Here’s my confession to my fellow St. Louisans: I can’t call myself a faithful Cardinals fan.
Actually, I’m only a fan in the sense that, if the gun-to-head question was Who is your favorite baseball team? I’d come up with a bunch of stories about growing up and watching the St. Louis Cardinals.
I’d probably stammer about Ozzie Smith playing shortstop; about our grim-faced, fiercely chomping managers; about our family sitting around the TV and munching French fries, while watching the action in Busch Stadium.
And then there were those “good student” tickets, which stuck four of us in the stratosphere seats at the ballpark. (I guess they figured we’d be smart enough to bring binoculars.) I remember squinting at the white outfits scurrying around the postage-stamp-sized bases. Trying to figure out the which-hat-has-the-ball game on the huge monitors. Learning the cheers. Picking apart peanut shells with my fingernails and sniffing at the beery fug in the air.
But a fan… no. No, I’m not a fan.
I never learned how to worry about the outcome of a game. Any game. Even when I spent two years in a kids’ softball team. I’m not sure how that came about, exactly, but in fourth and fifth grade, I found myself playing softball for the Boys & Girls Club of our village.
And—how do I put this—I wasn’t a natural.
I had catastrophic eye-hand coordination, and, like I said, I couldn’t really care about who won.
I once stayed in the outfield when my team went in to bat, because a bee had landed on me, and I was paralyzed at the thought that it might sting. No sense of “ the show must go on!” for me.
Or another time when I was, weirdly enough, playing second base. (By accident? Or was there a flu epidemic?) I got into a chat with the runner. I had been feeling isolated and miserable, dying for some conversation, and we were having a great little “hi, who are you” when the field exploded in angry shouts.
She was supposed to run; I was supposed to catch something. Bewildered and disappointed, I woke up to the facts of the game yet again. The mothers of the opposing team thought I’d done it on purpose, snaring their runner at a crucial moment. It would have been my best strategy if I had—because I sure as heck couldn’t catch a ball.
So, softball didn’t instill me with a love of the game. Wearing a hat? Yes. Ice-cold Vess sodas when we were done? Absolutely. Running the bases and swinging a bat and knowing what “full count” meant? Not so much.
And so I always felt a twist of disappointment when our family TV snagged on the latest Cardinals showdown.
Why is baseball season so eternal? And why does each game last so long? Give me a narrative, for goodness’ sake. Something engaging I can latch onto. Which is probably why the bee incident and the chat-on-second stand out in my memory more than all our anonymous victories and defeats. I want a story, not an endless round of who’s-at-bat.
And yet. I always feel a bit of glee during the World Series.
I don’t think it’s contradictory. I’ve been hard at work studying novel structure lately, and the World Series is perfectly structured. In so many ways, it has the right ingredients for a fabulous narrative. The stakes are higher than usual. There’s conflict everywhere. A decided goal, with the skillful Lead facing some worthy Opposition (in a series of “scenes”), and no, they can’t both win.
There is also—very important—a beginning, middle, and end to the struggle. Just a fistful of games, not some sprawling season with a variety of opponents.
And suddenly, I’m interested.
I don’t come into this knowing the characters—not even “my” team—so they’re all new faces and new names. I don’t know their history, so I imagine their backstories. I get to know them by the funny way they squint, or their signature warm-up moves. I give them my own names: The Guy with the Funny Walk, The Crazy-Eye, The One I Wouldn’t Want to Meet in a Dark Alley. The Billy Goat, The Galoot. The Lamb Face. The Boy Next Door.
I take brief ownership of whatever fan-ness I have inside of me, and I let it all out. I’m a fan of the story, a fan of the dialogue, the reaction in the stadium, the increasing odds.
I’m cheering for the team, I’m cheering for each home run, and I’m cheering for the way it unfolds: the developing characters, the heightening risks, the steps forward and the steps back.
The merciful drama of it all.
So I’ll be cheering the boys on tonight. I might even wear my St. Louis shirt (if I can find it). I’ll skip all the statistics (what is the baseball world’s obsession with statistics?), but I’ll find my way into a story, which is exactly where I belong.