I'm a fan of the Cardinals, hardwired to be so. My Dad grew up in Alabama back in the days when the closest thing the American South had to big league baseball was the far-flung broadcasts of KMOX out of St. Louis. So in some senses, he was predisposed to favoring the Cards. However, this was cemented during the '46 World Series when he and one of my uncles made an exceedingly modest bet on the outcome. My uncle took the Red Sox, and my Dad took the Cardinals. The Cards won, and Dad was hooked. The team has been an indelible part of my family ever since.
When I was growing up, each summer we'd make the 13-hour drive from South Mississippi to St. Louis to take in a handful of Cardinal games. My Mom, dutifully in attendance but with only a perfunctory interest in the game itself, would often do needlepoint in the stands. My first major league game was a Cards win over the Reds in 1980, and I was hooked. It would be a fine decade for Cardinal Nation. The radios in our house, for some reason, couldn't pick up KMOX. However, my Mom's Chrysler could, so my Dad and I, during games of critical mass, would often sit in that car parked in our driveway and listen to Jack Buck growl the action to us from afar. I remember listening to the a crucial road tilt with the Mets in late '87--the one in which Terry Pendleton's clutch bomb essentially felled the vile Amazin's for good that season. At that point in my life, I'd never been to New York, and it seemed to me and my provincial ignorances a veritable Sarajevo of potential hostilities. I worried for the physical safety of my team--that they won the game was gravy.
The Cardinals and their successes (and their occasional failures) pepper the memories of my youth. I now live in Chicago, far, in the geographical sense, from my home and my family back in Mississippi. That's served only to buttress my febrile love for the Cardinals and the sense of complicated pride I feel in being a native of the South. But this column isn't about the Cardinals or the South.
For a long time, I viewed the Atlanta Braves as traitorous interlopers. They weren't the South's team; the Cardinals were. The Cardinals had spent years cultivating the market, and then the Braves came along and undermined all of it. You'll find a great many people of my Dad's vintage in the South who are Cards fans, but most of a younger stripe favor the Braves. This bothered me for many years. I regarded them to be a whimsical spurning of history and tradition.
For many years, the only thing the Braves could otherwise do to raise my anger was occasionally preempt "Night Tracks" on WTBS during that fleeting and regrettable time in my life when the novelty of the music video held sway over televised baseball. (I shudder at the memory.) They weren't really considerable opponents back in the days when Rick Mahler, Rafael Ramirez and Bruce Benedict roamed the land. All that, of course, changed.
By the time the '90s rolled around, the Braves--thanks to the impossibly heady triumvirate of John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone--began a run of dominance not seen since the Yankees were brawling at the Copa. That all this was coincided with a rather bereft decade in terms of Cardinal achievements made it sting even more. So I cultivated a hatred for the Braves that went far beyond whatever animus you might feel for intruders of glancing consequence. They were now the force nonpareil in the NL, and a deep adoration for the team pollinated the South. Grrr.
A very vocal majority of my college friends were Braves fans, and this led to countless arguments among us. I would rail against the frat boy smugness of Chipper Jones, moan to the heavens about the leviathan of a strike zone that Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine alone seemed to enjoy and harrumph about the prevailing whiff of evil surrounding Ted Turner. And all the while the Braves kept racking up division title upon division title. This decidedly one-sided rivalry reached a particularly grisly nadir in the 1996 NLCS, when the Braves, down three games to one, performed hate crimes upon my Cardinals, outscoring them 32-1 in the final three games to take the series. I recall, in the instant after Glavine's bases-clearing triple in the early innings of Game Seven, hurling my remote control through an open window. The indignity was such that I was forced into exile for many weeks.
I'm older now, and, if not mature (I'm not), I'm less prone to abject homerism and, as such, able to appreciate the amazing bestowals of the once-maligned Braves. Somewhere along the way, my feelings toward the Braves scooted along the continuum from red-faced hatred to grudging respect to subtle admiration to, finally, the point I'm at today--I like the Atlanta Braves. I've probably watched a thousand Braves telecasts in my life, and I've come to regard the arid wit of Skip Caray as a sort of comfort food for me ears. His voice, which I don't hear enough these days, takes me back, as they say. Mostly, though, I admire how the organization has evolved and thrived under an array of economic conditions and with generations of different players. I'm proud of them. They'll most assuredly never displace the Cardinals in my heart and mind, but the Braves now have ineffable honor of being, dare I say it, my second-favorite team. It feels good to say it.
In my professional capacity, the Braves have made a mouth-breathing fool of me over the past several years. I've picked against them season after season only to be proved wrong, season after season. My predictions of their demise weren't borne of dislike or wishful thinking; rather, I just couldn't see how they'd keep up in spite of all the roster upheaval. As I look over the standings right now, I see the Braves are once again in first place in the East and once again toting around the best record in the NL. Again, I'm confounded. We're toe deep in what may be the most amazing Braves season since the '91 campaign that started it all. And, like those paid actors at McDonald's with little regard for their cardiovascular health, I'm lovin' it. Should they encounter my Redbirds in the post-season, I'll root like all hell against the Braves, but should their paths fork away from one another, I'll have no reservations in rooting like all hell for the Braves.
So, Atlanta Braves, you amaze me game after game. I enjoy your company, I respect your accomplishments, I like you, and I even root for you. Most of the time. Oh, and I'm sorry for all those mean things I said about you.
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