First off, you may notice the change in my username; after a reasonable amount of consideration, I have decided to discard the red baron moniker.
I joined Viva El Birdos the first time in early August of 2006, after having come across the site a couple months earlier and falling, hard, for the writing that populated the front page of the site and the community that already existed within the comments. My first UID (if you remember, it probably matters to you, if you don’t, don’t worry about it), was in the triple digits, somewhere around 650 I believe. I actually ended up barely ever using that first account, and honestly today don’t recall what the username even was. It was lost when the user rolls were purged back in 2008, I would imagine. There was a day in mid-October, during the Cards’ magical run to the title they should have, by all rights, won at least two years earlier in ‘04, and maybe even earlier than that, perhaps as far back as that beastly 2001 club that just so happened to run into the Johnson/Schilling buzzsaw in the NLDS, when I went to log in to VEB and could not recall my password. I gave it a handful of tries, then decided I was really too busy to deal with it that day anyway, and never did log in again.
Following the World Series victory, evident the wash (again, if you remember), and the opening salvos of what would ultimately be a disappointing offseason, I rejoined the site in late November of ‘06, and this time put more thought into my screen name. Red because it’s a Cardinal site. Baron because it rhymes with my name. Red Baron after the famed World War I pilot to reflect both my basic German heritage and the fact that, somewhere a ways back, the family line on my mother’s side has some small connection to the Richthofen clan, or so I’ve been led to believe. Said pilot also happened to be the sworn nemesis of Snoopy’s Flying Ace persona, and I’ve always been an enormous fan of pretty much all things Peanuts. The name hit a multitude of notes for me, and so I went with it.
I commented on the site all through the offseason of ‘06, and wrote a few fanposts. Sometime in, I believe, February or March, I penned a piece about how many relief arms the Cardinals had in their system, and how bright the future of the bullpen was. The piece was epic in length, a harbinger of things to come, and reasonably well-written, I believe, even if it turned out to be wholly wrong in its naive belief that the organisation actually had the kind of pitching talent I saw when I looked at the system.
Through the frustrating, disappointing, downright miserable season of 2007 I continued commenting, quite avidly, and writing near-weekly fanposts. After the season, when the Cardinals dismissed Walt Jocketty but chose to resign Tony LaRussa, I thought it so insane to saddle a new General Manager with an outsized presence like TLR that I publicly announced I was going to simply quit following the team for awhile, because I was so frustrated by the direction.
The next morning, my email inbox contained a message from Larry Borowsky, the founder of VEB, stating he understood me saying I needed a break from the team, but asking if I would be interested in a spot on the front page, either Monday or Wednesday mornings. If I really was serious about stepping away for awhile he understood, but if not, he was looking to bring on another writer to share the load.
I immediately decided I was not, in fact, nearly so frustrated as to abandon the opportunity to write for my favourite baseball website, and answered him with an affirmative as quickly as I could. I happened to be listening to the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” while writing my reply, and decided to myself that would be a funny reason to take Wednesdays instead. Thus, Wednesday became my day to write.
My first major article was published on the 31st of October, 2007. I went back and found it a few years ago — surprisingly difficult, actually — and it’s...okay. Even through a computer monitor it was covered in flop sweat, but it said most of what I meant to say as a personal introduction and rumination on some particular aspect of the looming offseason.
In February 2008, the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times, a man named Tom Finkel, asked me to write a preview piece for an insert they were putting together for the middle of March sometime. He had read my work at VEB, had asked Larry to write the piece initially, and then when LB couldn’t find time in his schedule Tom asked him for a recommendation. Mine was the name put forward. (Or, at least, that’s the story I got; whether there were other recommendations made or sought I never asked, deciding this particular gift horse would not be looked at in the mouth by me.) I collected the first check of my writing career for a piece about the developing minor league system of the Cardinals, which was just beginning to bear the fruits of the Jeff Luhnow revamp. For my birthday that year, my mother bought a framing kit and framed the page of the RFT where my article began; I still have it hanging in my living room now, and it worries me a bit how much the paper has yellowed in the intervening years.
