On Continuing to Root for the Cardinals

Earlier this season, SBNation ran a contest asking baseball fans to write why they rooted for their team. I don’t know who actually won. I read some really good submissions from Cardinals fans on Viva El Birdos, though, so I’m hoping one of them got something neat out of the contest.

I didn’t submit anything. I couldn’t really come up with a compelling hook that made my Cardinals fandom special. Despite most evidence to the contrary, I really try to keep my mouth shut and my fingers off the keyboard if I think I don’t have something interesting to say, so I sat this one out.

That’s not to say I didn’t at least start writing something to see if it’d go somewhere. The closest I came to a compelling narrative was my love of the Cardinals community, meaning all the various people I’ve interacted with and in some cases befriended due to nothing more than a shared love of the birds on bat. It’s some six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon level of detail not worth getting into here, but I’m relatively certain I’m not where I am today career-wise if not for my engagement with a bunch of really awesome people in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball community.

My love of this baseball community is having to do an awful lot of heavy lifting of late, because I’m genuinely not sure if the organization itself—that is, St. Louis Cardinals, LLC—is worth rooting for. Frankly, I’m disgusted with the organization and that has far less to do with the quality of the on-field talent than it does the off-the-field shame this organization provides.

Which leaves me with a question I never thought I’d have to ask: do I believe it’s defensible for me to be a Cardinals fan in 2017?

Let me pause here real quick to make clear that the emphasis in the above question is the “for me.” Fandom is a personal choice, and so long as you’re not beating the hell out of some poor bastard for daring to wear the jersey of another team, I’m not gonna begrudge your rooting for your team of choice.

That said: for my own part, I don’t agree with the “keep politics out of sports” sentiment that so many fans hold. I don’t know how one can look at all the various municipal budget-destroying stadium deals, the NFL/US Military symbiotic sponsor relationship, the appointment of team owners to ambassadorships, President George W. Bush’s explicit mention of and intervention on performance-enhancing drugs in MLB, MLB’s antitrust exemption, etc., and conclude that sports are apolitical. Sports are big business, and big business is political. It just is, and you’d have to be willfully blind to not see it.

That said, I suspect the “keep politics out of sports” sentiment is less a function of not seeing the relationship and more one of recognizing it, but just wanting to enjoy a ballgame and not be inundated with all the awful shit that permeates the news in 2017. I get that. It is exhausting to look at all of this and try and stay engaged and informed. Thus, I’m not going to think less of anyone who just wants to watch a Cardinals game and not deal with the news cycle—though given the performance of the 2017 squad, I’m not sure how relaxing that approach would be anyway.

Point being, the question I’m asking is a personal one, and not one I expect anyone else to apply to him or herself. The awesome people I talk to in the Cardinals community will continue to be awesome should they continue to support the team in light of its indefensible actions. Viva El Birdos itself, which has a fairly strict “no politics” rule, is managed and edited by some of the smartest and most insightful writers baseball has to offer.

All that said, am I okay with rooting for this organization?

I don’t see how I can get myself to “yes” here. The Cardinals’ shameful and tone-deaf failure to credential an Outsports editor to cover Christian Day at Busch Stadium is only the latest in a series of failures that demonstrate the organization is uncaring at best and malevolent at worst.

On the off chance someone’s reading this who doesn’t know the backstory: the Cardinals invited 2011 postseason hero Lance Berkman to speak at the event. Berkman has some pretty reprehensible views on LGBTQ rights, and has used his celebrity to push specific anti-LGBTQ legislation.

If the Cardinals wanted the day (which has existed in some form for decades; I distinctly remember it growing up in St. Louis) to be a celebration of faith, they could have turned to any number of Christian players on the active and former roster. Adam Wainwright, for example, has been a featured speaker at this event in the past, and if he harbors beliefs that stray into the controversial/political realm, he’s smart enough to keep them to himself. There are any number of Cardinal players past and present who are generally awesome people of faith. And then there’s Berkman.

For the “but free speech” crowd: Carlos Martínez’s salacious social media likes were also him expressing himself, and the club came down on that. That the Cardinals invited Berkman was a failure of research. That the Cardinals didn’t rescind the invite after his views were obvious to all was a far worse mistake.

Still, that mistake could have been interpreted charitably as the Cardinals recognizing they’d stepped on a landmine but thinking they’d make the situation worse by intervening. Indifference and cowardice aren’t exactly virtues, but they’re a lot better than endorsing discrimination.

By failing to credential Outsports, the Cardinals made clear this wasn’t indifference. It was actively endorsing discrimination. It also proved the organization to be staffed by tone deaf morons. Had the Cardinals credentialed the editor, here’s what happens: he goes to the game. He writes his story. Life goes on. It’s a lot like what actually happened minus the tagline of “Cardinals explicitly refuse to credential Outsports.com” that got all the attention. It’s discriminatory, but also just really damned tactically stupid.

