This postseason marks the third time that Detroit and St. Louis have met in the World Series. The first encounter, in 1934, was enlivened by the Gashouse Gang—Dizzy Dean and Leo “The Lip” Durocher, most famously—and by the New Yorkish Detroit fans, who heaped garbage on the Cardinals’ left-fielder, Ducky Medwick. That Series made my father, then 9 years old, a real baseball fan.
The second meeting, in 1968, was the one that hooked me on baseball for good. St. Louis had Bob Gibson, who was virtually unhittable that year. Detroit’s ace was Denny McLain, who in 1968 became the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season.
Yet more improbable than either of those season feats was Detroit’s unlikely hero, a beefy left-hander named Mickey Lolich who rode his motorcycle to the ballpark. He won three games for the heavy underdogs, who came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to claim the Series.
They played games back then on beautiful autumn afternoons, not these wintry, night-time abominations that run beyond midnight Eastern time and deter schoolchildren from watching. I heard the announcer describe the last out in 1968 through the single earphone of a contraband transistor radio in the back of Mrs. Perkins’ sixth-grade class. She’d have taken the radio and made us stand in the hall had she caught the several of us who took turns listening. The risk just made the World Series that much more exciting.
For sentimental reasons, I was rooting for Detroit and St. Louis to earn spots in this year’s Series—no disrespect to the New York Mets, inheritors to the lost tribes of Brooklyn fans, or to the Oakland Athletics, whose tradition goes back 80 years to Philadelphia. My bias wasn’t just personal; it was philosophical. Each team in its own way embodies traditional American values, which of course makes it deeply countercultural today.
First off, St. Louis is probably the most loyal baseball town in America. The Cardinals are the city’s municipal treasure. There is almost a symbiotic relationship between city and team. In many other multi-sport cities—especially new franchisees like Miami and Phoenix—a World Series doesn’t have the same feel. It’s merely one more cool event to attend. I understand what my friend Willy, who had suffered through long wilderness years with his own favorite teams, meant when he said “it wasn’t fitting” for a Super Bowl to fall into Nashville’s lap in the Titans’ very first year downtown. It didn’t feel earned.
But St. Louis fans have earned their way. Loyalty and constancy count for so little in our bottom-lined, nothing-personal-it’s-just-business society that they should be dropped from any list of American values. Count me as a subversive in celebrating the Cardinals.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are a Hollywood movie waiting to happen. The movie will tell the story of how a longtime laughingstock turned around under the leadership of a presumably washed-up old manager, who inevitably will be portrayed by someone like Frazier’s TV dad. It will be a movie you’ve seen before; imagine Major League and Glory Road and Hoosiers all sloshed together in a stew, with Disney to give it that taste of treacle.
The story, rightly, will show us how the lightly regarded Tigers—a team mostly of fresh-faced youngsters salted with a few over-the-hill retreads—crushed the vaunted Yankees, whose lineup had been called the greatest ever assembled. The movie will make you feel good without reminding you how profoundly un-American its sentiments are.
We admire the Tigers, who remind us that you can accomplish a lot when no one cares who gets the credit. But let’s be honest: we think more like the Yankees. We’re impatient. We expect fast results. We demand instant gratification. We’re more like George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner, than Jim Leyland, the Detroit manager. We don’t have time to wait on young squads to mature. Let’s just buy the best at every position. Success spoils us. Any season that we don’t win it all is a failure.
Maybe the increasingly dominant Steinbrenner mindset in our culture helps explain why baseball has suffered in popularity. In the NFL, NBA, NHL or college basketball, the flashy hare can beat the diligent tortoise. Teams can muddle through half the season, then catch fire, slip into the inclusive playoffs and win a championship. In baseball, merit must be proved over an arduous 162-game schedule. The hares seldom win. But we don’t have the patience to follow a racing tortoise. The old national pastime is no longer American in spirit.
Maybe this is also why baseball’s appeal seems increasingly retrospective. Fox Sports cues up its Series broadcasts with antique images: Willie Mays’ amazing catch from 1954, Carlton Fisk’s coaxed homer from 1976. Fox understands what most Americans remain reluctant to admit: for baseball, the target demographic is Old Farts—people who’ve followed the game long enough to know that the Cardinals’ and Tigers’ uniforms have barely evolved since 1934, or who at least understand that baseball’s halcyon days are behind it.
But perhaps that recognition also provides an opportunity to market the old game to a new generation of rebellious youngsters. I can see the T-shirts now: “Love Baseball, Hate America.”
How It Looks From the La-Z-Boy
Titans 20, Texans 17 Tennessee 24, South Carolina 17 Vanderbilt 27, Duke 19 Florida 24, Georgia 16 Auburn 31, Ole Miss 10 Kentucky 26, Mississippi State 17