The title of this commentary is a mouthful--but aims at pointing to a relationship between how we go about rooting for our home town teams and enjoying our national pastime in a time of increasing trauma and strife around the world. It is not easy being a Cardinal fan in San Francisco.
The title of this commentary is a mouthful--but aims at pointing to a relationship between how we go about rooting for our home town teams and enjoying our national pastime in a time of increasing trauma and strife around the world. It is not easy being a Cardinal fan in San Francisco. As a native St. Louisan who has lived in the Bay Area for thirty years I have kept alive my strong ties to St. Louis and the ambivalence of being an immigrant to the west coast through a passionate devotion to my childhood team of Stan Musial et al. Being a believer in the Cardinals is truly a magnificent obsession and this season took that worship to a new depth.
In the past, the Cardinal/Giant rivalry has been soured by a number of memorable events including Jeffrey Leonard's one flap down home run antics, Ozzie Smith's run in at second base, and Will Clark's game face which at one time infuriated and later delighted Cardinal fans. As I recall it, Chili Davis called St Louis "a cow town" and St. Louis fans responded by taunting him with "Jeffrey Leonard eats quiche"--which succintly communicated the midwestern disdain for California light weights and suggested that Leonard was just another "fruit and/or nut" from San Francisco.
Game One of this year's National League Championships echoed this ugly history and threatened to set the tone for the rest of the series by re inflaming the bad blood between the two teams. The Kenny Lofton incident reopened the ill will between the teams, the cities, the regions and perhaps the races by igniting a bench emptying farce after Croudale brushed him back with an inside pitch. It made me realize why I dreaded this year's Cardinal/Giants National League pennant championships and was hoping that Atlanta would take care of the Giants. I preferred Glavine and Maddox to the nasty spirit of the rivalry between the Cardinals and Giants.
Baseball players--like other human beings--hate disrespect and nothing is more taboo then humiliating teammates or opponents. The tradition of the game has elaborate unwritten rules on how to deal with incidents of disrespect--like the pitcher throwing the ball at a batter who has humiliated the team or the batter rushing at the pitcher who has threatened him. Fans, on the other hand, love to gloat. For fans to display respect for an opposing team or player is a rare event, almost against the laws of nature. Among opposing players, incidents involving humiliation and disrespect not only empty benches between baseball teams but start wars between nations. Many attribute Bin Laden's monstrous aggression against the West to his rage at the Saudi government for allowing U.S. military forces to occupy Muslim holy sites.
After Game One, however, I sensed something new in this year's incarnation of the rivalry between the Cardinals and the Giants. I fully expected the Lofton incident to become the dominant emotional chord of the Series. Then a funny thing begin to happen--at least in my perception--and I am wondering whether it is because something new is happening in how we go about playing our games, rooting for our teams, and even living our lives after the national trauma of 9/11 that has made all of us--as a people--much more aware of our mortality and vulnerability. Loss, suffering and pain can be great humanizers. Whether the change in emotional tone can be attributed to some sort of subtle shift in how we have responded as a nation to 9/11 or not, other forces in the Cardinal/Giant series began to play themselves out which did not exaggerate the painful themes of humiliation and lack of respect that the Lofton affair seemed so primed to play upon. Let me point to a few specific examples from the Cardinal/Giants series that have led me to this observation of a slightly shifting spirit in how we celebrate our national pastime:
1. During the series, the San Franicsco Chronicle chose to feature St. Louis Post Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz's fine articles on the Cardinals in their "Sporting Green" section. He communicated to the Bay Area readers a seasoned and sensitive Cardinal/St Louis point of view. Usually, rival teams or enemy nations are left to project negative mirror images of their mythologies onto one another without hearing from the other side. The stories tend to reinforce the perception of how awful the other side is. Each side sees itself as heroic and the enemy as demonic. The San Francisco Chronicle was bold in exposing its Bay Area readers to how Cardinal fans and observers felt about the games and the teams. Such reporting humanizes the enemy or the rival team.
2. Watching Benito Santiago on television cut through the stereotypical emnity that the the Lofton story encouraged. The Cardinals and the Giants did not hate one another. Santiago--a sort of Latino pirate with his earring--clearly enjoyed the camaraderie and easy exchange not just with the Latino Cardinals, but with just about every Cardinal who came to the plate. Santiago communicated a sense of comfortable and natural relationship with his rivals without undermining the sense that both sides would get down to the business of competing once the action began.
3. But, by far, the most stirring moment in terms of undercutting the bad blood and negative spirit that the Lofton incident encouraged was when Daryl Kile's 5 year old son was introduced along with the rest of the Cardinal players at the beginning of game three in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to be there--high up in the stands--watching in awe at his introduction and the reaction of the San Francisco Giant's fans. Their applause was not like the spontaneously wild victory cry that exploded with Barry Bond's three run, game tying homer later in the game that day. It was not so loud, explosive or exuberant. Rather, it was a generous, warm, sustained applause that communicated respect and compassion for this young boy's fate and our shared loss and humanity. I still cannot describe the response of the San Francisco Giants' fans to young Kile's introduction without tears welling up. I did not know a large crowd that I viewed as the enemy was capable of such respect and compassion. It dwarfed the emotion generated by the Lofton affair.
Undoubtedly some fans (and, on occasion, I would not exclude myself from this group), players and sportswriters will keep the ugly side of the Cardinal/Giant history going and resurrect it to inflame, poison and perhaps motivate future competition between one another. For instance, the gloating headlines of various articles in the San FRancisco Chronicle sport's page on the day following the pennant clinching game 5 proclaimed: "Lofton Laughs Last--and Loudest", "St. Louis beaten by Enemy No. 1", "Cardinals Stephenson Allegedly hit Fan". Reading these stories, you might think that the dominant emotional chord of the series was indeed the Kenny Lofton story. But, there were other stories being told as well that hopefully won't be drowned out by the easy story of hatred, disrespect, humiliation and revenge that can so quickly infect every arena of our public and private lives.
Was the Giants/Cardinals series a conflict between bitter, rancorous enemies or a story of hard fought competition and mutual respect between two teams that have each suffered hardship, loss, and found a way to endure? I would like to think that the San Francisco Chronicle's including Bernie Miklasz's eloquent obituary of the Cardinals season ("It's simply another heartache"), the memory of the Giants' fans warm and deeply touching greeting of Daryl Kile's son, and Benito Santiago's infectiously good hearted, playful exchanges with one Cardinal batter after another (especially poignant on TV) might linger as a glimmer of a renewed spirit in our sporting events that tilts toward a binding human connection between competitors rather than the natural tendency to demonize and make ugly our rivalries. Such a renewed spirit of sport includes the understanding that baseball is truly only a game (a very beautiful game worthy of worship) and that life and death--whether for thousands at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, a Pennsylvannia field or for one Major League Baseball player and father in a Chicago hotel room--put it all in perspective and allows fans, as well as players and sportswriters, to show genuine respect and decency towards our traditional rivals or even enemies. It would be nice if we could find some of that spirit in other domestic and international arenas as well. It may be that we might then find ourselves stumbling into George Bush The Elder's "kinder, gentler nation" through the shared experience of loss, grief, and vulnerability that allows winners and losers alike to show humility and grace when the games are being played.
© Thomas Singer 2002
Thomas Singer, M.D.
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