October Surprise; or, How to Follow a Perfect Season


On Sports

My grandfather died in St. Louis last year on October eighth. The following night, Chris Carpenter pitched a three-hitter against the Phillies, lifting the Cardinals into the NLCS and alerting the nation that rather than just a squad of plucky underdogs, the Cardinals might be a team touched by something phenomenologically greater than a hot streak. For certain members of my family, my grandfather’s mid-playoff death offered a locus for the sense of destiny awakening around the Cardinals; in the weeks to come, as the team mounted increasingly improbable victories, more than one relative offered comments in the vein of, “Wally had something to do with this!” or “Wally was watching over the Cardinals last night!” Being a skeptical and ragged Catholic, I responded to these remarks with quiet derision, as I do to all suggestions that the Almighty would choose to meddle in the outcomes of our mortal diversions.

But as the weather here in St. Louis finally cools after a boiling, interminable summer—a summer that saw the maddening Cardinals muddle their way to a fragile hold on one of the devalued wild-card spots—I find it difficult not to look back on last fall’s championship run and see a team touched by divinity, or magic, or fate—a moment when a higher realm reached through the portal of sport and touched this mortal plane. The Cardinals may well make the playoffs this year, but I have to confess that I’m finding it hard to care. Whatever illumed last season, it’s gone, and here in St. Louis, we’re learning to live in its aftermath.

“Baseball,” as Michael Chabon observed in McSweeney’s no. 36, is “a game that somehow seems to offer more room, a greater scope than other sports, for the consciousness of failure and defeat—has always been associated, in its own history and my own, with a sense of loss, the idea of the lost arcadia, the last patch of green folded into a pocket of the world of brick and asphalt.” The sport is a dissonant blend of nostalgia and modernity. On the one hand, as Chabon says, it is a sport stubbornly resistant to change. The unhurried pace, the managers in uniform, the persistence of Fenway and Wrigley, the timeless sound of vendors calling out over the chatter of multitudes—these are all dogged holdouts, boulders in the stream of capital-P Progress, a refuge of familiarity in a world that often feels bent upon making itself unfamiliar from one day to the next. As George Carlin once put it, the objective of baseball is to go home.

But baseball is also about wiping out the past. It is a sport of endless summers and new beginnings, of hope revived every spring in the unchanging climes of Florida and Arizona. And like all American sports, it’s one of ever-expanding playoffs, of exponential salary increases and lockouts, of sabermetrics and steroids, of stadiums that double as amusement parks, anxious that the game alone isn’t enough to entertain us. Like one of those Psych 101 drawings that depicts either an old woman or a young girl depending upon your perspective, baseball is both old and new, Roy Hobbes and Billy Beane, the Green Monster as well as whatever they call that Tommy Bahama acid dream out in Miami’s left field. It’s left to the fans to choose which side of the diptych to see.

St. Louis is a town whose relationship with baseball, as with almost everything, tends toward the wistful. The Cardinals’ consistent success has spared us the fate of cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh and North Chicago, where fans depend on the promise of next season to get through the current one, but it’s also endowed us with a legacy we feel obligated to revere, a legacy that can be burdensome. Each season begins with a genuflection at the altar of the past, Musial, Brock, and Smith paraded before the fans in red convertibles each Opening Day, a modern pantomime of a Roman triumph. And even when the greats aren’t present, they’re ensconced as ghostly images behind their retired numbers on the left field wall, a frieze of the accomplishments against which each new feat will be measured. Any pitcher who deals a strong playoff outing gets compared to Bob Gibson in 1968, and Tony LaRussa won two World Series, but for many Cardinals fans, he’s no Whitey Herzog. Nothing the Cardinals do can be considered sui generis; everything must be placed in the tradition. The Cardinals are an aristocratic team in a city that prides itself on egalitarianism.

Which is strange when you consider that St. Louis fans buy heavily into the notion of a team as a proxy for a city, a pure distillation of civic character. It’s one of the oldest quandaries in American sports, one that’s rarely examined: what, exactly, do we mean when we say, for instance, that St. Louis “beat” Chicago? What relationship do Yadier Molina and Starling Castro really have to the cities whose names are emblazoned on their uniforms, except that people in those cities are willing to pay large amounts of money to watch them perform, and that very wealthy men (they usually are men) in those cities are willing, for the time being, to pay Molina and Castro larger salaries than are other very wealthy men in other cities?

