Welcome to the refreshed Viva El Birdos! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to share your story, head over to the FanPosts to write your own post. Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card.* We’re collecting all of the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!
Throughout my adolescence, baseball was a constant. Cardinals baseball in the 90’s wasn’t the force it has been in the the decades after or before it, but it did feature the late careers of Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee. And there was that whole thing with Mark McGwire and dingers and such. Ozzie inspired me to want to play baseball professionally, and more specifically, to play shortstop. I was always mostly a second baseman though, I didn’t have the arm for short. I can still remember being outraged at TLR’s decision to bench Ozzie in 1996. I went to my first playoff game that year, game 5 of the NLCS against the Braves, a 14-0 loss.
I was there when interleague play started in 97. The Cardinals’ second interleague series came against the Brewers, in a year where the Astros won the N.L. Central. That just makes me happy for some reason. I endured the usually rough 90’s before reaching the era of Albert Pujols and the MV3. Pujols along with Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds were what is still the closest thing to me to real-life superheroes. It was ridiculous how often they came through, and probably completely warped my perception for what to expect out of my favorite team’s best players. However, while I was a loyal Cardinal fan, for most my adolescence, that came secondary to playing the game myself.
Every year, my older brother and I both played for select teams that played in multiple leagues. For me, that was usually the Fenton Athletic Association over by Henderson Fields, as well as Affton Athletic Association in, well Affton. We switched it up over time though. And then there were tournaments in-between. Memorial Day Weekend was always a tournament in Bridgeton, I believe one of the first of the year. After all that, then there was fall-ball (baseball in the fall). When there were no games, there was team practice, and when there wasn’t team practice, my Dad and I were practicing on our own.
My Dad was a classic baseball Dad, complete with Cardinals memorabilia in the form of pennants, autographs balls, rookie cards, hats and more displayed throughout the house. He made sure I threw right-handed, so I could play every position. He taught me to bat left-handed, so I’d enjoy the platoon advantage more often than not. When one of my early teams broke apart, he became the manager of new select team we formed, one of the many Johnny Mac Thunder teams sponsored by Johnny Mac’s Sporting goods during that time. Eventually we dropped the sponsorship when the team split, and instead became just The Thunder.
Much of my baseball experience can be seen through the lens of “the coach’s son”. I always had to work harder to escape any claims of favoritism. I typically batted first or second thanks to a strong OBP, but I didn’t have to struggle for long before being dropped in the lineup. The manager of a youth baseball team is thankless job, and one where you can never avoid criticism from kids’ parents who don’t see things quite as objectively. The ride home was always a post-game discussion about the moves he made or the crucial plays that decided games. Analysis was just part of the game for me from an early age.
He was usually a little harder on me than other players, but I never faulted him for that. I knew the type of ridiculous things other parents would complain about. I welcomed it anyhow. My goal was to make it to the majors one day, and he was always there helping push me to it. We spent countless hours in the batting cage, until his arm was sore enough that he couldn’t throw anymore. Then we moved to infield where he would hit me grounders which I would field and aim to throw over a spot marked to be where first base would be, had there been bases on the field at the time.
Being so long ago, it’s hard to remember all that much, but some specific memories stand out. One year, our three main catchers all went out of town for part of Affton’s annual fourth of July tournament. As the coaches son, I was at the top of the list to be volunteered to learn how to catch. Our extra practice sessions suddenly turned into crash courses of catching drills. I sometimes caught my older brother during pitching lessons, who was often scouted until a couple surgeries derailed his career in Junior College. This was different though, attempting to learn the techniques for preventing steals, framing, calling pitches, and - probably most important in youth baseball - blocking wild pitches.
In 100 degree heat, I caught three games in two days, and in my Dad’s words I was “the dirtiest kid I ever saw”. Some highlights include a play at the plate on a grounder with a runner on third (yes, they still had collisions in youth baseball at the time), as well as picking a guy off third.
While specific memories are hard to come by, what’s more memorable is the emotions I carried from game to game. The high of a great game at the plate or in the field. The comradery that accompanies a winning team. The feeling of being on top of the world in the middle of a hot streak. The feeling that you completely forgot how to hit when you’re slumping. The excitement of getting the walk-off hit or scoring the go ahead run. The shame of committing a game-losing error or making the final out. The thrill of upsetting a tough team, and the frustration of losing to a team you know your team is better than.
To those that read my typically stat-filled articles, it might be surprising to find out that I spent a large chunk of my adolescence on the field. I wasn’t always into advanced stats like I am now, but there were some signs. I would score games for my older brother’s team when I was really young, like seven years old. On my own team, I often manually went through the scorekeeper’s book to assemble BA/OBP/SLG lines for each player on our team.
It would eventually come to an end though. I was always a small guy, and by my junior year in High school, I could tell my chances were slim. I was an above-average player on my team still, but I lacked projection. Unlike my brother, scouts weren’t showing up to see me play. At the same time, I was developing other interests, and for the first time in my life I was ready for a break from baseball. After being a starter on the J.V. team my sophomore year, I hung up my cleats.
Now, this is supposed to be about baseball fandom, not baseball playing. However, playing baseball throughout my youth is what fueled my fandom. MLB players always served as inspiration. It all started with wanting to do what Ozzie did.
The understanding of the subtleties and intricacies of the sport doesn’t go away after you stop playing. The role it played in my childhood is inseparable now from the person I’ve become. I love it when other people (usually football fans) tell me that baseball is boring. That’s because they’re not seeing everything that’s happening.
I continued to follow the Cardinals after that, though over time that meant just being aware of the most general details. After several years of a baseball hiatus (briefly interrupted by late September and October 2011), Michael Lewis’ Moneyball helped me appreciate the game in new ways. The story of the A’s early 2000 success on a shoestring budget, all thanks to exploiting market inefficiencies, was a new inspiration. This was going into 2013, when the Cardinals had the number one farm system in the game, brimming with MLB-ready talent. Suddenly, I was hooked on Cardinals baseball again, but with another new angle by which to appreciate the game.
Fortunately, I found my way here, a community of people that both loved the Cardinals and was largely open to statistical analysis. Discussion with the other commenters here was vital to forming my thoughts on baseball analysis. Of course, eventually I’d find a position writing for this site, which was fantastic, because there isn’t another audience in the world I would rather write for. Twitter can be an excellent reminder to me of this community’s unique status.
At this point, it’s hard to see myself taking another baseball hiatus. I enjoy so much of today’s newfangled technology, but the timeless classic sport of Baseball continues strong. Baseball showcases so many skills that other sports don’t, and watching the best in the world do it in ways I never could is a pleasure. The sound of solid contact, made by “hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely.” The perfect timing and footwork of a great infielder in action. The fact that mere inches and fractions of a second decide outcomes regularly. The poetry in motion that is Yadier Molina throwing a runner out on an elite pop-time and perfect transfer and throw. Yep, hard to say I’ll ever get tired of that.