Alex: We both went to multiple baseball games a couple of weeks ago. Braeden was in St. Louis for the second time in his life, and I was at two of the three Pirates’ games in DC. I think it’s fair to say that neither of us had the best of experiences. The two games I went to saw the Pirates score a solitary run over 18 innings. They lost both games fairly handily and produced only 10 singles over the course of those 18 innings.
Braeden: To be totally fair, I had a better experience than you did. I went 2-2 (L-W-L-W), and I saw two fantastic pitching performances. Adam Wainwright pitched a complete game 3-hitter on a night when the Cardinals celebrated the 10th anniversary of the ‘06 World Series. Mike Leake struck out 11 and walked none over six innings. It was his second consecutive start with 10+ Ks and no walks, making him only the second pitcher in Cardinals’ history to accomplish the feat (the great Bob Gibson being the first). And the Cardinals’ offense did their thing; over the course of the four games, six different players combined to hit nine home runs. Plus, I was in St. Louis!
Alex: You’ve been a lifelong Cardinals fan, but this was only your second time making it to any of the Busch Stadiums. What was the sense of anticipation like? What were you hoping to see or experience?
Braeden: You get excited like you do any night before you go to see your team play a game, which didn’t happen a ton for me growing up in south-central Pennsylvania. The fact that I was going to see four games in four days made that sense of anticipation even stronger. I was also looking forward to seeing the “Best Fans in Baseball,” a phrase that’s admittedly a little annoying to me…
Alex: It’s annoying to everyone else, too.
Braeden: Sure, but as much as it’s annoying, I’ve grown up with that thought but without having spent much time around them in their home environment. I wanted to see the best fans in baseball be the best fans in baseball. I wanted to be among them and experience it for myself. In particular, I was looking forward to having the chance to give a standing ovation to a former Cardinal during his first at bat back at Busch. With the Padres in town for the last game of our trip, I knew I’d get to see Jon Jay who was traded to San Diego in the offseason. Jay was a solid and very well liked player during his six seasons in St. Louis; he was also instrumental during the 10th-inning comeback of Game 6 in the 2011 World Series, flaring a single down the left-field line and scoring the tying run. Unfortunately, he broke his forearm about a month ago, so it was an opportunity lost.
I did get to see Ichiro Suzuki in the three games against the Marlins and participated with the home crowd in giving him a standing ovation for each of his at bats. Basically, you cheer until the first pitch, but once the at bat starts, the applause ceases and the player becomes the enemy again. The Cardinals didn’t have much success in getting Ichiro out, though; he collected four hits in his six at bats, putting him at 2,994 on his quest toward 3,000. It was exciting to see.
Alex: You were almost rooting for him to get four hits every day.
Braeden: To a degree. As a baseball fan, it would have been cool to see 3,000, but as a Cardinals fan, I was rooting for him to make an out. In any case, he only started once in the series so the chances of him amassing ten hits were nil.
Alex: What else is there to this “best fans in baseball” mantra?
Braeden: Appreciating a good play or a good performance in a game, regardless of the player’s team. There’s the element of knowing baseball.
Alex: And how did the fans do with meeting some of these expectations?
Braeden: I have mixed feelings about that, and I have to admit there was some disappointment. In the first game, Trevor Rosenthal was summoned in relief in the 7th inning of a close game. He’s been a great Cardinal and phenomenal closer for the past few years, but he’s having a down year, and you could sense the tension in the crowd. You knew that one false move and they were going to turn on him. I could feel that in the stadium. He struck out the first batter, but then he walked a guy to load the bases and hit the next batter with the first pitch to make it a one-run game. Fans were upset. The next batter hit a two-run single, and the lead was no more. Boos rained down on him as he walked off the field. Not from me, I must add.
It was disappointing because part of being the best fans in baseball means supporting your team and players no matter the result. I’ve gotten frustrated with Rosenthal this season, and I’ve certainly questioned Mike Matheny’s (the Cards’ manager) in-game decisions, but I’m not about to jeer either of them. I was a little disappointed to see them turn so quickly on a guy who’s done far more than what is normally asked of someone at this stage of his career. He already ranks fifth all-time for saves in a Cardinal uniform, and we’re booing him? Come on!
