Being a fan of the Cardinals was never a thing I considered. It’s just something that was. I grew up 20 minutes from Busch Stadium, so what was I going to do? Root for the Mariners? I don’t recall when I attended my first game, but I was no older than three.
My first season of real fandom, at least as I would define it, was 1996. In 1995, I couldn’t name a player on the Cardinals aside from maybe Ozzie Smith—by the end of 1996, as the Cardinals were finishing just one game shy of the World Series, I knew the roster like the back of my hand. At the next season’s trade deadline, the Cardinals acquired Mark McGwire; by the time McGwire wasn’t hitting four billion homers a year, the Cardinals were immersed in one of the most fruitful runs in baseball history.
I was never very athletic, to put it lightly, so while I appreciated and enjoyed the athleticism of baseball, I was more enamored with the statistics. While other major sports have undergone statistical revolutions, baseball’s was well under way by the time I started following the sport, even if Moneyball had not yet brought it to a mass audience.
My parents are both baseball fans, though they approach the game a bit differently than I do, which is fine. My mom is almost completely disinterested in tracking statistics, instead caring about the players as individuals. My dad has been interested in statistics since he was a kid, and while he may have asked me a few times after reading some of my posts what certain advanced stats meant (to his credit, he seems to respect sabermetrics, even if he doesn’t always care about the nuts and bolts of them), it was his nerdier tendencies from the 1960s and 1970s which were passed, albeit in slightly different packaging, to his son in the 1990s and 2000s.
He introduced me to APBA Baseball, a baseball strategy-based card game which I spent hours upon hours micromanaging alone in the basement (yes, literally my mom’s basement). My first exposure to Bill James came via a relatively brief section in a 1990 baseball almanac from his bookshelf. Before we had the internet, I was calculating Runs Created for player seasons forty years before I was born. The stats seem quaint by today’s standards, and were probably a bit outdated even then, but I developed a thirst for knowledge.
I was always pretty nerdy, and baseball was an outlet for it. I vividly remember watching Baseball Tonight on repeat until 1 a.m. during Summers in my early teen years, using AOL Instant Messenger to talk with my friends about the latest developments in the sport. But by 2006, I was getting a little bit less into it. I still followed baseball more closely than most, but it wasn’t everything to me. I watched every minute of the playoffs I could, but I wasn’t as emotionally connected to the 2006 champs as I was to the 2004 or 2005 editions.
In 2007, I moved away for college to Kirksville, MO, a small town 3 1⁄2 hours away from both St. Louis and Kansas City, to a campus which, like its home city, leaned Cardinals but was hardly a monolith. Most of the friends I made my first couple years were nominally Cardinals fans, but were not as into them as I was. The Cardinals were pretty uninspiring in 2007 and 2008, so I just kind of cared about other things more. In 2009, I didn’t even bother to seek out a TV to watch the playoffs.
In 2010, I started following more closely, as I had become closer friends with sports fans as or more nerdy than I was. One of them was the person who introduced me to Viva El Birdos in the first place (shh, don’t tell him I mentioned him; I want to test how closely he reads my posts). By the time 2011 rolled around, I made a concerted effort to follow baseball like I had before. Good timing, I suppose.
I moved back to St. Louis that May. I didn’t think about it this deeply at the time, but the Cardinals were how I reconnected to my hometown. My friends and I would go to games and stay for hours in bars, not because we wanted to drink but because we wanted the communal experience of watching baseball together.
To me, that’s what baseball is all about—the community. We are fans of the team because we are fans of each other. The Cardinals matter not because I care about players but because my friends and family care about the players—it’s circular logic, but it gives us all a vessel through which to make sense of our world.