I wrote for the RFT for five years; two good ones and three that were less positive. At some point the hierarchy began getting reorganised more or less constantly, my sport-centric section was moved into the daily news feed, became incredibly hard to find (seriously, my girlfriend in 2012, who actually did read everything I wrote, once showed me that in order to find my recent articles she had bookmarked a 2009 piece about Jaime Garcia and simply opened it to click on my name, which was hyperlinked, rather than navigate the daily site), I ended up under a succession of editors, each one of whom had a different idea of the kind of sport coverage the wanted, and at some point I got frustrated with the constant direction changes and lack of coherence and just sort of disengaged. Disengaging emotionally from a tough situation has always been one of my biggest flaws, and I absolutely did so there as well. Eventually, in early 2013, the parent company of the paper, Village Voice media, basically put their foot down and killed off sports coverage entirely. Tom, who originally brought me in and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to pay back, fought to keep me on, but the writing was on the wall. I wasn’t doing good enough work to be worth fighting for, and the higher-ups had decided alt-journal readers and sports fans were two circles on the Venn diagram of life that simply didn’t overlap enough. I happen to disagree in this town, where baseball is nearly a religion even for the gothy kids I hung out with at times in high school, but to use that most maddening of sports cliches, it is what it is.
We’ve been through a handful of top editors here at VEB, going from Larry, who built the place beginning in late 2005, to Dan Moore, who left under really shitty circumstances when SBN decided one brilliant thing a day was less desirable than half a dozen mediocre things a day, and a handful of site editors more or less refused to get on board with the new paradigm, to Ben Humphrey, who left his front page writing gig after Dan was let go, only to come back as site editor following the comically short — and comically bad — tenure of a guy named Grabowski, who inherited a hornet’s nest of a community that was ready to attack anyone coming in from outside to push a corporate agenda that had already led to so much uproar, to our current leader Craig Edwards, who ensured a peaceful transfer of power when bgh decided to hang up his typewriter. There was some other iteration of leadership in there, I believe, where ChuckB, who still comments over at FanGraphs sometimes, had a prominent role, but damned it I can recall the exact frame of the thing.
And through it all, I wrote, and I held on to my screen name. I’ve always been grateful in a vague sort of way that none of the site editors ever forced me to change it, even though it was never really about protecting my identity in some way. The moniker was a relic of a different time, when VEB was a small fansite with a little over a thousand members (my UID for the red baron account was 1145, I believe), and nothing like the commercial enterprise it’s become now. When you joined a message board in 2006, you made an account with a clever name you liked. It only starts to seem silly when you’ve written something like two of the King James bibles’ worth of words about the team over the course of a decade (seriously, I calculated a couple years ago, and just on VEB had accumulated something 1.3 million words as near as I could tell), and your fellow writers are referring to you by the name of a cartoon fighter pilot who shot down Snoopy in a pumpkin patch.
It’s been ten years and one day since I penned my first article for this website, and ten years is plenty long to carry around a moniker. You can all still call me RB if you like, if that’s what you’ve gotten used to, or you can call me something else. My name’s Aaron, in case anyone didn’t actually know. But whatever you prefer to use, go right on ahead.
You may remember, at various times this season, that some of the writers here at VEB wrote pieces regarding their fandom. This actually happened at all sites across the network, as SBN employed sort of a soft relaunch strategy here and there. We had some really excellent ones here (no offense to anyone else, but AYVSI’s was probably my personal favourite), and I actually planned to write my own version of the piece back then, but just never got around to it. There was always something going on I wanted to cover, whether major- or minor-league related, and so my own ‘Why I’m a fan of...’ article was never written.
Well, here we are finally. We have a World Series game seven tonight, an offseason that is holding its breath preparing to jump into water of indeterminate temperature, and I just passed ten years of tenure here. I’m feeling sentimental today, and so decided it was time to put pen to paper (yes, digital ink, digital paper, typed instead of written, I get it), and give an accounting of my own fandom.
