Sometimes, baseball forces us to choose between the game we love and the team we love.
The most exciting thing about being a baseball fan is that every time you go to the ballpark, you have a chance to witness something magical. You could watch your St. Louis Cardinals smack a pinch-hit home run, then do it again, then do it again. You could watch them mount an incredible ninth-inning comeback built on nothing but singles, walks, and hit-by-pitches. You could watch Jedd Gyorko homer in both ends of a doubleheader–for the second time in a week.
For me, the one thing I’ve always wanted to witness live, more than anything else, has been a no-hitter. As a pitcher through my high school days, I want nothing more than to be in the stadium the day a pitcher retires 27 major league hitters without allowing a hit. I want to feel the unspoken nerves reverberating from fan to fan, the mind-numbing anticipation that ultimately bursts into a marvelous climax as the pitcher and catcher jump into each other’s arms at the center of the world.
A lot of baseball people–players, managers, reporters–say they don’t even think about a no-hitter until well into the game, say the fifth or sixth inning. I’d be lying if I said the same. I think no-hitter from the very first pitch. I root for neither team to get a hit until they both do, and then I return my mind to the game at hand.
The Cardinals entered last Monday night just half a game out of a Wild Card spot. That night’s game against the rival Chicago Cubs was absolutely huge. The Cardinals needed every win they could get, and as an added bonus, a win would ensure that the Cubs could not clinch the NL Central title at Busch Stadium that Wednesday. I went to the game hoping Mike Leake could deliver a clutch performance, the lineup could string together a few runs, and with some help, the Cards could finish the night in possession of a playoff spot.
Then Kyle Hendricks happened.
Kyle Hendricks forced me to consider a tough question: when can you root for your rival?
The Cardinals were hitless through two innings. After the bottom of the second, I moved from my standing-room only spot behind third base to another down the left-field line. Hendricks put up two more zeroes. I moved back to my original spot. I adjusted my string bag the same way I had the first time, and stood with my feet the same width apart. Anything to keep the no-hitter alive.
It felt dirty. I knew the Cardinals needed to win this game, so I still rooted for the Cubs not to score. I cheered loudly when former Cardinal Jason Heyward grounded into a double play to end the top of the fourth. But I also felt an immense sense of relief when he turned Jeremy Hazelbaker’s foul ball into an out–one closer to 27–in the sixth.
Then came the ninth inning. The two-innings-then-switch-spots trick had worked, so I was back in my original spot. I was ready for everything I had waited for my whole life to, finally, come to a sweet, sweet conclusion. Hendricks dropped a beautiful first-strike curve in. 0-1. Then Hazelbaker, the leadoff hitter, watched a pretty hittable pitch go by for strike two. 0-2.
That’s when I began to have doubts. It couldn’t possibly be that easy, right?
Right I was. Hazelbaker turned on the next pitch and sent a rocket into right. Just like that, it was over. No forewarning, nothing. Just. over.
Busch exploded. My brain told me to explode with it, to cheer wildly because no, sir, we were not being no-hit tonight. Not by the Cubs. They weren’t going to put us on the wrong end of every Cubs-Cardinals highlight video for the rest of time.
But my heart sank. As a Cardinals fan, I didn’t want the stinkin’ Cubs of all teams to no-hit us. But as a baseball fan, nothing could make me feel better. I felt like I had just lost the best chance I’d ever get of watching a no-hitter in person.
That night, my experience prompted an essential question: when is it okay to root for your biggest rival?
Monday night, I absolutely did, and I have no shame in admitting it. Watching Hendricks put up zero after zero took me back to my love of the sport at its core, beyond any self-imposed hatred of a team on the basis of geographical location.
Very soon, the question will rear its ugly head again. Our Cardinals still have time to turn the sinking ship around, but there is a strong likelihood that Busch Stadium will be empty while Wrigley Field embraces October. And that will present the ultimate conundrum: are Cardinals fans allowed to want the Cubs to win the World Series?
Can Cardinals fans bear to see the Cubs end the drought?
Right now, the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought is the last trump card Cardinals fans hold over their blue counterparts. The Cubs are, as tough as it is to admit, better in every way. They hit, they pitch, they field; they have superstars and quality depth; they’re young and primed for a dynasty.
But the Cardinals won it all in 2011. And 2006. And nine other times since the last time the Cubs won the final game of the season in 1908. As promising as this litter of Cubs is, fans of the bad guys still have yet to capture bragging rights over Cardinals fans.
Until they win. Then, all that goes away. Then, Cubs fans will hold every trump card in the deck.
So how could any Cardinals fan possibly root for the Cubs to win the World Series? Well, that one’s simple: it would be one of the greatest historical moments any of us, as baseball fans, will ever witness. It would be a moment of pure baseball magic, the Loveable Losers conquering the world for the first time since Henry Ford produced his first Model T. It would be an unrivaled joy to watch as a fan of the game.
But can Cardinals fans, who bleed red, find it in them to root for the boys in blue should the Redbirds fall short of October?
There is no correct answer. Many Cardinals fans harbor a deep resentment of the Cubbies. For them, the answer is clear. For others, the answer will not become apparent until October. It’s like when you’re trying to decide between two restaurants, so you flip a coin. At the coin’s apex, you know which one you prefer.
So wait until the breeze becomes chilly and the leaves start falling, Cardinals fans. When Kris Bryant comes to the plate with a chance to give the Cubs the lead in a winner-take-all playoff game, at that moment you will know whether your love for baseball or your love for the Cardinals is stronger.
Image Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports