TOWER GROVE — The benefit of having a curious child who has yet to find the thing that doesn’t inspire a question is the unexpected connections he makes throughout the day, leaping from topic to topic like electric current from outlet to finger.
Baseball cards might lead to a question about candles because, you know, wax packs. A discussion about the Chicago Bears might veer into a question about having a picnic because, well, Yogi is a bear. Spider-Man can prompt a question about Costa Rica because we saw a spider there. And, this morning, a “Stuart Little” movie on television inspired him to ask if I remember a time with Captain America went “swording” (his verb for swordplay) because … well, I’m not quite sure.
And that’s the beauty of it. Who knows what synapse fired when he saw a talking mouse and needed to know immediately whether the star-spangled Avenger had ever been forced to ditch the shield for a good old-fashioned cutlass?
So, it wasn’t a surprise at dinner this past week when he had a question.
“Daddy, if you don’t like ketchup,” he began, “how come you like the Cardinals?”
This was both a loaded and juicy question. True, I do not like ketchup. I don’t like the smell of it. Ian loves it. The boy wonder lathers it on everything. He would put ketchup on his ketchup, as the shirt insists. I can’t stand the smell of it, and only fatherhood is enough to bring me to come close enough to a bottle to actually (shiver) pour it. I can only guess that ketchup is red and the Cardinals colors are red, and that led to the question. The second part is the trickier answer.
The, ahem, cardinal rule of my job is that there is no cheering in the press box.
It is a mantra. We should have T-shirts printed. A revered baseball writer once wrote a book with that as its title.
My only history with the Cardinals is that my grandfather was a fan and a devoted admirer of Stan Musial. He would tell me tales of the Cardinals, which he came to love through KMOX, and try to desperately steer me away from a burgeoning fondness for the New York Yankees. Covering the Cardinals for the past eight years has not made me a fan of the club. It doesn’t work that way. I cheer for the story. I cheer for good weather. I cheer for easy connections, window seats, quick games, and 3 o’clock starts. The score is a line in the game story. Either way, win or lose, I’m going to write something, and sometimes losses make for better copy. Sports writers hope for a good team or a bad team. There’s nothing worse than covering mediocre. Dullsville. Pick a side. No waffles allowed.
Explaining that to a 5-year-old isn’t as easy as declaring a distaste for ketchup.
“If you’re not writing or typing and stuff, I mean,” Ian says when reminded I don’t root for the Cardinals. “When you just go to the game and sit with your son, you don’t cheer. Why do you go to the games then if you’re not cheering?”
Cheering is as essential to sports for Ian as ketchup is to fries.
If any game is on the TV, the boy wonder must know what team we want to win. If the Houston Texas are playing the Philadelphia Eagles he might suggest we root for the Eagles because green is mommy’s favorite color. If IUPUI is dribbling down court against Northern Illinois in a game of minimal interest, he will side with NIU because that is grandpa’s alma mater. Reasons to cheer for a team don’t have to be logical. He’ll root for Blackburn against Wiggan because Blackburn sounds cooler. When we accidentally had the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Game on TV the other day, Ian had some reason for cheering for Tulsa over BYU and it had something to do with the jerseys looking like a superhero of some importance … Truthfully, I didn’t follow. I just followed his lead.
On a recent drive to Columbia, Mo., to visit a friend, we had a long talk about Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels. Ian was having a hard time with it. He didn’t know whether he was supposed to abandon his hometown team and become an Angels fan or stick it out and find a new favorite player.
We talked about loyalty.
He talked about sticking with a winner.
“I’m not sure that’s the way to go, Son,” I said. “You should root for a team to win, not wait for a team to win before rooting.”
This is the crux of his question I think: When I’m at a game and just trying to enjoy it — not write about it — how is the result not part of the entertainment? It’s a great question, and I imagine it’s a lot like his fondness for ketchup. He doesn’t need to put it on one particular thing to enjoy it. He can dip chicken fingers in it. He can spread it onto a burger. He can douse fries in it. The ketchup is the constant. That’s how it works for me at the games I attend from the seats. My interest in the game isn’t tide to a specific outcome, just like his interest in ketchup isn’t tied to a specific food. The game is my constant.
It has long bothered me that I’ll go to baseball games for fun and sit almost studiously in the stands. In truth, I’m watching the game always with an eye for how I might write it, or how I might question the manager about it. I do try to melt into the strategy of the game. I haven’t lost my passion for the game, just re-channeled it. My pulse is steady. My heart only races when history is afoot.
I do miss some of what makes a fan a fanatic, and that’s why the boy wonder and I, after my trip to Barcelona and a soccer match a few years ago, have adopted FC Barcelona as a team that we can just cheer for without restraint. We get into the games. We groan with missed scoring chances. We delight in brilliant passes. We share wonder when Lionel Messi has the ball.
My pulse does race. I do remember what it was like to visit Kansas City for a Yankees series as a kid, or what it was like watching the 1996 World Series from my college apartment.
Oh, and now I understand how he lunged from condiment to Cardinals in his question.
It wasn’t the red of ketchup that he connected with the Cardinals, it was the contrast between my strong, guttural reaction to ketchup and my measured, bland reaction to the local baseball club. He wondered how covering baseball could be so important to me when I show more emotion toward a condiment.
“I’m still going to cheer, Daddy,” the boy wonder concluded. “Because my very favorite part of baseball is winning.”