By Mike Gianella
One of the most popular and longstanding forms of sports writing involves taking a trope and constructing an elaborate narrative around that trope. Often, these tropes revolve around an intangible asset that a player lends to the game. Examples of these types of constructs include “he’s gritty” or “he’s a gamer” or “he has the will to win”. These pieces are easy to write (what player doesn’t want to contribute to a story about how great he is?) and generally cannot be refuted (you can’t “prove” that Player A doesn’t have grit, so therefore my article about Player A’s grit is not without merit).
Of late, a trope has appeared that surrounds not an individual or even a team but an entire group of fans. Unless you have been living on a Martian colony, not only are you familiar with the term “best fans in baseball” but you also know exactly which fan base I’m talking about. To hear some tell it, the St. Louis Cardinals have the best fans in baseball.
Will Leitch of Sports on Earth makes the case through the lens of a Cardinals fan, while Howard Megdal of Sports on Earth – a New York-area guy and a Mets fan like me – makes the argument in favor of the notion that Cardinals fans are better through an arguably more objective lens.
Is this correct? More importantly, how can this possibly be measured?
Before I dive in, I’d like to address something Leitch said in his article
Leitch: I have never, ever, ever ever ever ever ever, heard a Cardinals fan refer to him or herself as “one of the best fans in baseball.” I’m sure it has happened. I’ve just never seen it. And I hang out with a lot of Cardinals fans
I haven’t directly interacted with many St. Louis Cardinals fans of late, but from 2002-2007 I worked for a St. Louis-based corporation. I spent a good deal of time talking with people who lived in the St. Louis area, and visited the corporate headquarters three or four times a year. The idea that St. Louis Cardinals fans were the best fans in baseball is something I heard from Cardinals fans. It wasn’t an incessant, unending topic of conversation, but was something that came up more than just a small handful of times. The conversation would typically go something like this:
CARDINALS FAN: Cardinals fans are great.
ME: Definitely, but I know a lot of great Mets/Phillies fans as well.
CARDINALS FAN: No, it’s just not the same. They’re different here.
Arguing about whether or not these fans exist in the Cardinals fan base is a pointless exercise. Leitch and Megdal could trot out anecdotal example after anecdotal example of fans that don’t do this and I could bring out my anecdotal examples as a counterpoint. They aren’t “right” any more than I am “right.” I only bring this up because I’m not the first person who has heard or seen something along these lines about Cardinals fans. The fact that Leitch and Megdal have never encountered this behavior in frequent encounters with Cardinals fans is more than a little bit surprising.
However, my intention here isn’t to offer a critique or diatribe against Cardinals fans. The vast majority of Cardinals fans I have met are indeed terrific fans. I’m more interested in why the some members of the media continue to promulgate this tired trope.
To be fair, both Megdal and Leitch’s articles aren’t simplistic rah rah pieces about how great Cardinals fans are. Both are well written pieces that offer concrete points in favor of their arguments. To summarize some of those points:
- The Cardinals mean more to their fans than other teams do to other teams’ fans
- People in St. Louis engage others about the Cardinals unprompted, all the time.
- Cardinals’ fans don’t boo, and in fact cheer opposing players for good plays.
- Fans show up in droves and appreciate their team without fail.
- There are roots in the St. Louis community that do not exist elsewhere, or at least not in the same way they exist elsewhere.
Some of these points are true. Again, my experience with Cardinals fans is that they’re great fans. I have zero interest in refuting the notion that Cardinals fans are good or great; rather, I’m interested in debunking the myth that they are somehow the best fans based on any kind of rational evidence.
The positive aspects that allegedly make Cardinals fans better than other fans typically fall into three categories:
If you dislike booing and do not think that players should be booed under any circumstances, then your argument in favor of the Cardinals is “correct.” If, on the other hand, you think it is OK to boo certain players under certain circumstances, then this argument won’t hold a lot of water. Everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion on the subject, but there isn’t really a right or wrong answer that makes Cardinals fans better than another team’s fans.
