The Ironic Jersey Omnibus, facing impossible odds, continues its trek through the heartland of America, reaching the city of St. Louis. There it encounters a problem: the Cardinals.
Being an American League fan from the West Coast, I’d never really given the Redbirds much thought: they’re a natural phenomenon, something that just happens sometimes, like droughts or school budget cuts or music award shows. And this may have been easier if I’d cranked these out faster than four a year, and got through the Cards before last year’s playoffs. But then the Cardinal Way happened, and like it or not we can never really look at the Greatest Fans on Earth the same way again, no matter how much we’d like to.
Even without that uncomfortable moniker, we have to admit that the trouble with the Cardinals is that they’re simply not very funny. They win a lot, and they draw well, and they develop talent with methodical precision, all admirable traits. But if the Cardinals are all about winning, if there’s no subtext or commiseration, can a jersey ever be ironic at all? Why wear anything but a Matt Holliday, and announce one’s anonymous presence on the perpetual motion machine that is the Cardinal bandwagon?
I turned to Dan Moore, Internet Cardinal Authority, for help. He agreed that the well of gallows humor from the last downturn (fifteen years ago!) is running dry, the mid-nineties era when the team was playing in an old stadium on withered Astroturf for a broke owner. Sure, you could wear a 1993 Gregg Jefferies jersey, but otherwise there’s so little surviving and to have survived. And with the insularity of the St. Louis fandom and the Cardinal Way urging an unspoken unilateralism, it’s difficult to find ways to wink. (Note: there is no Eckstein to be found here. We do not indulge in cliché.)
With that in mind, here are my best efforts at jersey irony:
1967 Dal Maxvill: Perhaps the purest distillation of the Cardinal fan, Maxvill is the city’s real-life Ragged Dick. Growing up in the area suburbs idolizing the hometown Cardinals, he graduated from high school at 5’11” and 135 pounds, and the local colleges were uninterested in his talents. Fortunately, a Cardinals Scout watched one of his failed tryouts and signed him as a defensive replacement for the local Cardinals minor league affiliate. He wound up with a fourteen-year career, a pair of World Series rings, and a reputation as one of the best defensive shortstops of his era. He also went on to helm the team as general manager for two World Series losses in the eighties. A Maxvill jersey is a declaration of Cardinal pride, certainly, but a rare example of quiet pride.
1969 Curt Flood: For those who enjoy it when the workingmen of all countries unite.
1975 Al Hrabosky: The Beard that Started it All, a Hrabosky jersey is only acceptable if you have a wild kudzu of face fur, or if you’re feeling particularly trolly, a tightly manicured jaw-hugger.
1982 Darrell Porter: We are all many people at once, juggling identities and roles and responsibilities. We are parents and children and employees and friends and bloggers. Darrell Porter was many people, too, but one destroyed the others.
Without firsthand experience, it’s impossible to conceptualize drugs, to understand what went through Porter’s mind as he sat in his house with a shotgun in his lap, delirious, waiting for Bowie Kuhn to burst in and ban him from the game. But it’s not hard to understand weakness, the knowledge of what we want and what we need to do and how what we are doing takes us away from these goals and that we do them anyway. Few of us are true masters of ourselves. I just ate a third of a bag of barbecue rice cakes while writing this paragraph.
Porter wrote and spoke of his demons with eloquence. He did great things despite them. He died in his car because of them. We all have some Darrell Porter within us, and his jersey is a fine tribute to that.
His name is also a type of beer, so there’s a small bonus.
1987 Jack Clark: Few players were less appreciated in their time than Clark, the sluggish slugger on a roster of speedsters. His career wRC+ is 138, tied for 56th among postwar hitters alongside David Ortiz, and two points higher than his replacement in San Francisco, he who got on all the posters. To put it in perspective: the five greatest walk-rate seasons are 2001-2004 Barry Bonds and 1954 Ted Williams. Number 6 is 1987 Jack Clark.
1988 Cris Carpenter: The chameleon of ironic jerseys, 99 percent of the drunken, ignorant masses will assume that you’re a fan of Hall of Very Good candidate Chris Carpenter or somedday-Hall of Very Good member Matt Carpenter. 0.99% will wonder if you’re a fan of one of those guys and just really like the number 44. The other hundredth of a percent will remember a former 1988 first round pick out of the University of Georgia, or at least collected 1989 Donruss Rated Rookies, and smirk a little.
2004 Rick Ankiel: Ankiel is almost too much of a mixed message, but fortunately, Ankiel was kind enough to delineate himself by wearing three numbers as a Cardinal: 66 as a phenom, 24 as a hitter, and 49 in that strange, brief stint as a relief pitcher in between. Naturally, I vote for the last of these, in which Ankiel was called up with the September roster expansion and threw five games of nearly walkless middle relief before being left off the postseason roster. It seemed at the time like only a few steps from getting back to the top of the hill, before a single hour the next spring ended him as a pitcher for good. Regardless, Ankiel is a jersey of preservation and redemption, and there’s no shame in any variant.
2006 Aaron Miles: Ordinarily the IJO is filled with laughably terrible players and busts, but instead we conclude with the entirely competent Aaron Miles. If the Cardinals can’t be funny, at least they can be quirky, especially when we consider the long legacy of Tony La Russa. As Dan noted, the funny thing about TLR and his host of TLR-guys is that they rarely lasted long: Shawon Dunston served a year and a half, Joe McEwing a single year, as did Rick Honeycutt. La Russa loved his guys, but he never loved one guy too much.
You could celebrate the veteran grittiness signings that worked out beyond all expectation, like a 2004 Tony Womack. You could also chortle at the occasional whiff, like a 2006 Junior Spivey. But perhaps the embodiment of the Tony La Russa player was Aaron Miles, who stuck around for three years solely because no one could beat him out.
This one was rough. Suggest and critique in the comments section, as free men and women.
Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.