The club’s excuse that “blogs and websites” don’t get credentials is utterly laughable. It’s 2017, and if you hadn’t noticed, print journalism has been in its death throes for years. (Truth be told, so is a lot of digital journalism; all these organizations laying off writers in favor of a video-only strategy that will blow up in their faces isn’t a good sign at all.)

Further, it’s not as if Outsports is some tiny little operation nobody has heard of. From the metrics publicly available, the site gets somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million people to it each month. For context, stltoday.com, the website for St. Louis’ local paper, is somewhere in the two million range. I don’t know what subset of that two million is purely for the paper’s sports coverage, or more to the point, the paper’s baseball coverage.

Point being, Outsports.com has a large enough digital presence that “we don’t credential blogs and websites” is a moronic policy. Arguably, it’s not a policy at all and just an attempt to create a media-friendly excuse for “we don’t want your kind here.” After all, it’s 2017–the lines between print and digital don’t really exist anymore, and the Cardinals have no problem credentialing folks like Craig Calcaterra and Jeff Passan, whose NBCSports and Yahoo Sports platforms are purely digital.

I don’t know Chris Tunno, the person who rejected the credentials request. But from what I can see of him on Twitter, he’s, uh…not the person that a club that wasn’t negligent would want as their mouthpiece.

I don’t want to make this about Tunno, though. I don’t know the dude and one person shouldn’t have the ability to ruin my fandom. And, indeed, there are any number of other aspects about this organization that are awful.

As near as I can tell, the organization did essentially nothing in response to Tyler Dunnington’s minor league teammates openly discussing the best way to kill gay ballplayers. Sure, there was a lot of talk about this being “taken very seriously,” but unless the club managed to run a stealth investigation and not talk to a local media that seemed entirely disinterested, it was performative outrage. Nothing happened. I don’t expect billion-dollar organizations to champion civil rights, but I expect them to at least give a damn and take action when employees and members or a discriminated-against group are actively facing death threats.

And then there’s the failure of the club to leverage its power to aid flood victims this past spring. Chase did a much longer discussion of the issue here, but the short version: the St. Louis Blues and even the River City Rascals used their ability to reach fan communities to help with flood relief. The Cardinals, with a much larger ability to help, did not. The Cardinals are a St. Louis institution; it’s shameful that the club didn’t intervene to be worthy of that title, instead choosing to be another aloof business.

I’m treading on already-covered ground when I bring up the club’s failure to disavow (or say anything) about the moronic “Darren Wilson/David Freese” racists outside Busch in 2014, and that there’s clearly a way to not be an asshole when it comes to this sort of thing.

Point being, for a “civic institution,” the Cardinals’ indifference-at-best, endorsement-at-worst approach to business is a shameful one. It’s hard to root for an organization that clearly cares so little about its fans. It’s a lesson we have to keep learning over and over again: the #brands are not our #friends. If “corporations are people,” they’re the most indifferent and aloof of all people, concerned only with making money rather than the well-being of the community in which they make that money.

Even on the field, the club seems content to cash in on mediocrity, with no clear plan in place for improving. Mike Matheny, the man who was hired with no managerial experience and who manages as such despite being in the job for six years, has a three-year contract extension. John Mozeliak and the newly-promoted Mike Girsch preside over a thoroughly mediocre team that…did literally nothing at the trade deadline, the paralysis all-but-ensuring another year like the current. Seriously: how the hell could the club do nothing?

There’s not much to root for here. I don’t like the management and operation, and the on-field product is pretty terrible too. To reward it with my time and attention doesn’t seem defensible.

And yet I’d give up quite a bit were I to quit the Cardinals. This is, present grotesqueness aside, the same organization that had team President Mark Lamping send teenage Adam a bunch of parking passes in downtown St. Louis so I could afford to attend the season tickets I’d saved all summer for (but was too stupid to realize that parking cost money too).

By wins and losses, it’s a better team than the late-90s McGwire-and-Lankford-and-scrubs team that I watched with my brother when we weren’t even on speaking terms and really only had Cardinals baseball left to mediate.

Hell, there are even a couple still-in-decline-but-I’ll-always-be-a-fan holdovers from the miracle 2011 squad. I can only hope that I have the same fond memories of Tommy Pham and Carlos Martínez in ten years as I do of Yadi and Waino.

But the biggest thing I’d miss, and the thing that will still keep me coming back? It’s the same community. I’m not sure how to interact with Cardinals Twitter and the writers and bloggers I’ve befriended if I’m not at least following the Cardinals. We don’t always talk about baseball, but that’s the common thread through which all other conversations start.

These are invaluable relationships. Several of those bloggers helped apply enough pressure on the Cardinals that the team hosted its first ever LGBT day this season, prying action out of the indifferent monolith. Perhaps if I’m lucky and skillful enough, my continued presence in this community will help steer the organization in a less-crappy direction, both on-field and off.

I can’t just walk away despite all the reasons the club’s given me. But, if there’s anyone out there reading this in the organization…my god, do better.

Follow Adam Felder on Twitter.