They are the Champions

[29 April 2007]

By Tobias Peterson

It would be a stretch to call my first impressions of St. Louis positive. I arrived in the city after 13 hours in a car with some college buddies from Austin, Texas. We had come for the first Big 12 Conference Championship game, which pit our overwhelming underdogs, the University of Texas against the then-powerhouse Nebraska Cornhuskers. Leaving on a whim and expecting a slaughter, the last vestiges of our initial enthusiasm for the overnight road drip had disappeared somewhere back in Arkansas, most likely in a diner in which everyone, even the chef, wore camouflage.

We pulled into town around dawn, a gray bank of clouds hanging over the city as if hammered into place. Driving around the still sleeping streets in search of the stadium, we soon became lost, until one lone car pulled up next to ours at a red light. I rolled down the window to ask directions of the man driving, whose black, horned rimmed glasses, stained undershirt, frenetic comb-over, and grim expression reminded me somehow of a broken Ed Asner—his wife, perhaps, had left him, or his kids had missed his birthday. Or both.

He, too, rolled down his window, in response (I assumed) to my gesture. But as I began to ask his advice, he released a low, guttural half-growl, half-wretch from somewhere deep in the recesses of his ample belly—the fruits of which were soon sent flying onto the pavement in the form of an impossibly huge, grayish green jellyfish of phlegm. The light changed. He looked over at me impassively, said nothing, and drove away.

We eventually made our way to the stadium, and UT came away with a win in one of the greatest upsets in college football history. But all I really ever remember of my first trip to St. Louis is this charming vignette, confirming what a good friend had told me about the city after he spent two years living there: quaint, it ain’t.

Granted, one unsanitary citizen and my friend having his car radio repeatedly stolen (once during the winter—his smashed window allowing huge snow drifts to fill his car up to the steering wheel) is far from sufficient evidence to damn an entire city. But I’ve found that my experiences are often shared when I tell my “The Old Man and the Loogie” tale. Other than a handful of Irish pubs, a few good universities, and an assortment of floating casinos, St. Louis isn’t exactly at the forefront of livable cities. I’m sure the barbeque there is delicious, and I don’t discount the place’s musical history (nor the presence of Anheuser-Busch’s headquarters), but perhaps the town’s most notable attraction, the Gateway Arch, is only significant insofar as it beckons the visitor to move on to somewhere else. “The Gateway to the West” is the city’s nickname, but, if you think about it, it’s an invitation to keep the engine running, snap a few photos, and get out of town as quickly as possible.

Luckily, the residents have sports, whose ecstasies of victory can counter the most dismal of conditions. The St. Louis Rams, for example, thrilled football fans as “The Greatest Show on Turf” and the champions of Super Bowl XXXIV. The St. Louis Cardinals, however, are the real show when it comes to St. Louis teams. Winning 10 baseball championships over the history of their franchise, the Cardinals’ success is second only to the storied New York Yankees.

Before last year, however, the most recent Cardinals crown came back in 1982. In between, most of the team’s success was in the form of record-breaking slugger Mark McGwire, who shattered Roger Maris’s single season home-run record in 1998. That glory, however, was soon tainted as McGwire was linked to the performance-enhancing drug Androstenedione. More recently, his image was further tarnished when, after being called before a Congressional committee investigating illegal steroids in pro baseball, McGwire incriminated himself by saying, “I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.”

In light of McGwire’s fall from grace and the team’s recent lack of success, Cardinals fans’ enthusiasm for the 2006 World Series can be understood, even if the rest of the world refused to share it. The contest, against the Detroit Tigers, showcased two small-market, midwestern teams with storied histories but next to no national appeal. And the series itself was a dud, with the Cardinals racing to victory against a Tigers team that could only manage to win one contest in five attempts. Without big cities or big drama, the 2006 series recorded the lowest television ratings in league history.

One might well question then the appeal, even purpose, of The St. Louis Cardinals 2006 World Series Collector’s Edition DVD set, featuring eight full disks of coverage. To be sure, the set is less for the casual fan and more for the non-abbreviated fanatics. Who else would be interested to know that the Cardinals’ David Eckstein is only the fourth shortstop to be named a World Series MVP? But this kind of trivia coats each of the DVD inserts, accompanying inning-by-inning recaps and comprehensive box scores. The eight DVDs offer more than enough to satisfy any rabid Cards loyalist, and include games five and seven of the team’s National League Championship Series wins against the New York Mets.

Still, even the most steadfast of fans will be hard pressed to sit through all of the 33 (count ‘em) chapters of extras included on the set’s bonus disc, which range from taped interviews to simply raw footage, presented without commentary, of the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols taking batting practice and joking in Spanish with his teammates. Some may, however, enjoy the inside look provided here on how a locker room celebration is organized. We learn that, in addition to coating all the lockers with sheets of plastic, it’s also a good idea to provide the players with swim goggles, that they might spray champagne and (official sponsor) Budweiser Select with impunity in front of several quickly-soaked cameramen who are forced, without their own goggles, to squint and guess at the shots they’re there to frame. 

Baseball fans in general might also appreciate another important feature of these recorded games: the fast-forward button. Rather than sitting through Joe Buck and Tim McCarver scramble for conversation to fill the vast gaps of time between pitches while the camera roams over fans yawning, or waving towels, or waving towels while yawning, viewers can now simply skip ahead to moments of high drama. One example comes in game seven of the Cardinals-Mets series, when, in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, rookie closer Adam Wainwright strikes out Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran on three straight pitches.

Indeed, these are the kind of moments that everyone (well, perhaps not Mets or Tigers fans) will enjoy on this collection. But even these rare nuggets of excitement fail to determine the real value of the set. In an odd way, though, that’s why this collection is all the more important. Such a comprehensive chronicling of such a middling contest, won by a team from such a humble town, only reminds us of the transcendent potential of all sports. Cardinals fans will want to soak up every minute of these recordings—even if they don’t speak Spanish. And that’s because sports can pull us out of our quotidian tedium and elevate us to the heights of delirious joy. But only if our team wins.

Somewhere in St. Louis, I imagine that Ed Asner look-alike returning home, doffing a Cards cap, and plopping down into a dilapidated recliner. Slipping one of these discs in to play, he leans back, folds his hands atop his gut, and smiles.

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