It's not even October and I'm already losing sleep. Fall is by far my favorite time of the year. I love the sudden chill that looms in the air and the way the leaves transform ever so slowly from green to orange, red, and yellow. The farmers are busy in the fields operating heavy machinery as they harvest this year's crop, and the squirrels are intuitively scrambling to find every last acorn to ensure their survival throughout the ominous bitter cold that lies ahead. There is no need for air conditioning and it's perfectly comfortable to drive my truck with the windows down and the radio up while the wind and the speakers compete for my attention. As I walk out the screen door and appreciate the emanation of smoke from a nearby burning pile of leaves, my default outfit will be a hoodie and shorts for the next 30 days. You get the idea; there are several reasons as to why I delight in the autumn season.
Well, I left out one thing... Saint Louis Cardinals' baseball. And this isn't just the cherry on top I'm referring to. This cherry is composed of all of the aforementioned reasons but baseball epitomizes the whole dessert. For the past three years at this time, I concern myself with a game that I have not played competitively since I was fifteen. Nearly a decade later and I'm still hooked. On one hand, my obsession is completely irrational; I'll concede that point. I have no genuine relationship or responsibility towards any athlete that takes their position on Busch Stadium III. My decision to watch these silly games (and they have been silly lately) has no bearing upon the tallies on the board once that final out is recorded. Jimmy Baseball has no idea that I get chills every time I see replays of his heroic feats in the 2004 NLCS. No, Hollywood is oblivious to how loud I screamed and how high I jumped when he hit a three-run homerun in his triumphant return to the lineup this past week. Aaron Miles has never heard my opinion of him even though I remind him every game... hell, every at bat. Yadier Molina cannot know that he remains my favorite Cardinal despite his woeful stick at the plate. Jason Marquis has no idea that I turned my back on him after he gave up the third Brewer run of last night's game. Tony La Russa could not care less that I disagree with a decision or two that he makes each game.
On the other hand, my devotion to this team could not make any more sense. First, they give me something to talk about. The Cardinals have solidified friendships in my life. You may say that this comes off as totally shallow... well, I disagree. Baseball brings people together. Some of my fondest memories have occurred at or around the ballpark; and it's not about whether the tally goes in the win or loss column after the game. It's about the process by which that tally unfolds; it's about tailgating and talking with friends before the game, it's about watching a little one witness the grand scale of it all from the upper deck for the first time. Second, this game is different. I am a process oriented person. Of course there are exceptions, but I try not to concern myself much with results. Baseball is a process oriented game. Contrary to what TLR might argue, a win is not the bottom line in the grand scheme of a 162-game season. To the contrary, it is about watching the plot unfold in between the first and last pitches that is so rewarding. Each development within the game contains a tiny bit of insight as to what may happen next. For instance, from the first batter that Jason Marquis faces in any given game, you get a sense of how his performance is going to unfold. If Juancion flails at the first pitch of an at-bat and it would have been low and outside for a ball, you can bet that he's about to strikeout. If the opposing pitcher puts runners on first and second with Pujols in the box, you can mark your score card before the man even takes a swing. And some things translate from game to game like Izzy blowing a save, Albert hitting a walkoff homerun, or Carpenter pitching a complete game. A drama unfolds in the game of baseball unlike any sport. Reason three: this is a petty game. Now, it seems like this logic should argue against my own reasoning. Hang with me. I know that this game is meaningless yet I delight in shutting out the rest of the world and committing my hopes, fears, and pride to a cause that will never know my name. I love my age but I must admit that life is stressful. The number or roles that I am supposed to fulfill in life is overwhelming right now: student, researcher, academic assistant, therapist, friend, son, brother, uncle, etc... the list rages ahead. Allowing myself three hours each day to get lost in a game that is ultimately meaningless is the best prescription for my sanity. It keeps me grounded and gives me something to anticipate from day to day (besides friends, family, and all of those pat answers).
Wait. Where was I going with all of this? Oh, yeah.
For six months, baseball provides rest and relaxation. If the Cardinals lose, I can take solace in the fact that they played hard or the way the rotation looks like it is finally coming around. If they win, I will allow my expectations inflate just beyond reasonable for the playoffs. "Maybe they do have something after all." Point being, I should have 3 more days of solitude. With the exception of a miracle (the Houston Astros), the Cardinals should have wrapped up the division by now... players should be getting rest, pitchers should be getting in order, and TLR should be using regular season games as mere scenarios that may arise in the first or second week of October. Instead, the Cardinals stand only 1/2 game in the lead of the Houston Astros... which really means that they are tied for first place. The magic number has only dropped one notch in the past ten days. If the boys can't put it together tonight, then all of a sudden, the Astros steal our magic number and the Cards will be left playing catch up. Let's face it, the Redbirds have been playing catch up all year with themselves. This should be a scenario that they are familiar with by now. Orientation is over. This team needs to forget who is sitting on the bench (Edmonds, Eckstein, Mulder, etc.) and remember who is playing on the field.
Cardinals, I implore you:
1.) Jeff Weaver: Have some life out there tonight, eh, kid? You've been in this league for years now and should be ashamed of yourself for allowing your kid brother to shatter your career. Have some poise. Prediction: you won't pitch a shut-out tonight. You will probably give up a homerun to Prince Fielder. Don't mope around and hang your head after giving up a measily run. Go back out to the mound and take care of your business, man. If you pitch seven innings and only give up one run, be proud of yourself and ashamed of the offense for not picking you up. Have some dignity. Bottom line... look like you are having fun. For all you are concerned, this is the game of your life if you want to make any money at all next year.
2.) La Russa: Put Duncan in the line-up. I know that Chris Capuano is pitching for the Brew Crew and he's a lefty, but I beg you... just don't send Preston Wilson out there instead. Prediction: He'll strike out and waste at bats. He might hit a homerun, he might get three rbi's like last night, but I'll tell you what he will not do. He will not take quality at-bats. Wanna know who will? That's right. That little boy you've known since he was in diapers, Chris Duncan. You know that Dave will be a little pissed if you don't put his son in the lineup and you know that Dave's disposition toward you is way more important than a little game at Busch stadium tonight. SO GO AGAINST YOUR INSTINCT AND DON'T PLAY THE MATCHUP. If Preston must be slid into the line-up tonight, then take out Juancion.
3.) Ronnie Belliard: I was less than enthused about your arrival in Saint Louis. But since I've developed a little bit of a crush on you and your smooth turn on double plays. However, please spend some extra time in the cage today learning to take pitches to opposite field. And stay away from Juan(cion)... I think what he has is contagious. You too swing at pitches low and outside. I don't think I've seen a major league baseball player whiff at so many pitches since Preston Wilson. I know you can hit the ball hard and have seen you hit a few homeruns and several line drives to left field, but could you please wait for an inside pitch to do so? It just doesn't work when you try the same approach with pitches that are low and away.
4.) Jimmy Baseball: Muster up some courage to take the field. When (and if) Capuano hits the showers tonight, you do whatever it takes to make Tony put you in the game. I know your head may still be a little cause for concern, but this team looks lost without you. Even if you are a little dizzy, just go out there and be a presence in the lineup. Make the guys in the clubhouse believe that you've never felt better and conjure up some spirit, would you? Apparently, heroic homeruns by Albert Pujols aren't enough... but, I bet a revitalized Jimmy Edmonds would be (even if it's fabricated). Besides, if I have to witness this horrific tailspin, you might as well wear the birds on the bat for a few final times.
I could go on, but I know my limits.