Not sure where it started, but it might have been at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1987. Ford C. Frick Award winner Jack Buck got up and waxed eloquently about his town:
“I don’t want to be belligerent about it,” Buck said. “But I kind of think, Mr. (George) Steinbrenner and others, that St. Louis is not only the heartland of America, but the best baseball city in the United States.”
It was a beautiful sentiment from a beautiful man, and we all embraced it. This town has taken its share of hits in recent years. The corporate community has shrunk. The brewery belongs to a Brazilian. Lambert Field is no longer a hub. Stan Musial died. Nelly got busted. Events in Ferguson have stained the town’s reputation nationally.
At this stage, if you can be considered the “best,” if you can be recognized for supporting something as wholesome and American as baseball, you grab it with both fists. So we have … hook, line and Carlos Martinez sinker.
It’s a snug Midwestern fit. Why shouldn’t we be the best? The Cardinals are a historically significant franchise. The current administration has created a genuine ballpark environment. The team goes to the postseason like old folks go to the bathroom – frequently. The Cardinals have been there 11 of the last 16 years and, God willing and the injuries don’t rise, they’re headed there again.
With the possible exceptions of Pappy’s barbecue and Globe Drug Store, they’ve been the most positive thing the city has had going for a while. No question, the Cardinals are one of baseball’s best franchises. That’s tangible.
That being the case, the media and local businesses have attached themselves like pilot fish. They’re all about nation building, “Cardinal Nation,” that is. They promote and fuel the movement with products, sponsorships and presentations that cover, corroborate and nurture the concept. They have taken the “less is more” concept and turned it upside down.
But here’s the thing about all of this: it’s a charade, a caricature. There’s no such thing as the “best baseball city.” You can’t calibrate it, can’t prove it. It’s not tangible.
Worse, it’s gotten to the point where it is counterproductive. St. Louis is perceived as “a baseball town” to the exclusion of everything else. We’re not a football town, not a hockey town, not a soccer town … we’re “the best baseball city in America.”
Outsiders must imagine St. Louisans roaming the streets in Miguel Mejia jerseys, blank stares on their faces, walking in cadence to the Budweiser theme song. Children of the Cardinals.
The baseball association is well-meaning, but it has become Pollyannaish, a distortion of what this town truly is, what it can be. It’s a disservice to a more sophisticated population, to a table with more accoutrements. St. Louis is a terrific baseball town because it’s a terrific sports town, not the other way around.
You can’t help but feel for the football fans in this town. Some were passionate enough to plan a trip to Chicago this past week when the NFL owners met, just to have a presence. Many would support a good product, as baseball is supported.
But they have to prove themselves. They have to deal with a national perception that this is a “baseball town.” They have to deal with the same shallow representation in their own backyard.
St. Louis is a good football town. It supported the Football Cardinals in respectable numbers when they weren’t good, embraced them when they were – briefly – in the mid-1970s. It has supported the Rams with decent numbers when they haven’t been good – which is every year since 2003. And it embraced the team wholeheartedly when it won.
Unfortunately, Rams ownership believes there is more gratification to be had in growing business than growing an enduring relationship with a community. The fact that the city sold its soul to get this football team doesn’t seem to matter. The fact the owner doesn’t feel obligated to explain himself to his loyal customers all these years is insulting.
This isn’t to suggest baseball is driving Stan Kroenke out of town. But the perception that only one team in town matters doesn’t help.
It certainly doesn’t help the hockey Blues, who have to grovel to get sponsorships and community support. It doesn’t help soccer, which can’t find enough corporate clout to make a bigger imprint. It didn’t help the LPGA or the Champions Tour, both of whom pulled the plug a while back.
All credit to the Cardinals, we’re fortunate to have them. But this “best baseball city in America” thing isn’t necessary and it isn’t doing anyone any favors.
This is a good baseball town, damn straight.
More than that, this is a good town, period.