Conflating Success with Loyalty
I don’t question or doubt the notion that Cardinals fans are extremely loyal. Keep in mind, though, that this extreme loyalty has come during a long stretch where the team has been extremely successful. Since 2001, the St. Louis Cardinals have a 1,179-926 record (.560 won/loss percentage). With very few exceptions, (I’m looking at you, Tampa Bay), baseball fans turn out when their team is winning. The last time the Cardinals had a prolonged playoff dry spell between 1972-1980, their attendance was slightly above average or mediocre. Fans show up and present a unified front when their teams win regardless of where they’re from.
Along these lines, fans are more likely to talk about their teams unprompted when their teams are winning. You couldn’t go anywhere in 1986 in New York without someone bringing up the Mets and from 2007-2011 the Phillies were all anyone in Philadelphia could talk about. I lived in Philadelphia during that time as a displaced Mets fan. Trust me, everyone here talked about the Phillies at every possible opportunity.
Confusing Environmental/Geographical Factors With Fan Attributes
As far as “the best fans in baseball” construct goes, this last point pokes a moon-sized hole into the subjective nature of the argument. The talking points used here are accurate, but they are positive attributes about the city itself, not about the fans that live there. The Cardinals play in a great environment for baseball and have the advantage of excellent demographics, a great local radio station, and excellent municipal support. All of these factors are undeniably true, and do indeed lend to a more positive experience for players on the team and the fans of the team as well. However, for the most part this isn’t something that the fans in St. Louis control but rather an environmental factor that the fans in the city and its environs are able to take advantage of on a regular basis.
If you took Mets fans and transported them to St. Louis and put these advantages at their disposal, would they behave differently? There is no obvious way of knowing, but it is entirely possible. This argument has less to do with the fans and more to do with the environmental factors that the fans are responding to.
But even if you care to stretch this argument into a “the fans are better because the environment is better” argument, it is still a subjective judgment, and perhaps one that still doesn’t make St. Louis fans the “best” fans.
My experience as a baseball fan has been formed entirely through a lifetime of living in the Northeastern United States. As a Northern New Jersey resident until 2005 and then as a Philadelphia resident since, my experience as a fan has been shaped and molded in an entirely different way than it has for fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. And while there are attributes that can be applied to St. Louis fans to label them the game’s best fans, it wouldn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to do the same for fans in the Northeastern United States.
Below is how such a narrative might sound:
Despite facing plenty of disadvantages, fans of teams in the Northeast show up in droves and are the most loyal fans in baseball. They live in an area where the cost of living is extremely high compared to most of the country yet are willing to spend their hard earned money to attend a game without blinking an eye. Northeastern fans face extremely challenging travel conditions to get to a baseball game, but that doesn’t stop them. A New York-area fan won’t flinch at spending three hours sitting in rush hour traffic if it means going to a baseball game. Nothing has stopped Northeastern fans from going to baseball games. The worst, most unimaginable acts of terrorism the United States has ever seen couldn’t keep Northeastern fans away from their teams. This doesn’t make them better, just…different.
Is this argument fair? Of course not. But New York-area fans have as little control over their geographic disadvantages as St. Louis fans do over the fact that they don’t have to suffer through a horrible three-hour commute just to go to a baseball game. My assumption is that the great fans of St. Louis would sit through three hours of traffic to see their beloved Cardinals…but I would also assume that Mets fans would respond favorably to the midwestern conditions outlined above as long as it meant seeing their beloved Mets.
As a Northeasterner, I value different things than are outlined in Leitch or Megdal’s articles. I have seen big cities come together during spirited playoff runs and fans as fanatical as fans in any other venue. The passion shown by Phillies fans during the team’s improbable run in 2007 and during the playoffs in 2009 was tremendous for the city. Personally, I prefer the yin and yang of passionate cheers to go along with lusty booing of the opposition to a polite, genteel refusal to boo the opponent. But that doesn’t make me “right” any more than it makes Leitch or Megdal “right”. These are merely preferences, not empirical statements of fact. To be a fan of a sports team is in and of itself a great thing. Instead of putting a value judgment on what it is to be a Cardinals fan or a Phillies fan – or any kind of fan for that matter – let’s focus instead on how great most fans are in supporting their teams through thick and thin under any circumstances.
By Mike Gianella
Mike is a fantasy baseball writer at Baseball Prospectus and the co-founder of RotoThinkTank