An Interview with Joe Lucido
1. Tell me your feelings about the Blackhawks.
2. Who is your favorite player of all time?
3. What would you do if the Blues won the Stanley Cup?
Leaving St. Louis
I grew up in St. Peters, Missouri, a quiet suburb of St. Louis, in an impenetrable baseball bubble. My little league team was called the Classic Cardinals, and we played against the Cardinals and the Cards and the Redbirds, who had all claimed a piece of the identity of our big league idols and included some version of the birds on the bat on their uniforms or their hats (except for the Cobras, those sorry outsiders).
The point of the naming exercise was this: if a team were to win the little league, it was best that they did it in the image of the professional home team, if not to live out childish dreams of winning a World Series, then to send some voodoo to the idols in the Bigs so they might catch the winning ripple and turn it to a wave. As long as I played little league ball, the professional team never won a World Series, but our team portrait of the Classic Cardinals was posted on a championship plaque at Culver’s above the fountain machine and condiment bar. The Cardinals, regardless of their iteration, were always champions.
During baseball season and most of the offseason, the Cardinals come up in fans’ conversations before the weather and then again after the weather to further discuss how the weather might affect the game. The team is not the local culture’s entertainment but the culture itself. If you visit St. Louis during baseball season, I challenge you to avoid spending an evening out without seeing or hearing the game. Walk the dog down a quiet neighborhood street and you’ll see the game in almost every living room, every night, 7pm. The whole of the culture winds up or winds down to the time and space of a small fraction of a baseball season. My kindergarten classroom was decorated in Cardinals memorabilia, as was my first grade classroom and second and fourth grade classrooms. Third grade the gross anomaly, Mrs. Higgins opting for a reptilian theme until the class pet iguana bit the multiplication tables class champion and drew blood. Growing up, I thought—many St. Louis fans still think—that baseball is life. It’s as common as dinner, win or lose. Embarrassingly, well into my twenties I still thought that’s how most cities were—you learn the game, you talk about the game, you watch the game, and come back the next day with the new information you learned the night before and reapply it to the game. The Cardinals are the St. Louis aesthetic, the flickering television program to which most of my friends lost their virginities, the thread that ties all of St. Louis’ moving parts together and gives it the commonality and identity. Which is why when I left Missouri I was not prepared to be hurt by the team and the city I naively grew up adoring.
My relationship with the team and city first faltered with the eagerly anticipated opening of Ballpark Village, the $100 million add-on to Busch Stadium where fans can go to eat and drink and watch the game on a 35-foot television screen above the liquor shelves of the bar and be featured on the pre- and post-game telecasts waving and singing their team praises. It was a bastion of community and fellowship, my friends and I thought, until they released the dress code. As David Hunn describes in the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “No sagging pants. No exposed undergarments on men. No profanity on clothing. And no ‘excessively long shirts,’ which the [Ballpark Village] website painstakingly defines thusly: ‘When standing upright with arms at your side, the bottom of your shirt cannot extend below the tip of your fingers.’ One of the bars, the Budweiser Brew House, even prohibits hats on its second level.” Furthermore, no backpacks were allowed, no excessively long jerseys, no sweatsuits, and no bandanas.
Many fans, disproportionately African-American, were turned away at the door under the guise of fostering what Cardinals then vice president Ron Watermon called a “family environment.” The St. Louis community feuded about the dress code; the vocal majority—the white middle class—was outraged the team might consider revoking the dress code. It was dinnertime argument fodder, a blow to the “classiness” with which Cardinals fans identified. It was the first time I heard friends and friends’ parents carelessly apply the word “thug” to anyone ostensibly not like them, which would resurface upon the unrest that emerged after Darren Wilson gunned down Mike Brown.
I lived in Alabama, which were my first years outside of the St. Louis baseball bubble. I encountered mostly Braves fans and quickly learned the only people who liked Cardinals fans were Cardinals fans, which I chalked up to bitterness for the team at the time’s consistent success, a luxury of having spent the first quarter century of my life in an environment that facilitated self-congratulatory behavior and moral high ground. And, when Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown, suddenly the city from which I identify myself was in the news for police brutality and racial profiling and rioting and protests and counter-protests. When news that the Ferguson QuikTrip had burned to the ground, people in Alabama asked me if my whole city was burning to the ground, and though it wasn’t, it seemed almost impossible to explain that to a stranger. St. Louis was in pain; years of racial tension had come to a head, and from nowhere that I had ever cared to acknowledge before 2014, the institutions and people I’d grown up caring for and that had cared for me were ugly and racist.
Cardinals fans were in the news for confronting Ferguson protesters. Deadspin covered the vitriol of some of the fans, who seemed overwhelmingly in support of the actions of Darren Wilson. These reports were where my relationship to my baseball team and my city finally fractured: in the sea of dutiful, righteous Cardinals fans calling half the city thugs, defending and even praising Darren Wilson. In one video, Cardinals fans shout “Let’s go Cardinals” over Ferguson protesters. In another, they tell the protesters, all of whom are black, to get jobs. I felt my soul leaving my city when I saw one picture in particular, in which a Cardinals fan stands outside of the stadium wearing a jersey. On the back he has taped a sign over the name that says “I am Darren Wilson.” My city, my team had shown me all the ways I was implicated in its pain and suffering, had shown me the city I knew as hard-working, kind, hopeful, and moral had been a circumstance of my privilege, not of facts.
Since then, I’ve continued to watch games out of love for the team and city. A changed love, dull and aching. For a while I wanted to disown the Cardinals and St. Louis. I had trouble watching games and getting excited over the city and team I loved more than anything. I didn’t wear my decade-worn Cardinals hat in public; I didn’t care that the team was in decline. I wanted nothing to do with the mess— another privilege. I didn’t want to look at my friends and family, and most of all, I didn’t want to look at myself.
It was longer yet before I understood I had to own the Cardinals and St. Louis in all its ugliness, which meant owning myself and my own years of silence. I had to own Cardinal’s announcer Tim McCarver calling Jason Heyward articulate over and over again on a telecast and then watch Heyward leave St. Louis for the Cubs. I had to own Cardinals fans’ outrage at Heyward’s “lack of character” for leaving our city. I had to own that I grew up in a city of segregation and decline, that the values with which I was raised were often used to disguise racism and hate. I had seen the Cardinals win two World Series, after all, before the mirror showed our true colors.
I had always thought of sports as a wonderful escape from reality, but they, too, are a reflection of reality, of a home I had never really known until I left.
I live in Missouri again, where Cardinals games play every night, where the team falters and fails to live up to its expectations. Years ago, I would have watched them every night, win or lose; I would have been happy to have the local nightly commentary back in my life. Even now I’ll flip to the games out of habit, but without the passion for the team I once had. Maybe it’s that I’m older and have more responsibilities, or maybe it’s my open dislike of manager Mike Matheny, or the listless error-prone ways of the team of the last two years. I tell myself these are the reasons some nights. But I know it’s because I can never go back to the innocent World Series days of not knowing my home for what it is, that though I still love and own my city for all its faults, I still have to keep it at a distance, so I can see it not only for our hometown hope, but for our hometown wickedness and pain.