By Christopher Matthews
The St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most storied, successful baseball franchises — only the Yankees have won more World Series — draw fans from far beyond the Gateway City. As the first and, for some time, the only major league team west of the Mississippi River, and by virtue of KMOX’s powerful radio signal, which broadcast games far and wide, the Cards developed a rabid following from Iowa to New Orleans, and west all the way to the Rockies. To this day, the franchise has a huge regional fan base, putting its attendance right up near the top of the league every year. We call it “Cardinal Nation”.
I grew up in West Tennessee, about 4 hours south of St. Louis, in a family of Cardinal fans. Beyond a few stray Cubs, Reds and Atlanta Braves fans (pre-“Super Station”), most everybody who cared about baseball supported the Redbirds. My first baseball memories were of Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton on the mound, and of Lou Brock and Tim McCarver (a Memphis boy who played Legion ball against my father), and the broadcast every Sunday afternoon on the Memphis TV station. After a post-church Sunday lunch at my Grandmother’s, I’d watch the game with my Uncle Jim. We shared that Cardinal bond throughout the years, until his recent death.
Fast forward. I’ve now lived in New York for over 20 years. I’m a sports fan generally, but because my loyalties to other teams in sports (besides baseball) were not so fixed (we didn’t have local pro teams in Tennessee growing up), I root for the Knicks and support, mildly, the two NY football teams, without taking it personally. The Cardinals, however, remain a passion and obsession. I can cheer for the Yankees in the American League, but if the Cards and Yanks ever meet again in the World Series, no question that I go with the Birds-on-the-bat. And I would never, ever root for our National League rivals, the Metropolitans!
Without fail, I make the trip to Flushing every year when the Birds roll into town. And I don’t miss Shea stadium at all — CitiField is a huge upgrade. I’ve belonged to several flocks of Cards fans in NY over the years, which was a lot of fun, but people have dispersed, so now I’m a single bird. But because Cardinal Nation is so omnipresent, when the Cards arrive in NYC, I know my “peeps” will represent, and I’ll meet some folks who have the same obsession.
As it happens, I went out to the game on July 28 between the Cards and Mets at Citifield, which went 13 innings, and where the non-sold out crowd saw a lot of heart from both teams. The Cards jumped on the Mets’ star pitcher, Johan Santana, for six runs in the first inning; the Mets then chipped away and tied the game dramatically in the eighth. Ultimately, our star player and reigning NL MVP, Albert Pujols, knocked in the deciding run — why did the Mets pitch to him with a base open? — in the top of the 13th.
So, it was a sweet win. And the bonus on top of the hard-fought victory: at 12:00 midnight, the number of red-clad Cards fans in the stadium approached the numbers of remaining Mets fans. In Cardinal Nation, we normally stay to the end if it’s a close game, no matter where!