These are questions we like to ignore in St. Louis, preferring to view the Cardinals as a team that could come only out of our city. In the summer of 2010, the organization made a lot of noise about “the Cardinal Way,” which Lou Brock explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as follows:

It started long before all of us. It was a scratchy type of baseball that doesn’t know how to say no. It’s a team that doesn’t beat itself. Today, you see a scrappy player like Brendan Ryan and you say, ‘Oh, that’s a throwback to the old Cardinals teams. That’s a dirty uniform, that’s the “Cardinal Way.”

There’s the myth in a nutshell: that while the rest of the league relies on high-powered offense and large salaries, the Cardinals beat you with the squeeze play, sound fundamentals, and value players that will always outhustle the opposition. Never mind that the team has the ninth-highest payroll in baseball, or that it offered Albert Pujols $220 million over ten years last spring. Forget that the Cardinals are second in the league in runs scored this year, or that the apotheosis of the steroid era—the 1998 homerun race—took place right here on the shores of the Mississippi, and that the tragic hero of that summer, Mark McGwire, is now our batting coach. Don’t pay any attention to the Redbirds’ 20-26 record in one-run contests this season, or its 6-12 mark in extra innings, lest you lose faith in the team’s devotion to “fundamentals.” (Brendann Ryan, it should be noted, now plays for the Mariners.)

Whence all this willful self-delusion, this longing for the past, this casting of ourselves as a land of Jeffersonian baseball virtue in a nation that’s turned Hamiltonian? It’s been a rough century for St. Louis. In the hundred years separating the World’s Fair and the World Series loss to the Red Sox, St. Louis suffered the same decline as so many of the once-great frontier cities: the rise of Chicago, the decline of industry, the supplanting of river and rail with car and plane; white flight, suburbanization, coastalization, globalization. These forces have done their erosional work, leaving St. Louis an atomized city with many pleasant neighborhoods marooned by our awful public transportation. We boast several fine museums, an excellent botanical garden, a lovely city park, and a severe inferiority complex. The Cardinals’ success is our compensation, our way of insisting to ourselves that we’re still relevant to a nation that has largely left us behind. And as chroniclers of the Midwest from Sinclair Lewis to Garrison Keillor have noted, the Midwest’s insecurity is defined by a smugness about our moral fiber—hence the virtues of simplicity, toughness, and loyalty with which we imbue our team, regardless of the available evidence. Any group of bozos in pinstripes can win 27 World Series, the story goes, but only St. Louis can produce a team that wins the Cardinal Way.

My grandfather was the most devoted Cardinals fan I’ve known; he was also cheerfully immune to the twin St. Louis afflictions of nostalgia and exceptionalism. I recall moping around on the day in 2004 when he and my grandmother moved from their house in south St. Louis County to an apartment in an assisted- living facility. When I told him I’d miss his house, he smiled and said, “We had some good times in this place, and we’ll have some good times in the new place, too,” not making a show of optimism, but really believing his own words. This was an echo of his assurance, offered a few years earlier, that the Cardinals’ decision to build a new Busch Stadium was not a catastrophe to be mourned but rather the normal course of history. “Everybody got upset when they tore down Sportsman’s,” he said, referring to the Cardinals’ first modern stadium, “but within a year, they’d forgotten about it.” Unlike my mom’s father, he never compared the contemporary game unfavorably to the past, never speechified about the days when pitchers went 15 innings on two days’ rest and outfielders regularly hit the catcher’s mitt on the fly from deep center. His life spanned ten of the Cardinals’ eleven World Series titles, he’d seen every Redbird Hall of Famer from Pepper Martin to Albert Pujols, and the only squad he ever cared about was the one on the field.

I was never able to imitate my grandfather’s clear-eyed love of baseball, nor his interest in the sport’s technicalities. I was never moved to imitate him in making my own scorecards, and I don’t mind tuning into games in the fifth inning. My affection for baseball is largely atmospheric, associated with the sound of Jack Buck’s scratchy baritone as it presided over the meander of innings, parceling the endless summer into something more discrete and livable. Baseball is the haze-obscured orchard or hilltop castle in the background of the Renaissance tapestry entitled My Midwestern Childhood. Like Catholicism, it’s a tradition I was born into, its comforts residing more in its unchanging form than its content, a bridge to my earliest memories. I am thoroughly a St. Louisan, nostalgic to the quick.

