For years, “St. Louis is a baseball town” was used in a largely complimentary way. It was a thing that those involved in baseball said to speak highly of the passion for and knowledge of the sport in the St. Louis area. It didn’t really have any tangible benefits–mostly, it meant ESPN announcers would compliment Cardinals fans during games at Busch Stadium. But it was more positive than negative.
But in the last decade or so, the “baseball town” label has increasingly been used as a pejorative. Baseball was treated not as a thing that people in St. Louis liked, but as a metaphor for St. Louis. And usually it was the things that people who do not like baseball say about baseball. That baseball is boring. That baseball is unwilling to change. That baseball is aggressively white.
None of these attributes are entirely, or even especially, true about either baseball or St. Louis. Baseball has more game action than the most popular sport in the country; St. Louis has eclectic culture peppered with French and German influences, and the area has ample attractions, from amusement parks to music venues to microbreweries, to entertain endlessly without one ever setting foot in a sports venue. Baseball has evolved from a hyper-regional sport fully dependent on local columnists and ticket revenue to an international, multi-billion dollar industry which streams all of its games around the world; St. Louis has shifted from the industrialization which defined it in the first half of the 20th century to a mixed economy with toes in biomedicine and energy. Major League Baseball has a higher percentage of players born outside the United States and Canada than any of the other Big Four professional sports leagues; St. Louis is a city of over 300,000 people in which the white population is not a majority.
This isn’t to say that St. Louis is the opposite of its perceptions, but rather that it is something different altogether. The perceptions, both common, of St. Louis as a cow town and as a crime-ridden slum are contradictory, but a consistent narrative was never the goal. Some local views this as a sign of contempt for St. Louis, but I believe that it is more fueled by a desire to feel that somewhere else is The Other, and that scorn towards The Other allows one to not concern themselves with the problems experienced in one’s own city.
The logical extension from “St. Louis is a baseball town” is that St. Louis is only a baseball town. It was a talking point happily parroted by Kevin Demoff, formerly of the St. Louis Rams and currently of the Los Angeles Rams, that St. Louis could not (or would not) support its teams. Rather than being transparent about why they wanted to relocate the St. Louis NFL franchise to Los Angeles–that the latter is a considerably larger market and the franchise’s value would skyrocket instantly (this is a totally justifiable argument if you, unlike me, care how much Stan Kroenke is worth and do not fantasize about him dying alone and penniless)–the team’s sycophants infamously trashed St. Louis. They claimed St. Louis was a dying city and that professional sports couldn’t survive in St. Louis. And it worked. And it was assumed that if the National Football League agreed, it must be true.
On Wednesday night, for the first time in their 52-year history, the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup as champions of the National Hockey League. And at least as much as this was a story of a worst-to-first hockey team, led by dynamite performances by young guns and savvy veterans alike, it was a story of St. Louis, a city starving for its first title in the sport uniting in a truly spellbinding manner.
The game was played at TD Garden, the home of the Boston Bruins, but this was not the only NHL arena to sell out for the night’s game. The day after the Blues lost Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the team sold $20 tickets to watch the game, being broadcast nationally on NBC, at Enterprise Center on the arena’s video board. The event sold out within ten minutes. Thanks to the high demand, Busch Stadium had a watch party of its own, with tickets also going for $20. And an additional tens of thousands of people bought tickets to the outdoor event, despite forecasts for rain (which eventually came to fruition). Scores of Blues fans flocked to area bars and watch parties outside of the sporting venues, which in theory negatively impacted TV ratings in the area, but the game set new records. It was the highest-rated NHL game on record (since 1994) nationally and to the surprise of nobody, the game drew its highest rating in St. Louis.
Ratings and attendance numbers tell the story to the extent that they cannot be colored by bias. I, after all, am a person who owns a website with “St. Louis” right in the name. I am an understandably unreliable witness. But in more descriptive terms, the story can be told even more vividly. This was a story of tens of thousands of people uniting under one banner hoping for a specific outcome. It was millions in the area, from small children to those who have been a fan of the St. Louis Blues since the franchise began, becoming invested, whether because of years of interest or the simple joy of a parade.
Forget answering the question of whether or not St. Louis is a great sports town–I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question to ask if it should want to be considered a great sports town. Sports are entertainment–it has no inherent value. It is a zero-sum game. Sports act a distraction from upsetting things in life, and that is a valuable thing to have, but taken to their logical extreme, they can act too well. They can keep us blinded from more important things. Sports can consume us to a point that we lose life perspective, or neglect interpersonal relationships, or not give sufficient attention to the state of public schools or something of actual significance.
We can go too far as sports fans, but what I saw in St. Louis on Wednesday was inspirational, for lack of a more moderate term that seems to fit the bill. It was a collection of people who, pure and simple, wanted to see their team win. It was a moment of intense unity for people of different races, religions, political affiliations, sexual orientations, and opinions on hockey fighting. No outcome was ever going to compel any kind of dramatic social change, but the spirit of that unity can. Any population of people who can unite behind a sports team is demonstrating that it can unite behind anything. It’s just a matter of application.
Tomorrow, an inconceivably large mass of people will converge on Market Street in downtown St. Louis and celebrate what their home team just accomplished. And if there is a true civic sport of St. Louis, it isn’t baseball nor is it hockey–it is community. St. Louis rallies around its own identity. It is why St. Louis worships Pat Maroon, the hometown kid who took less money to play in St. Louis, or David Perron, a journeyman despite the fact that every time he gets a choice he signs with the Blues, or Vladimir Tarasenko, who is from half a world away but has firmly made St. Louis his home. There is no inherent virtue in the Blues winning the Stanley Cup, but there is virtue in community.
And that is what makes St. Louis a hell of a sports city. It’s not because the teams are good, because sometimes they aren’t. It’s not because the fans are good, because that’s subjective. It’s because sports make us feel proud of where we are and of who we are.