Oh, Ryan Franklin. It's hard not to love you. After getting booed by the home fans in St. Louis this afternoon, Franklin had this to say about the famed Cardinals Nation:
You don’t boo your own team. [...] They are supposed to be the best fans in baseball. Yeah right.
I love that he used the old best fans in baseball shibboleth, because Cardinals fans take their fandom seriously. Which is to say they take themselves seriously. Wow, Ryan, way to close with a dagger. Your hideous facial hair hides a rhetorical genius.
Why are the Cardinals fans the best? It's never been clear or perfectly logical. They draw well, but not superlatively so. They have a regional fanbase, like about six other teams. No, it's all tied up in the cult of LaRussa at this point. They're supposed to be "the best fans in baseball" because they appreciate the sacrifice bunt, the hit & run, the double switch, the lefty specialist, etc. Nevermind that every mainstream baseball fan loves these things. Listen to postgame call-in shows from Baltimore to Seattle and you'll hear the same complaints and the same concerns. The AM dial might as well be renamed the "Score Runners from 3rd with less than Two Outs or Die" side of the dial. Nevermind the messy matter that these are often counter-productive strategies. The louder you can cheer on your team being traditional and hidebound, the better you are. And trust me, this memo has certainly gotten out.
Now, I happen to think Franklin is, on the whole, wrong here. Fans should be able to boo. However, he does have a point that there is something of a contradiction within the conventional wisdom on this point. I'm always annoyed when Player X joins Team Y at the Trade Deadline, and, when he promptly gets a warm or even a standing ovation during his first game with the new team, everyone goes crazy about what a unique and tremendous showing of fandom this is. I heard those lines on Baseball Tonight and during telecasts about Jason Bay in Boston and Larry Walker in St. Louis and Cliff Lee in the twenty places he's been. Again, everyone does this. In everything. When I got a job adjuncting in an English Department I was the new guy for about five minutes and everyone was really nice to me. That must have been the best department in America! Really, the only people that don't do this are professional jerks in prisons or fraternities or boarding schools or whatever. But rounding back to the point, if irrational devotion does mean great fandom, then you really have to maintain that lest you lose the title.
And yes, Franklin has already semi-recanted. Oh well, we'll always have yesterday.
Finally, you know who the best fans in baseball really are? Or were? How about the five thousand people that truly cared about the Expos at the end? Or the same number of die-hards in Florida, watching the Marlins. Terrible stadiums, huge roster turnover, no cache to the team, terrible (actually the same) ownership, etc. The Marlins may not have as many fans, but they have fans. So do the A's. And they're all the better because, unlike Cubs fans or Cardinals fans or Red Sox fans, they've never turned their love for their team into a meta-self-reflexive love for themselves. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by being a Marlins fan. Nothing but the actual game itself, which is supposed to be the point.
It may be fun and romantic to imagine an America of stunning regional diversity, where every county brings a new adventure and every state has her own dialect. Sadly, it is much more uniform and boring than that, especially in sports. I'd love it if there was some fanbase out in the back of beyond that thought all pitchers should walk people to start the inning and the only offensive stat they cared about was triples. Unfortunately, we are all much too similar. The difference between the best fanbase in baseball and the worst... might, might be 5%. Five percent of whatever bogus quality we are looking for. I can grant that the Cardinals have great fans. "The best" however, is saying too much.