That said, I was very pleased to see Rosenthal used to close out the 10-2 victory against the Padres in the last game we attended. The outcome was a foregone conclusion so it was a perfect time for him to see some action and work out some of his issues. It was probably the most electric finish to a 10-2 game you could possibly see. The fans, clearly in support of Rosenthal, were all on their feet, genuinely applauding each strike and out recorded. After a 1-2-3 inning, the fans celebrated as if it had been a postseason game. It was encouraging to see after the first night’s debacle and was a fitting bookend of sorts for the trip.
Alex: Part of this is relative to where the Cardinals are supposed to be. It’s been a year of “underachievement” (said with full irony) for a team that’s in second place in late July.
Braeden: That’s so true, and I feel like this “best fans in baseball” thing has taken hold in the last 15 years when it’s been easy to root for the Cardinals. It’s been convenient. We’ve had one losing season since 1999. Only the 2007 season was bad (finished 78-84; third in the division), but we had just won the World Series the year before, so nobody could be that bitter. It’s just been so easy to be a Cardinals fan. This is the first time since we won it all in 2011 that the playoffs have even been in question. The fact that we of Cardinal Nation all consider second place in the standings (behind a really good team, mind you) a down year underscores our recent successes.
Alex: So where do you think this “best fans in baseball” reputation come from?
Braeden: When you listen to the conversations around you, everyone knows what’s going on. Everyone was chatting about Rosenthal’s stats and season to date, or they were discussing the strategy (or lack thereof) in using him in a tight ballgame after he had just been replaced as closer. Everybody is involved in the proceedings. They know the context for each move made.
Alex: Back to this idea of anticipation, what were some of the other things you were looking for? Did you want to see a win? Did you want to see particular players do particular things? Did you want to see milestones? You wanted to see opposing players? You mentioned Ichiro…
Braeden: I hadn’t even thought of Ichiro too much – that was almost an afterthought. Of course I wanted to see Cardinals’ wins – that goes without saying. As far as individual players go, really only Adam Wainwright was important. Knowing he was going to pitch Saturday was exciting, and I like seeing him do well. For me, though, cheering for individual achievements hasn’t been too important for me, at least since Albert Pujols’ departure after the 2011 season. It’s really about the team results for me now.
When the Cardinals had subpar seasons, I was able to get satisfaction out of Pujols’ performance. Every year, he hit .300 with 30 HRs, 100 RBI, and 100 Runs… up until that last year when he only had 99 RBIs and batted .299, and that was a huge bummer for me. Rooting for a player was my existence in the late 90s – I had Mark McGwire. The Cardinals weren’t good back then, but at least I could cheer for dingers and a lot of them. As a kid, that was entertainment enough. But these last five years have really been about team performances. I love Yadier Molina, I love Wainwright, but hearing former announcer Jack Buck’s trademark “That’s a winner!” call at the end of a game tops all the individual accolades easily.
Alex: It’s interesting that it’s all about seeing wins for you because it’s so anathema to the way I approach going to Pirate games. I grew up amidst 20 years of losing seasons. Part of going to the game was preparing oneself for a loss. Prior to each game, my dad and I would discuss what we were going to root for. What would we be satisfied seeing, despite the perceived inevitability of a Pirates’ loss? Invariably, these would be the smallest asks you could imagine. “I want to see Barry Bonds strike out.” “I want to see Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez turn a slick double play.” “I want to see a Kenny Lofton stolen base.” There was always some little thing or a couple of things that you would say you wanted to see at a game.
I think I’ve gotten away from this a little bit in the last couple of years as the Pirates have gotten better and there’s been more to root for from a collective point of view, where the desire for wins supersedes individual player performance. In reflecting on seeing two games where the Pirates weren’t close to winning, I thought back about what I would have wanted to see.
Braeden: So what were those things for you in this series?
Alex: The first night, Josh Bell was still on the roster. He’s an up-and-coming prospect for the Bucs but has already seen some action in the majors. Going into the first game, his record in three career plate appearances was a single (off Jake Arrieta), a grand slam, and a walk. It had already been announced that Bell was going to be sent down before the second game of the series, and all I said was that I wanted to see Bell not make an out. He pinch hit in the sixth or seventh inning and, sure enough, managed to draw a walk. He was sent down the next day, and if his big league career were, God forbid, to end immediately, he would have four major league plate appearances with an on-base percentage of 1.000.