The zenith of my fandom came in college, the only period in my life when I regarded the Cardinals as more than one of life’s pleasant fixtures. There’s nothing like exile to make you conscious of origin, and college, at the beginning, felt like an exile. I began my undergrad years in Chicago, a decidedly Midwestern city, but to a St. Louisan coming from four nurturing years at an all-boys Jesuit high school, it felt like Allen Ginsberg’s all-devouring Moloch. My readings in Marx and Plato were ripping the doors off my sheltered concept of the universe, my grandfather had suffered a nasty stroke that required that he and my grandma move into a nursing home, the lack of daylight was messing with my brain’s chemical balance, and a Belgian company run by Brazilian executives was completing its purchase of Anheuser-Busch, my dad’s employer and the last of St. Louis’s old industrial titans. The Cardinals presented the handiest connection to home, the loom around which I wove my longing and homesickness. I began wearing my Cardinals’ cap regularly, the “STL” logo acquiring talismanic significance in my mind. Frequent score checks assuaged the loneliness of late nights in the library with Marx and Hume. Each game felt like a covert dispatch from home, each win a rebuke to the godless, fast-living world I felt I’d entered.

Unfortunately, these weren’t successful years for the Cardinals, who were wandering in the post-2006 wilderness, failing to live up to Albert Pujols’ unprecedented seasons. The defining image of these years is the ball that bounced ignominiously off Matt Holliday’s groin in Game 3 of the 2009 NLDS, the team’s only postseason appearance between the ’06 and ’11 titles. I continued to follow the team faithfully when I transferred to Penn after my sophomore year, rooting for the Cardinals became more necessary in the East. But the mediocrity continued through my first year in Philadelphia, through the summer of 2011 (spent in the lazily passionate baseball town of San Francisco) and up through early September, which is when I stopped paying attention, until the morning when my friend Matt came downstairs and asked if I’d looked at the standings lately.

Even when adjusted for nostalgia, my memories of last fall reveal a charmed season. A funny thing happened in those months: I began to love the East Coast. After three difficult years, I finally felt settled in college. I was living with Matt, an old St. Louis friend I’d known since childhood, an arrangement that offered a link to home more human than any Cardinals box score. I was enjoying a previously unknown freedom from the burden of pining for St. Louis, the result of a glorious October Friday spent in New York, where I’d traveled to seek career advice from a friend’s uncle, a columnist at the Times. In the anonymity of the Madison Avenue crowds, the self-sufficiency borne of my first solo trip to Manhattan, I received a notion of sudden possibility, an intimation of what my life could be if I could just keep writing.

That was the day the Cardinals dispatched the Phillies; I returned from New York just in time to meet Matt at a local bar, where we covertly rooted until the last out, when we could no longer contain our glee and the locals’ menacing looks pushed us out onto Sansom Street, where we leapt and screamed. That was the night the magic took hold, a tip in the metaphysical scales I couldn’t help but associate with my grandfather’s death the following afternoon, as if he’d hung on long enough to assure himself that the team was going all the way.

The night of his funeral, I joined my dad, sister, aunt, and uncle at Busch Stadium for Game 5 of the NLCS, which the Cardinals won handily, 7-1. Baseball never meant more to me than it did for those nine innings. I wasn’t surprised that St. Louis won; a Cardinals victory struck me as the only possible outcome on the day that we put my grandfather in the ground. The Cardinals’ postseason assumed an air of inexorability that night. There were moments of doubt to come, especially in Game 6 of the World Series, but from that night on I never shook my intuition that I was living a script in which everything had its place, a Cardinals championship foreordained. I sat beneath the lights that evening, newly bereft of my grandfather but reminded by the Cardinals; by my uncle’s young daughters, who had been irrepressibly cute at the funeral home, unheeding of the corpse that lay feet away; and by the British girl back in Philadelphia I was texting from the game—the girl I’d taken out on a promising date the night my grandfather died, another of the season’s inexplicable coincidences—that life is possessed of unknown dimensions. On that night, Busch Stadium’s bowl was capacious enough for joy and loss alike, and that feeling of elasticity followed me for the rest of the month, right through the hoisting of the trophy. My grandfather was gone, and I had no idea how to secure after graduation the possibilities I’d felt in New York. The British girl’s texts already evinced an aloofness suggestive of the break that awaited me in Philadelphia. A second dalliance would coalesce and fade before the last out against the Rangers. Stress and tedium would return to life before long. But as long as the Cardinals were winning, in defiance of all odds, they reminded the country that even in this age of supreme cynicism and irony— the age of the Mitchell Report and Lance Armstrong, of Lehman Brothers and Occupy—sports, like life, retains an inalienable ability to surprise. And they made me believe that it was, quite literally, all right.

