I arrived in St. Louis prepared to help the Busch Stadium faithful overcome the burden of being the Best Fans in Baseball. That's right, the burden. Cardinals fans have held that unofficial title for years, so commentators have reminded us throughout the World Series, and as proud as they are of the recognition, it's like being such a good student that all the other kids want to pound you. Redbird Nation's reputation as the most knowledgeable, loyal and, above all, friendly fans in the majors is pretty much the equivalent of wearing a sign on its collective back that says, KICK ME.
Plenty of people are willing to do just that. There is a Twitter hashtag, #BFIB, consisting largely of sarcastic tweets about the eagle-scout goodness of Cardinals fans. ("The #BFIB are cheering the opponents! How classy!") A Deadspin blogger mockingly suggested a couple of years ago that the reason St. Louis supporters are considered so baseball-savvy is that they "clap loudly for sacrifice bunts and players named Skip."
Cardinals fans do root for a Skip—Schumaker, their utilityman—and they really do salute the opponent. When Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus made a near-impossible diving stop on a grounder up the middle in Game 2, flipping the ball from his glove to second base while facedown, the crowd stood and applauded as though he were wearing Cardinals red. Stories of the fans' patience with their own players are legend. They not only stood by control-challenged pitcher Rick Ankiel when he was spraying fastballs like a human aerosol can, but they also cheered him last April when he returned as a Nationals outfielder.
"Our fans are the best because they're just as passionate as anywhere else, if not more so, but they're probably a little more fair-minded," says St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. "They're not soft, but they're not nasty or vicious."
Swell. But it's not cool to be so kind. Cardinals backers—who have bought at least three million tickets the last eight seasons—need an image makeover, something to give them a little more bite. Maybe they could rebrand themselves the Best Damn Fans in Baseball? Anything that adds spice to the sweetness would be a help, which is why I went to the happiest baseball place on Earth last week to offer my services. My mission: Expose the dark side of the BFIB.
I walked among the faithful outside Busch Stadium before Game 1 against the Rangers, looking for any display of obnoxiousness—a sign mocking manager Ron Washington's bald dome or at least some mild heckling of anyone daring to wear Texas colors. But no one was letting his or her jerk flag fly. "You're not likely to see anything like that," Michael Garvey, a construction worker, told me. "When we see a Cardinals fan giving people a hard time or cussing at the other team's players, my buddies and I always say the same thing: 'He must be from out of town.'"
I suggested to another fan that more frequent booing might toughen her image. "Oh, no," said Sue Pfeil, a real estate agent. "I only boo at home in front of the TV." Work with me here, Sue. Surely some player must have ticked you off enough to boo. "There was one time," she finally admitted. "It was when [St. Louis shortstop] Garry Templeton flipped off the fans. A lot of us booed that one." Great. That was 30 years ago.
St. Louis fans do make their displeasure known when they feel it's necessary, but they do it politely. Even on sports talk radio, home of every fan base's lunatic fringe, callers only gently complained about La Russa's failed late-inning pitching moves in a 2--1 Game 2 loss, with the preamble, "Tony's a genius, but... ." Fans greeted slugger Mark McGwire with scattered jeers on his first return to Busch Stadium after his steroid testimony before Congress in 2005, and early this season they booed struggling closer Ryan Franklin so heavily that he lashed out at them. "They're supposed to be the best fans in baseball," Franklin said. "Yeah, right." Franklin apologized the same day. Both men were soon forgiven.
Still searching for a darker side, I enlisted the help of a Texas fan. Dan, who is from Dallas, would only give his first name because he gave his boss a bogus excuse to miss three days of work. He was wearing a Josh Hamilton jersey and a Rangers cap, and I asked him what kind of reaction he had been getting from Cardinals fans. "They've been great," he said. "I told one guy back at the hotel that we were going to sweep them, and he said, 'Well, I don't think so, but best of luck.' You can't get them mad."
I followed Dan around the concourse to see what kind of treatment he got, but he drew little attention until three twentysomething men approached. At last, I thought. "You look a little lost," one of the young men said. "What section are you looking for?" It was hopeless.
I considered what another St. Louis fan had told me about the BFIB title before Game 2. "It's a little cliché-ish, a little cheesy," said Danny Farroll, "but in the end, it's kind of who we are." In other words, whether this week brings the franchise's 11th championship or eighth World Series loss, you think the Best Fans in Baseball are going to go against their nature just to avoid further mockery? You must be from out of town.
CARDINALS ROOTERS NEED AN IMAGE MAKEOVER, WHICH IS WHY I WENT TO THE HAPPIEST BASEBALL PLACE ON EARTH: TO EXPOSE THE DARK SIDE OF THE BEST FANS IN BASEBALL.