The second night, I saw Starling Marte throwing out a runner on the bases. And he didn’t throw out just any runner; he threw out Bryce Harper, one the great antagonists in baseball as far as I’m concerned. He’s a great player, but he’s being talked about as an all-time great after only one great season. Marte nabbed him trying to go first to third on a single to left.
But those were pretty much the highlights. 10 singles – no extra-base hits. It was hot and just a matter of hanging out at the ballpark trying to have a good time. But as I was reflecting on two days of boring baseball, I actually found myself thinking, “I wonder if Braeden approaches baseball like this.”
Braeden: The extent to which I pull for individual performances, I like to see a bunch of home runs. That kid from the 90s in me is still alive and well, I guess. But now I root for it to be spread around. “I saw player X hit a home run. He only played for the Cardinals for a few years, but I saw him hit a homer.” I remember telling my dad heading into the park before the fourth game that I thought Jedd Gyorko would hit one out, and sure enough, he did. But that’s pretty much the extent to which I root for player performances.
Alex: It’s interesting that you said you like to see it spread around because one of the things I’ve found challenging about rooting for the Pirates this year is not just that they’re a little further out in the playoff race than they have been in recent years, but that the best players on the team haven’t been the superstars. That’s not entirely true; Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have been the two best players on the team. But Andrew McCutchen is the face of the team, and he has been rather bad, quite frankly. He’s the guy every Pirates fan loves. He’s talked about as the potential face of Major League Baseball with the retirement of Derek Jeter, and he’s having the worst year of his career by a massive distance.
And it’s not just McCutchen. A good chunk of the core of the team that’s responsible for the revival of baseball in Pittsburgh have underachieved compared to years past. Francisco Liriano has been bad. Francisco Cervelli hasn’t been that good. Gerrit Cole has struggled and been on the disabled list some. Jung-Ho Kang, who kind of gets included in this, has struggled to come back from that horrific injury last year. Josh Harrison hasn’t been that great. Instead it’s been David Freese, who everyone still thinks of as a Cardinal.
Braeden: It looks so weird seeing him wear black and gold. At least he was wearing red in Los Angeles.
Alex: Matt Joyce – I don’t even know what team to associate him with. Sean Rodriguez, who’s been there a bit longer, doesn’t have the sense of being one of the core members of the team. John Jaso is another new person. He’s fine, I can root for him. But it’s been a weird year because the guys I’m used to rooting for just haven’t done that well. Don’t get me wrong – I love Polanco and Marte – but it’s weird to go into games dreading McCutchen’s plate appearances. This is a guy who’s finished in the top five of MVP voting for the last five years in a row.
Braeden: What made me switch from really focusing on Pujols is that the team became more of a team rather than a couple of great individuals. Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday are all great players, but none of those guys is someone you cheer to reach statistical thresholds. Maybe that’s what’s happening for Pirates’ fans and ‘Cutch?
Alex: That’s certainly a possibility, but I think it differs from the Cardinal fan experience in a key way. Having been able to root for McGwire and Pujols, you had two future Hall-of-Famers to root for. From the time Bonds was sold when I was three years old, there was nobody of that stature. There were a few good players who had good seasons: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Aramis Ramirez. McCutchen is the first player in 20 years to really have a chance to be the Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner of his era, but he’s not there yet. He has to be great for another few years before he’s a Hall of Fame lock.
Braeden: When Pujols left, the boy inside me was devastated because I felt cheated out of my generation’s Stan Musial. It’s so uncommon nowadays for truly great players to play their entire careers in one place, but I thought Pujols would be that guy. He’ll have a statue outside Busch Stadium someday, but it won’t be as immediate as it would have been had he been a Cardinal his entire career.
Alex: He’ll go into the Hall as a Cardinal.
Braeden: Yeah, but it’ll say “Angels” underneath his name, too. I don’t regret it now from an on-field product or financial standpoint, but it has made me averse to latching onto a player. I only just got my first Wainwright shirt after 10-11 years of his Cardinals career. I have a Molina shirt – I’d like him to play his entire career with the Cardinals. But I fear latching onto a player. I feel like my innocence was lost when Pujols left town.
