When St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and his star player, Albert Pujols, decided that their participation in the revolting Glenn Beck rally in Washington last Saturday was both appropriate and “non-political,” they broke a bond with me – a native St. Louisan for whom pulling for the Redbirds from both coasts had internalized the still-flickering Midwestern populism of my adulthood.
In protest, I hereby take my baseball rooting interests elsewhere: to the masochistic bowels of Oakland Athletics fandom; or to the deracinated hope that the Tampa Bay Rays of David Price, Evan Longoria, and Carl Crawford will break the hegemony of the hated New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox; or even to simple appreciation of the pluck of the Philadelphia Phillies, whose slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, also a St. Louisan, seems like a good guy even if he’s approximately one-fifth the player Pujols is.
To give you an idea of how far back I go as a Cardinals fan, in 1963 I was at the Sunday doubleheader sweep, at the old Sportsmans Park on the North Side, completing a 19-wins-in-20-games run that brought them to within a whisker of a Los Angeles Dodgers club that would sweep the Yankees in the World Series a month later.
I was in Section U-V, behind an old-fashioned stadium pillar, when Sandy Koufax then came to town and shut out the Cardinals (a scene about which I would be quoted 40 years later, vulgarly and out of context, in the revised paperback edition of Jane Leavy’s bestselling biography of Koufax).
Deep into the next night, not yet nine years old, I was listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck on KMOX radio when an obscure backup catcher named Dick Nen (father of the future San Francisco Giants relief ace Robb Nen) hit the extra-inning home run that terminated our pennant dreams for that year.
On September 29 I attended the last game of the iconic Stan Musial. (On the drive home, only my dad’s careful driving skills kept us all from getting seriously injured after a kid dropped a brick onto our windshield from an overpass on Hodiamont Avenue.) Today Musial approaches his 90th birthday and there is a campaign to get him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he was recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated
and New York Times
columnist George Vecsey is completing a biography that will be published next year.
In 1996 Tony La Russa became the field general of Cardinal Nation, at the midpoint of his more than 30 years of proactively curating a legend in real time through intellectualized associations with everyone from George Will to Buzz Bissinger. For fans like me – who have cringed at La Russa’s contribution to turning games into interminable exercises of wooden and inscrutable gamesmanship – he was always a difficult figure to comprehend and an even more difficult one to love. But we did grow to embrace his smarts, his dedication and competitiveness, and above all his record of success.
Now La Russa’s appearance at the Beck event – and, worse, his disingenuous rationale for it – has blown a moral gasket that first leaked oil earlier this summer when he expressed support for Arizona’s demagogic immigration law. When one removes the rose-colored lenses of local chauvinism, La Russa can be seen to have lost his compass even earlier than that, when he stage-managed the return to the Cardinals this year, as batting coach, of steroid era poster boy Mark McGwire, who had set what we now know were tainted home run records for La Russa’s teams in both Oakland and St. Louis.
McGwire’s wholly unconvincing redemption tour included his drop-in at the Cardinals’ winter fan fest. There PR minions leashed the cowardly dumb jock who had effectively taken the Fifth in his 2005 Congressional testimony, before turning him loose to the media in a cramped and audio-challenged hallway. In the process, hostile questions got mau-maued by the surrounding yahoo hordes in a manner reminiscent of the orchestration of the 1988 press meet-and-greet of new Republican vice presidential candidate Dan “Deer in the Headlights” Quayle.
And the parallel was poetic: the Cardinals’ owner, William DeWitt Jr., was a high-profile supporter of President Bush fils
. DeWitt is also emblematic of Major League Baseball’s current crop of industrial stewards, whose main operating principle is greed. The Cardinals not only pulled off their particular installment of the national disgrace of municipal private-welfare stadium construction scams; they also sold off as memorabilia every conceivable fixture of the not-so-old and still perfectly serviceable Busch Stadium, all the way down to the urinals. They also pissed on tradition by ending a 50-year association with their broadcast flagship, KMOX, in favor of buying equity in a generic upstart sports-talk station with a lousy signal. Their least-enfranchised devotees were advised the Antoinette equivalent of “let them eat the premium Internet audio package at mlb.com.”
Against that background, what gall it took for La Russa to stand up before the throng on the Washington Mall on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and introduce Pujols as that rarity, “a real-life hero” – as if he, La Russa, qualified as a character witness.
The story of Albert Pujols’ own defiance in accepting honor at the event as a humanitarian, which he had to know was being slyly folded into the Beck-Sarah Palin agenda, is a more complicated outrage – something that for me is closer to deep disappointment.
Though I don’t share Pujols’ religiosity, I respect and admire his achievements both on and off the field, as I do those of another sometimes cloying Christian, football’s Kurt Warner. Not yet 20 years old and more than a year away from being a major leaguer, let alone his sport’s brightest star, Pujols had taken on the challenge of stepfathering his wife’s Down’s Syndrome daughter from a previous relationship. If his professions of the Christian center of his life and career were never my cup of tea, neither did I find them aggressively thrust at myself and others, before last week.
But Pujols, no dummy, is Stan Musial’s torchbearer (the former is even known as El Hombre
, in conscious echo the latter’s nickname, “Stan the Man”). Baseball, especially in St. Louis, is lay religion. I demand of its practitioners a lighter touch, deeper humility, and more modest associations and assumptions.
To those who want to turn this episode into a referendum on liberal tolerance, I say that athletes and entertainers indeed have every right to exploit their absurd celebrity bully pulpits as they see fit. Just as we fans have every right to hold them accountable in our patronage and affections when they polarize, narcissize, and slouch toward in-your-face right-wing self-righteousness.
The only thing I regret about my decision to defect from Cardinal Nation is the perception that I’m simply bailing on a mediocre team. I despise frontrunners. This year’s Cardinals are flawed at a level far below championship caliber. But my heart and head have been in this game for half a century; I savor the good years, I don’t demand that the objects of my fantasy perform like automatic punch-presses in their down years – and, above all, I know that there’s always next year.
Still, I confess to some satisfaction in observing that the inconsistent, mentally fuzzy, frequently dispirited 2010 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals seems to be playing at its very worst in the wake of last Saturday’s imbroglio. The idea that God and Glenn Beck were on Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols’ side has definitively creeped me out. So I say, goodbye to all that.
Beyond Chron contributor Irvin Muchnick, author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, now returns to his regularly scheduled programming at http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com and Twitter (@irvmuch).