It’s funny, really; when I think about why I am a fan of this team, it’s hard to find a way in. Have I ever told any of you that I don’t like to smile showing my teeth? I doubt that I have; I’m actually extremely self-conscious about my smile most of the time. My front teeth are not even, you see. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I cracked my left front tooth on the top. Not lengthwise, thankfully, but across toward the bottom. My dentist rebuilt it, filling and refilling to try and make it match the other, but it’s never been quite the same, partly because even when he has evened the two out, the left one invariably chips and wears, until it has a slight curve at the bottom, and doesn’t sit quite flush with its twin. It’s not a huge deal, and honestly isn’t the sort of thing most people would even notice; the repair job was quite good, but it bothers me. Always has. And so, I smile with my mouth closed 99 times out of a hundred. I’ve considered getting an implant, but that seems ridiculously vain to me, and so I just let this tiny thing dictate some similarly tiny aspect of my life.
Why am I telling you this? Because being a Cardinal fan is, to me, as elemental and internal and unchangeable a thing as my front tooth being a little bit off and me always smiling with my mouth closed. I don’t ever even think about being a baseball fan, or a Cardinal fan, any more than I think about why it is I smile the way I smile. It’s just part of my interior wallpaper.
But that’s not really a satisfying answer to the question, and so I try to pull back and see the whole picture, and remember why I love this team, and why I love this sport, and how I fell in love in the first place. It’s hard, though.
I could tell you about how Viva El Birdos, the site to which I have devoted so much of my time over the past decade, will always for me be displayed in my mind’s eye on the screen of a bright orange phone I had in the mid-2000s. It was the first fully internet capable phone I ever owned; a Sony-Ericsson with a Walkman logo on it that did not flip open but rather swiveled, with the keyboard under the screen most of the time. I had had a Blackberry even before that, and would go back to a BB Curve afterward, but that orange Walkman swivel phone is where I first started checking VEB multiple times a day to see what conversations were going on, and that’s still the screen I picture in my head when I think of the old simple red and white design of the site those first couple years.
But that’s not a why, is it? That’s just a thing that happened, or a thing that is. I could tell you about teaching myself when I was twelve to throw a ball like Ray Lankford; Lankford had a very distinctive throwing motion from center field that I copied exactly, because 1992 Ray Lankford was just the coolest thing in the world to me. Again, though, that’s not a why.
On the 12th of September, 1997, I went to a high school football game in Cape Girardeau with our school’s pep band. On the bus ride back, the first girl I ever really loved as anything resembling an adult and I kissed for the first time. She was one of the two band leaders, responsible for marching at the head of parades and the like, whistling for starts and stops and formation changes and keeping time with that dumb silver sceptre thing that only exists in the world of marching bands nowadays. At seventeen years old, I honestly didn’t think life would ever get any better. When I checked the box score for that night’s baseball game the next day I still managed to be bitterly disappointed I had missed an incredibly young Matt Morris (pre-Tommy John surgery, even), throwing seven innings of one-run ball. Young love was better than baseball, briefly, but I still wished I had remembered to tell my dad to tape the game.
I’ve told the story somewhere in the distant misty past about the home run chase of 1998, and how I followed it. In the autumn of ‘98 I was going to college in the mornings, working as a clerk at a meat market in the evenings, and spending most of my free time with a girl named Cari who at the time lived in an apartment just down the street from the Ted Drewes on Chippewa. I would finish up my classes, drive over to her place, and hang out with her, pretending to be just a friend, even though that’s not at all what I wanted, the complicating factor being that she was in a semi-relationship with my best friend at the time. The whole thing ended in flames, and I haven’t seen nor spoken to her in close to two decades, which is probably the only way things could have ended. How does this relate to baseball? There was a bar and grill on Chippewa back then, called The Brick, that had one of those old lightbox marquees out front, and they updated the McGwire-Sosa home run chase every day. All September, that sign was my constant companion, part of my daily routine, checking as I drove to another torture session to see who had hit a dinger the night before.