Alex: I wonder if my angst with McCutchen’s down year is related to the Pirates’ relationship with national media. One of the major grievances of Pirates fans, and small-market teams generally, is that, when it comes to the All-Star Game, Sunday Night Baseball, articles on Fangraphs or any other site, there will be disproportionately few references to the Pirates. There’s a sense of injustice. How is it that none of the players, fans, or manager selected Marte or Polanco to the All-Star Game until there were multiple outfield injuries? Those frustrations wear on you year after year as a Pirates fan. But what is the sense of Cardinals fans about that?
Braeden: Some fans complain more than I do about it. I’m not really a huge All-Star fan, but I’ll tune in when a Cardinal is batting. I turned the game on to watch the Cards’ rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz bat this year. Mostly, I’m okay if the Cardinals have four or five days off.
Alex: It’s about the team.
Braeden: It’s about the team, that’s right. But getting back to your initial point, I don’t feel that the Cards get snubbed. For starters, they have so many highlights that get recalled in commercials or shows. Ozzie Smith’s walkoff home run in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS. Jack Clark’s home run the next night in Game 6. Bob Gibson striking out 17 in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to score the eventual winning run in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series. There are plenty of moments before even touching on 2011.
Alex: I wonder if it has to do with this idea that there’s been other stuff for you to cheer about. You can cheer for them to make the playoffs year in, year out. You can cheer for them to win the World Series. It doesn’t matter if they get snubbed at the All-Star Game because there are more important things. As a Pirates fan growing up, it was a great moment to see Jason Bay fail at the home run derby when Pittsburgh hosted. “Jason Bay participated in the home run derby! That’s it! A Pirate in primetime on ESPN!”
Braeden: Yeah, I can go to YouTube anytime I want and watch Cardinals highlights. I watched the 2006 World Series film before heading out to St. Louis for the 10-year anniversary. I have all these moments that I can draw on whenever I want. I could watch Chris Carpenter outduel Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS over and over and over again. It’s my favorite all-time Cardinals game.
But I totally hear what you’re saying. If I were to talk about the St. Louis Blues, I would say something totally similar. When T.J. Oshie had his moment in the Sochi Olympics during the shootout against Russia, that was awesome. Finally, the rest of the country knew that there was a hockey team in St. Louis and that at least one of their players was pretty darn good. Then, all of a sudden, he’s in a national commercial.
I had that with Pujols, with McGwire before that, and Ozzie Smith before that. Now it’s about the team and collective moments.
Alex: And I think that’s precisely why McCutchen’s season is so disappointing and seems to cast a shadow over an otherwise acceptable Pirates’ season to date. He’s supposed to be face of Major League Baseball. He’s supposed to put the Pittsburgh Pirates in everyone’s living rooms on Sunday night. He’s supposed to be the guy that takes the Pirates from 20 years in the sporting wilderness to World Series champions. And if they win it in spite of him, rather than because of him, the whole thing will just feel wrong. It’s almost like it doesn’t count unless McCutchen does it all by himself.
The idea is absurd, but it speaks to what happens when you spend two decades watching terrible, losing baseball. You get so caught up rooting for the little quotidian pleasures that you forget to see the larger picture. The Pirates are still totally in it with a chance of making the playoffs, and once the playoffs begin, anything can happen. They could still win the World Series this year. It might be unlikely, but it’s still possible. There was virtually no time between 1993 and 2012 when you could say that without immediately bursting into laughter at the absurdity of the statement.
Braeden: Man, I’m so lucky to be a Cardinals fan.
Alex: The psychoses of Pittsburgh baseball. Well, best of luck for the rest of the season. I hope it results in a wild card match in Pittsburgh, which is about the best we have to root for at this point.
Braeden: I think you mean “in St. Louis.” The Cards, in theory, still have a shot at passing those lovable Cubbies, but I wouldn’t count myself among those who think it will happen.
Alex: As much as I don’t want the Cubs to win the division, I really don’t want another one-game playoff against Arrieta.
Braeden: I’m sure not.
Alex: Well, this was fun! Until next time…
Cover photo by Peter Chen via Flickr