The phrase "best fans in baseball" has been, no doubt, uttered about every team in the Major Leagues at least once. Athletes say it all the time whenever they want to thank the crowd for cheering them on or packing the ballpark or whatever. But, for some reason, the phrase has stuck very closely to the St. Louis Cardinals. So close, in fact, that this October has been filled with mocking references to those five words in a bit of a backlash.
The only problem is, no one can really say for sure when or why the phrase became so popular. Let's see what we can find.
In 1992, Jim Leyland, then the manager of the Pirates, is quoted as saying "I think St. Louis has the best fans in baseball. They appreciate good play, no matter which team makes it. They've always seemed to appreciate good effort." In 1993, Peter Gammons wrote "[Cardinals owner] August A. Busch III is something. He has the best fans in baseball..."
That's all well and good, but a few passing references to "the best fans in baseball" twenty years ago isn't going to cut it here. No, to find where this whole thing started, we have to go to the 2000 National League Championship Series, where the Cardinals lost to the New York Mets four-games-to-one.
On October 13, 2000, after the Cards lost Games 1 & 2 at home, Brian Lewis of the New York Post led off his column like this:
As the NLCS began, the baseball world heard all about the supposed homefield advantage St. Louis has, how the best fans in baseball would lift the Cardinals to wins in Games 1 and 2, how the Redbirds would arrive at Shea 2-0.
That's a pretty telling clue right there. The baseball world "heard all about ... how the best fans in baseball would lift the Cardinals..." Sounds to me like a certain narrative was talked about quite a bit on the Fox broadcasts that weekend. Maybe enough to cement the phrase in everybody's subconscious in such a way that we're still talking about it 13 years later? Could be, but they weren't the only one.
Here's parts of an October 12 story in the USA Today titled "Cardinals tip caps to 'best fans in baseball'":
The St. Louis Cardinals always welcome an opportunity to show off one of their better contributors.
It's a reserve without reserve. It's in uniform but can't play.
"It's our 10th man," manager Tony La Russa said of the red-clad legion of fans so devoted, so involved they almost feel like an extra player.
"They're aware of everything," Cardinals second baseman Fernando Vina said. "They cheer at the right times for the right things."
"They know what's going on," said Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, who was so sold on the Cardinals and their fans that he signed a multiyear contract though 2006 this year, even though he had been determined to try free agency.
That's nothing new. Mark McGwire credited Cardinals fans when he signed his extension.
And then the weighty finish:
"Best fans in baseball," McGwire says.
Yep, that'll about do it.