Sports is a metaphor for life, it is a cliché, but it’s true. When I was a kid and competing in youth sports the Dads used to tell us “ boy you are learning life lessons” and I would think to myself “yea that’s just the BS they tell you”. But as a kid I worked hard in practice and now I work hard as an adult, I played the games to win and now I play the game of life to win, I was hurt when I lost and I still feel pain at loss, and I realized at a young age that to get ahead it often takes courage and a team effort.
Football may have surpassed baseball as the favorite sport in America a couple of decades ago; but there is no question whatsoever that in St. Louis, beyond the shadow of a doubt, baseball remains the most popular sport in this city. Indeed as a kid in St. Louis I don’t think I ever met a single human who was not a St. Louis Cardinals fan.
When I was a kid in the 1980’s the Cardinals played a very exciting kind of baseball referred to as “Whiteyball”. Whiteyball was named after the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals Whitey Herzog. Herzog, a down home folksy manager from nearby Illinois, was wildly popular in the St. Louis area and reminded people of any number of guys riding around St. Louis in pickup trucks and going hunting and fishing on the weekends. The style of play the Cardinals popularized relied heavily on speed and good defense. Few home runs and lots of stolen bases and manufactured runs.
The players on the Cardinals were as diverse as the city. In a city, and region, heavily divided by race, everyone cheered for the team which had a lot of black players. The two most popular players of the 80’s teams- by far, were shortstop Ozzie Smith, a defensive wizard who would come onto the field doing backflips, and Willie McGee an awkward yet productive outfielder. Both are African-American.
It is hard to put into words how racially divided St. Louis was when I was growing up ( and if I dedicated this post to that I would talk about nothing else), but let’s just say racial tension was everywhere from local politics, to the media, to peoples workplaces, and to the schools I was educated in. Yet, black kids cheered for white players such as Tom Herr and Jack Clark, and white kids cheered for black players such as Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee. The Cardinals, and other sports to a lesser extent, brought this city together like nothing else when I was a kid, and for a moment everyone would forget we were on different teams and we all just joined our voices and cheered for the Cardinals.
In 2006 when I returned to St. Louis from New York the Cardinals had just faced the Mets in a memorable National League Championship Series. Like the World Series runs of 1982, 85 and 87 (we can forget about the 2004 sweep by the Boston Red Sox), this city was on fire when I got here. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, city and county, everyone was united in pulling for the Cards. When they won the series, and I was outside the stadium in my cab when it happened, I witnessed the biggest street party I have ever seen in St. Louis. Race relations may have improved slightly since my childhood, although they are still amongst the worst in the nation, but that 2006 celebration was the most diverse party I have ever witnessed here by far. Mardi Gras is a huge street party in Soulard every year, but I see few black faces, and the Annie Malone May Day Parade is a huge party on the North Side, but I see few white faces, ALL come to celebrate the Cards.
The 2011 World Series run by the Cardinals has to be the most unlikely and fascinating season in my lifetime. In August the Cardinals were 10 and a half games out of the wild card slot and well behind the division leading Milwaukee Brewers. Local sports writers and sports radio were bashing the Cardinals every day all day. The team was too slow, too old, manager Tony LaRussa needed to retire, the relief pitching sucked, and on and on. Many had stopped watching games and following the teams and basically viewed the season as over. I gave up in the Cards in the middle of August.
Then, with few believers, the Cards made an improbable late season surge and made it to the playoffs on the last game of the regular-season. Suddenly, the Cardinals were red hot, beating the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the playoffs and then handling divisional rivals the Milwaukee Brewers to win the National League Pennant. Next thing you know the local sports media and all the haters and doubters had all caught Cardinals fever and were back on the team bandwagon. Everyone was talking about the Cards, and I mean everyone in my cab, from middle-aged women working as housekeepers at hotels, to nurses aids, to white collar types working in the financial sector. Even the dopeboys and crackheads in my cabs were sporting their Cardinals hats.
Sports can be a something that two people talk about who otherwise have nothing else in common. They don’t listen to the same kind of music, don’t live in the same kind of neighborhood, don’t vote for the same party, and maybe are not even of the same race, but in St. Louis all can talk about baseball together. And, it is not just a simple matter. These sports conversations can spawn friendships just as my high school sports teams gave birth to lifelong friendships amongst a diverse group of people.
Everything is by the decree of Allah and is His plan and it just so happened that I got a call to pick up a passenger from a St. Louis hospital and take him to rural Missouri. It just so happened that this was the same small town my father had moved to but I had never visited my Dad. After dropping my passenger off I said asked myself should I visit my dad. After all we had not spoken in years, the last time I saw him we almost came to blows, and we have a troubled relationship at best.
I decided to drive to my dad’s house after getting the address from my grandmother. I knocked on the door wearing my Cards hat and he answered the door wearing his Cards hat. We sat, we talked about the Cards chances in the World Series, he gave me a tour of his basement which is basically a Cardinals museum, and in between sentences we caught up on each other’s lives.
Baseball can bring people together and it brought my father and I back together- in a sense, and to an extent. When I was a kid it was black and white Cardinals playing side by side. Today, in a climate of anti-immigration and the fear of a growing Latino population, white folks are cheering for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Jaime Garcia. I am willing to bet there are some who have softened there position towards Latinos and immigration seeing that just as Latinos can make the Cardinals stronger and work as a team they can also do so with Team America.
Once the Cardinals made it to the Fall Classic the experts still did not believe and most picked the Texas Rangers- but experts don’t play the game. The Cards showed up big and in one of the best World Series in years, highlighted by the 11th inning Game 6 victory a game which will go down as one of the greatest in baseball history, the Cardinals defeated the team of Nolan Ryan and George W. Bush and in doing so a new star was born- St. Louis hometown kid David Freese.
Just as in 2006 I was there outside the stadium listening to Mike Shannon on the radio as the final out was made to give the Cardinals the 11th championship in 2011. I experienced the victory with my passengers as they celebrated and at least for one day we were all one. There are a lot of people who may be in the August of their lives; but if you fight through it, like the Cardinals did, you may end up on top like they did.