I am a professional baseball writer, and I do my best to be impartial, but I am also a human being, and as a human being, before I am almost anything else, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Denying this part of myself because I am fortunate enough to
I am a professional baseball writer, and I do my best to be impartial, but I am also a human being, and as a human being, before I am almost anything else, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Denying this part of myself because I am fortunate enough to write about baseball for a living would be as dishonest as making up a quote or purposely getting a score wrong: When I am watching a baseball game, I am cheering for the Cardinals to win, and the team that is playing them to lose, and pretending otherwise would be lying to myself and, more important, to you. I would (and do) argue that this makes me not a Cards apologist, but in fact a tougher critic of them than anyone, the way we are harder on our family than we are on people we aren't as close to; no one knows our faults better than those who deeply love us. We demand more from our family because they are so close to us. For me, even though I have no relationship with anyone who works or plays for the team and have no real desire to, the Cardinals are family.
The reason they are family, of course, is because of my actual family, more specifically, my father. I wrote a whole book about my relationship with my father and baseball and the Cardinals, so I won't belabor the point here, but know that in the Leitch family, every conversation about anything -- about the grandkids, about Dad's health, about Mom's new job, about my sister's upcoming wedding -- always begins and ends with Cards talk. It's the entry point and exit ramp for everything. The Cardinals are the organizing principle of our lives. Every game is always playing in my home; I always attend all three games when they play the Braves 70 miles away from here in Athens, Ga.; my father and I always make at least one pilgrimage to Busch Stadium every year, no matter what. I've been going to Cardinals games with my Dad since before I could read. Whether the team is good or bad, fun or dull, likable or full of internal strife, we'll be there. This is what fandom is. Someday everyone currently involved with the Cards will be gone, off to other teams, retired, doing something else for someone else. Cardinals fans will still be there. They were there before, and they'll be there after. Sports teams are a public trust, their owners and employees just temporary caretakers. The fans are the sole constant. This is what my father and I do. It is who we are.
I am now old enough to have two sons of my own, William, 6, and Wynn, 4. I have had many people ask me, because we live in Georgia rather than Missouri or Illinois, if I am raising them as Cardinals fans. I tell them that it is OK if the boys do not cheer for the Cards, as long as the boys understand that choosing not to do so will require them finding alternative lodging options; I am sure if it is that important for them to cheer for the Braves, finding gainful employment at this stage of their lives to pay their own rent will be no problem. Otherwise: My house, my Cardinals. Fortunately, this has not been an issue as of yet in this happy home. The boys love their Cards, so they get to stay.
I've taken them both to many baseball games, from Braves games to Gwinnett Stripers games to Georgia Bulldogs games just down the road, but Cardinals games, those are special. When we go watch the Braves play the Reds, we can roam around the park, we can play some of the games they have for kids, we can leave early if anybody starts to get sleepy or cranky. I'm just selling them on the ballpark experience; most of the fun is just being there, regardless of what happens in the game or who's playing. We love to sit in the Chop House seats at SunTrust Park and get there early enough to grab batting-practice balls. No kid doesn't love a pregame hot dog and baseballs falling from the sky.
But Cardinals games are a different beast. They are to be watched attentively at all moments, scorebook in hand, grousing about bullpen management at the ready. There are no trips to Kid Land for Cards games; we don't miss a pitch, and we don't, lord no, ever leave early. A Cardinals game is not like any other baseball game. A Cards game is different.
Wynn is a little young yet to sit through a whole baseball game -- he's a little young yet to sit through a whole haircut -- but William is already obsessed enough with the sport that we couldn't drag him out of there early if we tried. My father and I had discussed whether he was ready to accompany us on our annual trips to Busch Stadium, but we needed to test him first. So last May, the Cardinals played at SunTrust Park on a Sunday afternoon, and we sat William down the day before.
"Do you want to come to the Cardinals-Braves game Sunday?"
(nods head wildly)
"Do you realize that we're not leaving early no matter what? And that we're not roaming around the ballpark, that you have to sit in your seat the whole time?"
(nods head wildly)
"Do you want to get a hot dog?"
(nods head even more wildly than he had been)
So off we went, on a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon, a game in which St. Louis took a 4-0 lead, taking the pressure off: The last thing we wanted was for them to lose William's first Cardinals game. He was elated, the entire time, particularly intrigued by a player the Cards had just called up that weekend, Tommy Pham, who his father kept explaining to him was a terrific player who never caught a break with the team. The name "Tommy Pham" is a funny one for a kid; William couldn't stop saying it.
And then the sun came out, and it started to get hot outside; Georgia is hotter in May than you realize. Then the Braves came back and tied the game in the eighth inning, and next thing you knew, The Game We Couldn't Leave Early No Matter What was headed to extra innings. Then the 10th. Then the 11th. Then the 12th. The texts started coming in from his mother. "You know he has school tomorrow, right?" William didn't seem to notice or care; he was having the time of his life. As far as he was concerned, the game could go on forever.
Then, in the top of the 14th, Pham, 29 years old and just up from Memphis, came to the plate.
More than a year later, William still will sometimes, out of nowhere, say, "Hey, Daddy, remember that time when Tommy Pham hit that homer? That was awesome." It most definitely was.
So this weekend, he's going. (Wynn gets to go in a couple of years; this weekend, he gets Mommy to himself.) We're going up in the Arch and to the Zoo, and then, on Saturday, for the first time in his life, young William Leitch will go to Busch Stadium. His father doesn't remember the exact first time he went to a Cardinals game with his dad. It was probably around 1983, the old Ozzie/Willie/Herzog teams, the heat wafting from the AstroTurf as Willie came streaking home after a Tommy Herr line drive into the gap, as Ozzie dove to get a ball in the hole and popped up like a Pogo stick to throw out the poor fool on his way to first. We used to show up two hours before gametime to get the old $6 bleacher seats; there was always someone who was playing Jack Buck's on a transistor radio so we could all hear it. I don't remember much about my childhood. As I get older, it's just flashes, snapshots. But I close my eyes and whoosh I'm back there, seven years old, sitting with my dad in the bleachers, watching every pitch, letting him know I'm watching because I want to come back and do this again, I want to do this very much.
This has been a difficult season to be a Cardinals fan, for many reasons, both on and off the field. But that doesn't really matter, not really, not in the long run. I don't remember the particulars of that 1983 team either, and even if I did, I wouldn't have been able to understand them at seven years old and they wouldn't have changed one whit of my experience. Everyone involved with that team is gone now; everyone involved with this Cards team will be gone in 30 years, when William remembers his first Cardinals game, looking up at his Dad, so happy that he gets to be there, so lucky that his Grandpa and Grandma get to be there too.
We get so caught up in the particulars of our team, who we're gonna trade for, whether they can move up in the Wild Card race, what kind of manager we'd love our team to have. We obsess about our teams, and we get caught up in the controversies of the day to day, and we sometimes lose ourselves in the process, yelling about this, ranting about that. But this is what baseball really is, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, friends and family passing the game from one generation to the next, the single undeniable thread that connects people who otherwise don't have much in common, the one thing we know will remain ours, specifically ours, even as everything changes and crumbles and rebuilds all around us. I don't know what will happen in my son's life, just as my father did not know what would happen in mine. But he knew we would have this. And so do I. This weekend, my son gets to go to Busch Stadium for the first time. He'll be back again someday, as will his brother, as will I, as will their grandparents, as will millions of other fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. We might not get there as often as I like. But we will nonetheless live there. That team -- not the players, not the executives, not the manager, not the owners, not any of that … the team -- is, and always will be, family. And starting this weekend, that place, for William and the rest of us, is home.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.