I have in my spare room a framed picture and stat line of Lou Brock. Ugly yellow oak frame, but I’ve never changed it. My mom’s boyfriend Lance got it for me for my birthday in 1991; it was the only year they were together that he was employed enough to get me anything. He died of stomach cancer a couple years ago, and I think about he and I playing catch whenever I walk into that room and see Brock’s face smiling out from the past, and his numbers declaring why he was such an enormous deal.
The first game I remember attending was in 1985. The Cardinals played the Mets, and won. My dad called the Mets pond scum, and we took my friend Adam Cline with us because he had gotten four tickets from work and at the time it was just my mom, dad, and me in our family. Adam was one of those kids who always had stuff in his nose; I think he grew out of that by the time we were in high school, but I won’t swear to it. There was a giveaway that day, back before every single game had a giveaway; it was a styrofoam boater hat with a Cardinal red ribbon that I insisted on wearing anytime we went out to eat for six months afterward. When I was fifteen I fell down in my bedroom one night in a drug haze and smashed that hat. I cried for hours and in between crying ripped it apart in a fury.
My dad’s parents gave me a baseball signed by Lee Smith for Christmas one year. Later on, I actually went to a memorabilia show and discovered that Lee Smith’s signature didn’t look anything like the autograph on my ball; instead, my ball’s signature looked suspiciously like my grandma’s handwriting once I really looked at it. The ball is sitting on a shelf in that same spare room with the Lou Brock picture right now.
I hugged a Detroit Tigers fan outside Paddy O’s the night the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. A couple of my friends and I headed downtown to be among the crowd after the game was over. We bought hot-off-the-presses issues of the Post-Dispatch, took pictures with our newfangled camera phones of us holding up said newspapers, and wandered around drinking more than was probably wise. A man came out of Paddy O’s as we walked past, and he saw me look at his jacket with the big old English D. He sort of nodded sadly, said something self-deprecating I couldn’t quite hear, and I walked over to give him a hug. I really thought the Tigers would get that title within the next couple years.
None of these things are why, though, I realise. These are just things that happened that I remember. So let me try a little harder.
My mother’s stepfather was a man named Edward. It’s where I got my middle name from. He went by Ed, even to us. He was Grandpa Ed my whole life.
He had been a minor league ballplayer once upon a time; right after World War II he was a rising star in the Cardinals’ system. Made it to Class B, which is the equivalent of Double A nowadays. At the end of the 1947 season, after the minor league season had ended, he was invited by the organisation to come to St. Louis along with a handful of other prospects the club was high on. They bought him a train ticket and everything. He came to town, met the players, met the on-field staff, played catch on the field with big leaguers. He told me this story when I was probably six or seven years old, and there was something in his face as he told it that I was too young to understand at the time. It was the look of a man remembering the greatest time of his life, when the future was laid out in front of him like the yellow brick road, and all he had to do was keep following it to his dreams.
While in St. Louis, he met my grandmother, and the two rather quickly took up with one another. They look funny together in all the old photos; my grandma was barely five feet tall and never topped 100 pounds in her life unless she was pregnant, while Grandpa Ed was tall and lanky and never looked right in a suit. The arms and legs were always too short, or else he bought off the rack so big that he was basically swimming in the jacket. There are two photos of him in a baseball uniform, and he looks perfectly natural, but in street clothes he was an awkward, gangly mess.
He was an outfielder, and fast. When I was a kid and he was approaching 60 with a three-pack-a-day smoking habit, he would still occasionally race the neighbourhood kids and outrun every one of them, even the high school kids who played sports and thought they were hot shit. He ran like the wind, literally; he just sort of glided along, giving the impression his legs were barely moving, but no one could ever run him down.
He got a job as a railroad switchman when Grandma came up pregnant, and there was a hasty trip to the courthouse, followed by a birth that Grandma swore up and down was premature, seeing as how it was only about seven months after the date on the marriage certificate. He tore up his knee working that job, jumping off a train one night having had too much to drink and running to try and keep the trains running on time. His baseball career was basically over at that point; late-40s medicine could not repair an ACL the way we can today.
