Three Series


2004

It is a relief to know that no team will ever be my new favorites again. Some time in August, probably, it clicked, and I knew that when checked off all the stereotypical old-fan tropes it would be in this team's emply—Jim Edmonds had the Most Beautiful Home Run Swing Ever, Scott Rolen had impossibly perfect reflexes and an arm that made any ball he got to an out, Albert Pujols had an unfulfilled, unfathomable career ahead of him. One of the Edmonds plays in the NLCS, the home run or the catch, is the absolute peak of my Cardinals fandom; if I didn't know it at the time it wouldn't have been a month or two until I did, once the World Series wore off. 

But that World Series. I was born in 1987, so I was booked solid for the Metrodome; I was a Bulls fan in 1996, so Donovan Osborne couldn't have done anything to break my stride short of beaning Toni Kukoc; and in the Mark McGwire years the simple act of being there when "Welcome to the Jungle" started playing was enough. 2003 was the first year when I was engaged enough in a losing effort to be truly and completely disappointed. Then I started a blog. Then I started reading a blog

When things happen all at once it's easy to get caught in the moments and to take them not as a series of events but an inexorable march in one direction. Ray Lankford makes an unexpected comeback and becomes a key role player; Rick Ankiel makes his way, command seemingly perfect, through the hinterlands of pre-milb.com minor league baseball; each member of MV3, by then linked forever, peaks at the same time. I've never been able to have total confidence in a team without Michael Jordan on it, but these guys were as close as I got. 

So then the World Series happened. I don't want to say my expectations as a fan were lower after that, because it sounds so negative; the 2004 Cardinals didn't disillusion me, they weren't the last time I trusted an authority figure, and baseball itself, played by any players on any field, had the same systemic pull it always did. But the sheer cognitive dissonance of my favorite team, the one I'd yoked myself to for life, losing in the worst way imaginable—to the Red Sox, with Jimmy Fallon on the field, with Marlon Anderson manning the DH, in four irredeemable games—made me reevaluate things. This team was supposed to win. I reveled in the way it was supposed to win. 

2006

What a disaster this was. When the Cardinals lose in a particularly bad way all the TVs in the house are turned off, all the baseball-related bookmarks are temporarily discontinued. I don't think I read a single Cardinals blog or news article from the middle of August to the end of September. I didn't want to talk about them, I didn't want to read or write about them, and I watched the games out of some warped pride, the latent strain of baseball masochism that dominated Red Sox fandom until 2004, that makes Cubs fans fatalistic on Facebook feeds and in small groups to this day. 

When Scott Spiezio's triple dragged the team into the playoffs I was in a sports bar, more or less on accident, and for the first time in what seemed like months I had a pleasant Cardinals experience. The whole bar exhaled, all at once, and drew a fresh breath—they're in the playoffs; if they lose, now, they lose, but they've gotten through the door. 

And they won, and they won, and they won. I'll say it now—this one lowered my expectations. It was a valedictory for the 2004 team; with time running out on the MV3 core each year that passed was one more with Jimmy Fallon giggling around the team's lasting impressions on the baseball landscape. When it happened those bitter-tasting moments faded out of the center of my memories of that 2004 team, replaced by Ray Lankford running down fly balls in spring training and the three guys who could do no wrong. 

2009

This isn't a post-mortem because the baseball season is cheapened by summary in November; the best thing about the baseball season, always, is that it's still going, that it helps us mark time in January and pass it in May, August, October. It's still going now. After 2004, when a single moment ruined the year, and 2006, where one improbable run validated it, I've tried to remember that. For the most part it works pretty well. 

But in those particular single moments it's hard. In the end, for baseball fans, for me, statistics and the gods of baseball and image macros are just hedging our bets about this thing that takes up so much of our time and thought, that directs our conversations in person and on this blog, that can hurt us like nothing so finally impersonal should. Nine-hundred and eighty times out of a thousand Matt Holliday catches the ball. Seven-hundred and eighty times out of a thousand a batter facing Ryan Franklin doesn't reach base safely. If I keep saying that he sucks he can't suck. None of it matters in that one instant except to remind us, to insist to us, that baseball isn't always like this, that normally it meets our expectations halfway. 

Right now the best part about the 2009 season is that it's happened—that we lived through and talked about two proposed Matt Holliday trades, 29 Chris Carpenter starts, the birth of a new, scrappier middle infield, an incredible run away from our natural rivals—and that it's still happening. It animated another summer with possibility and discussion and mustaches, and it's gotten us into fall with the potential for one more improbable attempt at keeping things going. I would rather the baseball season never end; failing that, I'd like to see it through Saturday. 

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