I identify myself very strongly as a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I watch almost all the games. I discuss the team endlessly on social media and in various private text chains. I blog about them here at Viva El Birdos Dot Com.
Lately, however, my life as a fan feels less like a spirited laugh around the bar and more like the Two Minutes Hate.
I’ve been mulling this topic ever since reading this great Matt Singer piece on toxic fandom, and wondering how it might apply to those of us who follow the St. Louis Cardinals. Singer’s focus is the pop culture world of franchises like Star Wars, but the parallels are pretty obvious. Baseball has always had the potential to be all-encompassing - with a new game and new storylines daily - but now with social media, blogs and podcasts to fill every open minute, it’s easier than ever to fill your life with the Cardinals.
When the team is good, that immersion can be ecstatic. When they are what they are right now... it can be toxic as hell.
The question becomes, what should you do when the thing you love begins poisoning you? I’ve been asking myself this lately, and I expect some of you are as well. So rather than just dole out my own unlicensed advice, I reached out to a Licensed Professional Counselor: VEB’s own writer and resident cartoonist Andy Beard.
“The best thing a fan can do is monitor his/her personal motivations for watching the preferred team,” Andy says. “Maybe you’re watching because hey, they might win tonight! Or maybe you want to soak up every last bit of Yadi’s career, delight in Dexter Fowler’s personal redemption story, or marvel at the unicorn that is Paul DeJong. All legit reasons to watch a baseball game. But anything done for entertainment purposes ceases to be entertaining if it’s done out of obligation.
“If the game is still on because you feel like it HAS to be, start asking yourself why. Maybe your internal dialogue is something like, ‘I always watch Cardinals games. It’s what I do.’ Unpack that a little further and you might realize an often unnoticed but underlying personal narrative that suggests, “I have to watch the Cardinals, even in tough times, or I’m not a true fan.” Albert Ellis, one of the cofounders of Cognitive Behavioral theory referred to such self-imposed rules as musterbation, and it’s really important to dispute extreme/irrational thoughts once you’ve identified them.”
I don’t know about you, but that really rings true to me. Nobody wants to be labeled a “fair-weather fan.” I do believe the truly great highs of following a team come from also weathering the lows, but that doesn’t mean we need need to strap ourselves in, Clockwork Orange Style, to watch every single second of a downturn like the one we are seeing now.
“Continuing to watch something out of obligation could result in resentment against the thing you once loved,” Andy says. “And so once you realize that your preferred leisure activity no longer brings you the pleasure it once did, giving yourself permission to pump the brakes a bit could theoretically save your fandom more than jeopardize it.”
So there you have it, from a licensed professional. In order to save the village (of your personal Cardinals fandom), you have to (distance yourself from the toxic people and decisions who are trying to) destroy it.
As I follow Andy’s steps and examine how and why I interact with the team, I realize it has changed over time and probably needs to change again. For a long time now - nearly 20 years - I have followed every tiny move because the team was almost always just a tweak away from a championship.
But before that was the dark times: The 90s.
I was lucky enough to have my Cardinal fandom birthed right at the tail-end of the Whiteyball era. But the truth is, for most of the years that I was a kid collecting baseball cards and playing video games where the sprites vaguely resembled Cardinals players, the team was getting progressively worse.
From 1988 through 1999, the team made the playoffs exactly once, and their record over that span was below .500. There were blips here and there - teams that were in contention, players who looked like they might break out - but overall these were losing teams, and watching them was often a chore.
So what did I do? Well, I kept an eye on the team and watched games when I felt like it (and when they were on), but I didn’t schedule my day around catching every Donovan Osborne start. And I spent a lot of time reveling in the glory days. I had more time for video games in those days, and I certainly didn’t mind continuing to play the original RBI Baseball, with it’s 1987 Cardinals roster, rather than the latest games, featuring Todd Zeile’s team leading 11 home runs.
I was a kid (or a very young man) back then, and sure, the media landscape was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is now. But looking back, I can still see some wisdom in how my fandom manifest itself. I enjoyed being a Cardinals fan all through the 90s, even though I often had no expectation the team would win. Going to games was still a blast, even if it was Rex Hudler Day.
I’m not here to tell any of you how to be a fan. Nor am I here to suggest this team is doomed to a decade of irrelevance (although we are almost halfway there...) Despite one of the worst months in the history of the franchise, they still sit only four games out of first place. So a turnaround this season is certainly still a possibility.
But I suspect at least some of you might be like me, feeling more frustration than joy as of late, so I invite you to examine your fandom and practice self-care - even if it means turning off the Cardinals.
“Be aware of motivation to watch,” Andy says. “If it’s not fun, ask yourself if there’s something of personal interest to watch even beyond the ultimate outcome of the game. If it comes down to feeling obligated, give yourself permission to do something else!”
Thanks to Andy.