, she was an unmarried and childless teenager who presumably wasn’t thinking about the series in historic terms. Major League Baseball had only been a major cultural phenomenon for about two decades, so the idea that her great-grandchildren would today know who Stan Musial is would be inconceivable. And yet it lasts. The Cardinals and Major League Baseball probably won’t last forever, but we can only hope that whatever replaces it in the public consciousness can unite generations and foster a universal language half as well as Cardinals baseball has.