I wrote my third column for the Mercury last weekend, and since I don’t have an idea for a post, I’m re-purposing it for my blog. It’s about growing up as a Cardinals fan in Cubs territory.
I’ve never been in a war, or on a top-secret mission for that matter, but for 18 years of my life I lived behind enemy lines. I grew up as a St. Louis Cardinals fan in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Most people find my choice in baseball fandom strange, while others find it borderline perverse. Still, others find it just plain confusing. New acquaintances often ask me, “How is that even possible?” Well, dear readers, I’ll tell you.
My mom is a native Chicagoan, however; my dad is from a small town called Beardstown. It’s located in central Illinois on the bank of the Illinois River. And in a time before hundreds of channels and before the Internet—way before the Internet—it was a place where my dad listened to St. Louis radio stations, and read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Being an athlete and sports fan in general, my dad started following the Cardinals. He told me about how he sat in his room, with a transistor radio, listening to broadcast legends Jack Buck and Harry Caray (before he moved over to the dark side) call Redbirds games. He even saw them play at Sportsman’s Park, the predecessor to the original Busch Stadium, a couple times. One of those times he saw the late, great Roberto Clemente hit a homerun so far and so hard it dented the scoreboard. And Clemente didn’t need steroids to do it either.
When my grandpa moved the family to the Chicago area, my dad stayed loyal. Just a few weeks ago, he told me how in high school, he could occasionally get the Cardinals game on the car radio. He would sit in the parked car and listen to the game, while the rest of the family went about their business inside the house.
After going to such lengths, it’s no surprise that he stayed loyal to the Redbirds. When my brother and I were born, it was only natural that he would pass on his preference red instead of royal blue to us. He jokingly says that he conned us into becoming Cardinals fans, but I don’t think that’s accurate. When you’re a little boy you want to be like your dad, and if your dad likes the team in red, well, you like the team in red, too.
That’s not to say it didn’t cause some grief. Fellow classmates taunted my brother and me for not liking the Chicago Cubs. However, since the Cubs and Cardinals were mostly middle-of-the-road teams when I was younger, the insults didn’t particularly sting. Fortunately, I also lived in a neighborhood with few Cubs fans.
My next-door neighbors were die-hard Chicago White Sox fans, so we had a mutual enemy. My best friend, who moved to the neighborhood in second grade, came from Wisconsin, so his family supported the Milwaukee Brewers. Really, our neighbors across the street were the only Cubs fans around.
Starting in 2000, the Redbirds made a habit out of winning the National League Central Division. My dad loved flying a big red Cardinals flag, a gift from my mom, from the front of our house after big wins. In another stroke of luck, the Cards decided to start topping the division right as I entered high school, a time when teenagers develop trash-talking skills rapidly.
Oh sure, I heard that I was traitor and disgrace to Chicago during high school, but I simply had to point to the standings. That was usually enough to shut up any rapid Cubs fan, particularly during the 2002 season when the Cubbies finished the season with an anemic 67 wins.
But If I could go back in time and choose to do it over again, I would choose to be a Cardinals fan in Chicago every time. I wouldn’t make that choice because of the all the recent winning seasons. I would do it because of my vivid memories tied to the Cardinals:
Spending time with my dad and my brother road tripping to various stadiums to see the Cards play, getting to run the bases at old Busch Stadium as kid, watching Ozzie Smith (my favorite player of all time) get a standing ovation at the 1996 all star game, watching them blow the National League Championship Series the same year, seeing Stan Musial and Bob Gibson’s plaques in Cooperstown, attending the first playoff game ever held at the new Busch Stadium with a group of college friends and celebrating the 2006 World Series win in my friend’s dorm room at Mizzou.