The two of them divorced after only a couple years, and Grandma married my mom’s real father, an abusive alcoholic named Don. They stayed together for almost a decade, then divorced after a near-fatal stabbing (long story), at which point Grandma remarried Grandpa Ed, who was an alcoholic but never abusive, which is how he came to be my grandpa when I was little. Side note: I always find it fascinating when people get married to each other more than once. That seems like a really crazy thing to do.
When I was a child, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had the most amazing stats section in the Sunday edition. It was a full two-page spread, and it listed every team in baseball, and every player on their respective rosters. There was a full stat line for every player, triple-slash stats, counting stats, even defensive stats such as they were in those days. (Putouts, assists, errors, that sort of thing.) All in print, in the newspaper, every single week.
Grandpa Ed bought the paper religiously, as did most men of his generation, and that Sunday edition basically became my bible. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa a lot when I was little, and that foldout is how I learned the game. Grandpa Ed would sit on a stool in the basement on weekend days, smoking one Camel after another, drinking one can of Falstaff after another. Have I ever mentioned I collect old Falstaff memorabilia? I do, you know.
And there, over by the furnace, I would sit on the floor, poring over that stat section. I would talk to Grandpa Ed about baseball, trying desperately to sound like I was really well-informed despite the notable handicap of being seven, and he never talked down to me. He was the first person who ever told me to pay attention to on-base percentage; when I asked why, he replied that the job of a hitter is not to get a hit, the job of a hitter is to not make an out. It would be years before I would learn about our town’s prodigal son Earl Weaver and the concept of outs as a limiting quantity, and at seven I couldn’t really conceive of the job of a batter being an avoidance of a thing. I understood hitting in the positive, not in the negative definition. But I remembered the idea all the same.
I knew the batting averages of everyone on the Texas Rangers, despite having possibly never actually seen them play on television. I knew who was leading both leagues in complete games. I could tell you what Tony Gwynn was hitting as of every Sunday the whole season, because he was one of my favourite players.
Grandpa Ed died on Halloween of 1997 of lung cancer. He went through chemo twice the last couple years of his life, but never lost his hair. He was even more gaunt at the end, but still looked like himself. I was vaguely grateful for that, I think.
It honestly never occurred to me until I started writing this that my first day writing about baseball here was the tenth anniversary of the death of the man who taught me the most about the game. I’m crying a little now, if you want to know the truth. And now it’s been another ten years and one day since then.
I wish I could tell you why I’m a fan of baseball, of the Cardinals, but in reality I can’t. I could say I was never given a choice, being born in St. Louis, but that’s not true. The baseball team here is woven into the fabric of the city more deeply than maybe anywhere else, but there are still plenty of people who just don’t care about baseball in this town.
What I know is that thirty years ago, I would sit and obsessively read stat printouts in the paper over and over, studying them the way other people study their religious texts, and I would ask my favourite grandpa question after question. Twenty years ago, I was seventeen and wrapped up completely in girls and trying to quit drugs and trying to actually graduate high school, but I still remember missing a Matt Morris start because I was playing trumpet at a high school football game with my first love. My grandpa died a little over a month later, and I wasn’t around him nearly as much as I should have been, because I was a teenager and teenagers are terrible, but I have a small ziploc bag full of dirt from his grave I took the day he was buried in a box somewhere, and I collect signs and glasses and advertisements of the brand of beer he drank. Ten years ago I was so frustrated that I threatened to stop following the team, then pivoted immediately to start writing one, then quickly two, days a week about the club I was totally, 100% serious about abandoning. And now here I am today, a decade on, having written thousands upon thousands of words about the Cardinals, and having devoted more hours than I would probably care to know to following them.
I don’t know why I’m a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, if you want to know the truth. I can tell you the forms my fandom takes. I can tell you the moments I remember, the games to which I’ve been. I can tell you how, but not why. Why is elusive. Always. We do not choose the things we love; they choose us, somehow. I’m a Cardinal fan for the same reason I smile with my mouth closed: because it’s who I am. I doubt I could change it if I wanted, and I’m fine with that.
Love is a mystery. I can tell you how much I loved sitting in that basement and reading the statistics of every player in baseball, but I’ll never be able to tell you why.