I’ve returned to St. Louis for the year, and the inverse-square law of my relation to the Cardinals has held true: the nearer I am to the corner of Clark and Broadway, the weaker my ardor for the team. What’s more, this paradox has grown to encompass my attitude toward the city itself. I expended a lot of energy in college defending my city against coastal snobbery, but now that I’m back for the year, teaching at my old high school, it’s hard not to see my home as a provincial town inhibited from revitalization by the global forces that have sapped much of the Midwest, by municipal squabbling, and by its own complacency. We’ve grown comfortable with our second-tier status: there’s nothing to be done about our diminishment, we’ve got some nice restaurants, and damn it, haven’t the Cardinals won eleven World Series?

But above all, the problem is my nostalgia. When measured against last year, this fall smacks of diminishment. The sense of possibility I felt on that afternoon in New York has been dampened. Though I’m happy to be near family and old friends, returning to St. Louis has made me feel a bit like a spaceship unable to achieve escape velocity. The Cardinals have been correspondingly disappointing. Tony LaRussa’s inscrutable scheming has been replaced with Mike Matheny’s pabulum. Albert Pujols has left us for Disneyland, a sharp blow to the notion that St. Louis inspires unique loyalty in its players. The team appears bent on making life as difficult for itself as possible, blowing countless leads and squandering much of its talent. Here at season’s end, with the Cardinals’ magic number standing at two, the club has relied not on Holliday and Freese but on John Jay and some guy named Pete Kozma in its pursuit of a Wild Card spot it doesn’t seem to deserve.

My solution to all this has been largely to avoid Busch Stadium, with three exceptions. Matt coaxed me into attending a game against the White Sox in June, the Sox thrashing the Cardinals while the South Siders’ fans injected a rare note of menace into Busch’s usually congenial perimeter. My second outing came in late August, when the Cardinals lost to the Pirates in 19-innings, a game characterized by such languor and futility that it might have been conceived by Beckett. The Cardinals fumbled Jaime Garcia’s promising return to the mound after a two-month absence, and in doing so, they encapsulated their entire season in a single, long afternoon.

As for the last outing: In the first week of September, after a summer of shrugging off my dad’s suggestions that we get out to the ballgame, I acquiesced and joined him for a contest against the Mets. In keeping with a budding tradition, we invited our friends Steve and Jim, who both teach at the high school my dad and I attended, the school where I’m teaching now. In 1975, Jim, then in his third year teaching at the school, had just taken over the school newspaper. Together he and my dad, the editor for his senior year, made the school paper the city’s only high school weekly, which it’s been ever since. I became editor in 2007, at which point the paper was under Steve’s guidance. And this year, I’ve been helping him out as an assistant moderator, a wonderful exercise that’s required me to hold nostalgia at bay, to see not younger versions of myself before me, but other students living their own lives. We talked about the Cardinals, about the newspaper, about books and writing and cycling (I’m the only member of the group who doesn’t ride), and the game’s three hours seemed to take about twenty minutes.

The Cardinals won in workmanlike fashion, 5-1, the kind of victory the Cardinals have sorely lacked this season. Aside from Yadier Molina’s thousandth career hit, the game offered little of note, its effect on the standings negligible. The win didn’t spark a sense of awakening momentum, of destiny leaving its calling card. There were no dramatic home runs, or home runs of any kind. I wasn’t texting any potential loves from the stands, summer’s oppressive heat hadn’t quite evaporated, and I had no clue where I’d land after my one-year teaching contract ran up.

Yet there we were, four men bound by a love for a high school and its newspaper, and for the Cardinals. From where we sat behind home plate, we could see the skyline, one of the features of the new stadium that’s led me, as my grandfather once predicted, to prefer it to old Busch. Dominating the view was Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, dedicated to America’s westward expansion, a structure that often strikes me as a kind of sadness in itself, another backwards-looking monument to happier days in St. Louis, to an epoch that has long since vanished. But on this night, the Arch was only beautiful, encouraging the contentment that comes from attending a baseball game with people you love, the contentment that welled within me as I sat looking upon my home, a different kind of magic.

James Santel lives, writes, and teaches in St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in The American Scholar. He blogs at