Being a Dodger fan in middle America has some advantages, such as the ability to watch SportsNet LA games even if my cable or satellite provider does not carry the channel. But surviving as a Dodger fan behind enemy lines can occasionally be a struggle.
Depending on where a person stands in my current residence, Arkansas, the closest MLB team geographically could be the St. Louis Cardinals. Or it could be the Kansas City Royals. Or it could be the Texas Rangers. Arkansas should be an agnostic state when it comes to fan loyalty. But, despite having two Double-A teams, one affiliated with the Royals and one with the Mariners, Arkansas is staunchly Cardinal red.
To understand how my home area, Northwest Arkansas, became overrun with Cardinals fans, it is necessary to understand baseball in the mid-1950s when St. Louis was the only Major League Baseball town west of the Mississippi River. The Cardinals exploited its vast geographic advantage through its radio network. Scholars James Walker and Robert Bellamy wrote in their excellent book, Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television, the Cardinal broadcasts “stretched across 124 affiliates in fourteen states, with flagship station KMOX in St. Louis reaching listeners in eight states at its peak” (p. 50).
The geographic expansion coincided with the team’s purchase by Anheuser-Busch in 1953. That the growing fanbase embraced listening to Cardinal games and became loyal customers of a certain beer company surely pleased ownership. Nor did it hurt that the Dean brothers, Dizzy and Paul, two famous members of the Gashouse Gang, were natives of tiny Lucas, Arkansas.
For the first half of the 1900s, Arkansas enjoyed a prominent spot in minor league baseball with several teams in the Cotton States League. Once MLB reorganized its farm system, and the Cotton States League ceased operations in 1955, the Arkansas Travelers were, literally, the only professional game in the state.
Also in the first part of the 1900s, Hot Springs, Arkansas was a prominent spring training destination for baseball’s star players including Babe Ruth. My faculty colleague here in journalism, Larry Foley, produced a wonderful documentary about that era, The First Boys of Spring, which aired on MLB Network and was screened in Cooperstown.
In 1966, the Cardinals signed an affiliation agreement with the Double-A Travelers, an agreement which lasted until 2000. Young Arkansans growing up during this time could not only listen to, and eventually watch on television, current Cardinals stars, but they could also watch the future stars. Tom Herr, Willie McGee, Andy Van Slyke, Terry Pendleton, and Todd Worrell all played at Dickey-Stephens Park.
Right now, St. Louis Cardinals fans are BIRGing (a sport psychology construct in which fans of a winning team bask in reflected glory of how good “their” team is), and with good reason. Their team won 17 straight at one point to finish 46-25 post-All-Star break, good enough to be 16 games behind Los Angeles and secure the final playoff spot. The Dodgers, it should be noted, were a not-too-shabby 49-21 during the same period, but my friends who are Cardinals fans would never let facts get in the way of a good narrative.
This BIRGing manifests itself in a number of ways. I see many more Cardinals shirts and hats now than I saw in June or July. Friends of mine increasingly text me with subtle messages such along the lines, “Are you nervous?” or “Imagine going 9-1 and not gaining a game on the Giants.” Facebook status updates simply say “Sixteen” or “Seventeen.” Those do not bother me as much as the references to going crazy, folks, or pitching to Jack Clark with first base open.
The reality is that it is hard to find blue in Arkansas. The Arkansas Razorbacks are red. Arkansas State is the Red Wolves. The Cardinals are red. Red is everywhere.
It is not as though Dodgers fans don’t exist here. My friends David and Alyssa are huge fans, but like me, neither of them were born here and required to drink the Cardinal red kool-aid.
My friend Chad perfectly embodies the mentality of Cardinals fans. I had not heard from Chad about baseball in months when he texted me on Sept. 18 to say, “My Cardinals may get to play the MIGHTY Dodgers in a wild card playoff.” The use of the possessive “my Cardinals” is textbook BIRGing. His baseball-related texts increased to every few days, despite my attempts to explain the concept of regression to the mean.
When I asked Chad, who by all other measures is an upstanding individual, how he became a Cardinals fan, he explained he was originally a Braves fan for Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, but started following Ozzie Smith and Vince Coleman for some reason. “Not sure why. I would not be a die hard, but I like that no one else seems to like them,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.
Yesterday he sent me a text which read, “Razorbacks lost. Cowboys win. Cardinals….???? Rubber match for a 2/3 good week for my teams.”
When I countered with facts that pointed out the Cardinals actually lost on the days that the Razorbacks lost and the Cowboys won, making for a 1-3 weekend, he simply sent a partial selfie in his Cardinals polo. Many of the Cardinals fans I know are oblivious to facts.
So, for the sake of those of us trying to eke out a living in enemy territory, let’s go Max Scherzer. A segment of middle America is cheering for the Dodger blue.