Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It's never too soon to be a Cardinals fan.

For Alex Taft, 1980-2008

When my mom, a Wisconsin native, was 10, she memorized the entire roster of the Green Bay Packers.  Even now, she’ll give me her bank card and tell me, “The PIN is Bart Starr-Max McGee.” And I’ll look at her blankly until she sighs and clarifies, “1-5-8-5.”

I have the same uncanny memory for numbers –– I did my high school sweetheart’s college applications for him, so I still know his social security number, and even though she moved away a decade ago, I will remember my best friend’s old phone number on my deathbed –– but I have no passion for football.

I mean, yes, of course I love the Saints. Who Dat, etc.

But the Saints I grew up with, the Saints of the ‘80s and ‘90s, were not the same as my mom’s Packers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I became disenchanted pretty early on. I know how the game is played, and I know that Drew Brees is the quarterback, even though I couldn’t tell you his jersey number. But it’s just not really my thing.

Both of my parents are huge sports fans and always have been. Both of them yell at the TV and jump out of their seats when things get exciting. My mom has even been known to throw handfuls of potato chips in the air and dance on the sofa. Growing up, I thought all of their ardor must’ve just skipped a generation because I really didn’t care. Football, basketball, NASCAR –– none of it was bad; I’d just prefer go to the symphony or a poetry reading or a coffee shop.

Ah, but college has a way of broadening one’s horizons. And along with instilling in me a deep appreciation for tequila; toasted ravioli; hearts, spades and poker; Buffalo wings; and the collected works of John Milton, college made me a sports fan.

Football, I could still probably take or leave, unless the Saints are playing. College basketball is fun, but only in March. Hockey’s great if only for the occasional gratuitous violence. But baseball. Oh, God, do I love baseball!

This is no doubt partially because one of my very favorite college classes was statistics (hi, Dr. Larry!) but also because baseball is a gentlemen’s game, not really all that different than going to the symphony or a poetry reading –– except that there are hot dogs and nachos and beer, which are all extra points in baseball’s favor. I certainly can’t say it any better than the late great George Carlin, but yeah, baseball’s my game.

St. Louis, my husband’s hometown, is also a great city in which to be a baseball fan, and that certainly helped. My mother-in-law can rattle off baseball stats the way other people say the alphabet, and Jamie’s 90-year-old great-aunt had the interior of her station wagon upholstered in red leather that she had custom-dyed to be the exact hue of the Cardinals’ uniforms.

Although I got into baseball my freshman year of college, in the autumn of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were both in hot pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, I didn’t go to my first game until the summer of 2006. I remember this game mostly because I was newly pregnant, and I was attending the game with about 20 members of Jamie’s extended family, none of whom knew about the pregnancy yet. I spent the entire game eating jalapeños dipped into nacho cheese –– bypassing the chips completely –– and I openly wept when the “kiss cam” paused on an elderly couple who then smooched with gusto.

“That’s so, so sweet,” I said between sobs. “Imagine being married that long and still having passion!”

Jamie leaned over and whispered in my ear, as patiently as he could, “If you don’t stop crying and wipe the nacho cheese off of your chin, sweetheart, we might have to disclose this pregnancy a little sooner than you’d like.”

By the time autumn rolled around, the pregnancy was no longer possible to conceal, and the Cardinals had won the World Series. With all due respect and apologies to the Saints, that was truly the first time I knew how good it felt to root for a winning team.

And as the Cards fight back against the Dodgers this weekend,  I will be watching with the enthusiasm that was passed down to me from my parents. Because baseball is a more subdued sport, it’s unlikely that I will shower chips on the floor or jump on the furniture. But it’s entirely possible that one day, I will hand my daughter my debit card and tell her, “Chris Carpenter-Yadier Molina.” And then when she looks at me, I’ll sigh and say, “2-9-0-4.”

Let me know what team you’re pulling for this season and why. (Unless it’s the Yankees. Then we can’t be friends anymore.)

Categories: Joie d’Eve