Image via Flickr user Skyliner72.
Image via Flickr user Skyliner72.
St. Louis is shrinking, in the way American cities shrink.After the Civil War, St. Louis was the nation's fourth-largest city—German immigrants mostly, but then Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, and later black and Latino. Population peaked in the 1950s, and the city began settling towards its current level of 350,000 residents, which is less than half its World War II peak. There are a multitude of reasons for this decline, but the fact of the matter is that people have left St. Louis to settle elsewhere. But where?
The short answer is "nearby suburbs and probably Chicago," but the answer that any New Yorker could give you is "they're here." New York is home to a very large, very vibrant, very supportive—that is, very stereotypically St. Louis fan-ish—community of Cardinals fans. That is not to say that there is an octogenarian pack of Redbird acolytes poking you in the chest and explaining why Stan Musial or Bob Gibson was better than the shitbags your team trotted out between 1941 and present. It is to say that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are here and that they, like their ancestors, love the Cardinals.
A recent Sunday outing to a Williamsburg sports bar (something that truly does exist, two buck drafts and cheap wings during games and all) saw these migratory Redbirds out in the wild for the first time since last fall's playoffs. The Cardinals were facing the Nationals and the number of people in Cardinals gear—from t-shirts to the on-the-field jackets pitchers wear when they're stranded at first on a cold night—was imposing, even if all in attendance might as well have been fresh from the airport and steeling themselves for the red-eye back to Lambert.
A gang of them saw my Chicago Bears t-shirt (they were playing on another TV). They immediately assumed, correctly, that I was a Cubs fan and chided me for being so foolish. I jokingly asked them who their first basemen was these days. "He's better than anyone the Cubs have now" was the universal, if disputable, reply. The question "How could you not be a Cardinals fan" was asked, in a tone similar to the one you'd use to ask "How can you eat that?" of a puppy with a mouthfull of cigarette butts. As if all other options were unfeasible. As if all other teams were less-than. These were Cardinals fans, but they were friendly, they were fine. The Cardinals lost and their anguish was delicious.
And that was mostly that. But as Marco Scutaro danced in the rain on Monday night after the Giants eliminated the Cardinals, I had an idea about where I wanted to watch Game One of the World Series: a real Cardinals bar. I wanted to see what it was like at a team bar on The Day After. Would a loyal group of Cardinals fans suddenly have become a born-again group of Tigers loyalists? Would Barry Zito's regained brilliance-cum-old-man-strength carry over from his NLCS performance and lead to much booing and hissing? Or would the place be dead, and would I feel depressed by the air of sadness hanging over the proceedings? Some combination of the three or something entirely different? I had to know. I would know. So I went to Foley's.
Foley's is not a neighborhood bar, if only because 33rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan, is not really part of a neighborhood. There's a Macy's a block away, and a mall that was once home to America's flagship Starbury store. There's the PATH Train to New Jersey, and there's the Empire State Building is across the street. But Foley's looks like it's been plucked out of an actual neighborhood and plopped down there between the subway stations and useless t-shirt shops and snow-globeries. It's not like all the other Irish bars and that's apparent as soon as you walk in the door.
For starters, you're in a small hallway. To your left: pictures of baseball players and figures, past and present, who have come through. There's Ron Gardenhire! Oooh, Boog Powell! Brooks Robinson! The handle to the door that gets you into the bar proper is a Foley's-branded baseball bat. This is a baseball bar.
At the bar, a small crowd hovers over half-finished beers, and the disparate groups murmur amongst themselves. Seeking food, I headed to the back to get a quick bite before beginning my ethnographic adventure. The first thing I notice at the table is that it is festooned with baseball cards, under glass; I eat my meal with an Oakland Athletics-era Randy Velarde looking back up at me from the front of his Topps card. The walls in the dining room are also glass cases stuffed with memorabilia. A partial list of the one nearest me: bobbleheads, signed balls, goalie helmets, and a Russian nesting doll of the 1990s Knicks featuring (from largest to smallest) Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley. The (mostly) off-the-boat Irish waitstaff there is as attentive and courteous as you can ask for and wear one of two Foley's t-shirts. Both have the same logo on the front, but the back says either "The bar that banned Danny Boy" (finally!) or "An Irish bar with a baseball attitude."
I order the Sean Casey's Irish Burger—yes, it's named after this Sean Casey, who bartends here occasionally—secure in the knowledge that a portion of the proceeds of which are donated to Casey's Clubhouse, a charity that helps disabled children enjoy playing baseball through specialized fields and other methods. The burger arrives just as Pablo Sandoval hits his first homer of the night; no one seems to have noticed. Jerseys from every sport imaginable hang from the ceiling like championship banners. There are 15 televisions. Service is speedy.
At the bar, I watch as Gregor Blanco's diving catch robs Miguel Cabrera of a base hit to end the Tigers half of the third. A smattering of wows follow, but delivered with less excitement than bemusement. A customer engages one of the bartenders about the Cardinals exiting the playoffs in such a tough fashion, but the conversation quickly turns to the thwarted terrorist attack last week at the Federal Reserve Building and then, quite naturally, to a discussion of Die Hard with a Vengeance. It is around this time that Angel Pagan's sharp grounder ricochets off the third-base bag, over Miguel Cabrera, and into the outfield, leaving Pagan in scoring position. A very dramatic "That sucks," complete with very drawn out vowels, sounds off to my left. The groans grow louder when Marco Scutaro's single is misplayed by Austin Jackson and Pagan scores comfortably. After Sandoval goes yard on Verlander again, the only commentary is "They got too many Stanley Cups anyway [in Detroit]". We have, already, achieved Game One Fatalism.
In the bathroom, a Don Zimmer fathead watches over the old, comically large urinal; he's still staring at me (there's a mirror, and it's uncomfortable) at the sink. Mike McCormack, the bar's manager, is waiting at my barstool when I return; Stasia, Foley's social media guru, has told him what I’m up to. He introduces himself and we talk; he could be a friend, but he could also be Chris Christie's more likable younger brother. He wants to take me on a memorabilia tour, and I want to be taken on a memorabilia tour, and so I see:
But the best stuff, of course, is the Cardinals stuff. There is Lego Stan Musial's face, which is what it sounds like. The Tiffany's bag the 2011 World Series trophy came in, champagne corks from last season's NLCS and World Series locker room celebrations and much more. The place is more museum than bar. Mike tells me that umpires and clubhouse guys come into the bar all the time, become regulars. They sign a ball and the ball goes on the wall. Clubhouse guys send swag from the team offices and suddenly the bar is awash in giveaways, doodads, knickknacks, bobbleheads. Mike tells me they're planning on adding more with a promotion where you can trade a bobblehead for a beer, unless they already have it.
Back at the bar, Zito's regained brilliance isn't being met with scorn. It is, actually, not even being met. I ask Mike what it's like here during the Cardinals games. He tells me about a regular, a Yankees beat reporter for one of the papers around here, who came to the bar for Game Five of the NLDS after filing his own piece on the Yankees taking down the O's. The score was 7-5 Nationals at the time, and the crowd wasn't feeling so great, Mike tells me. But then they came back and won the series. And the place went wild. "My arm hair's going up just thinking about it," he tells me. "And I'm a Mets fan."
He says that he ran into the beat reporter later and was told, "I just came from a victory celebration and didn't get a drop on me. I come to Foley's and I get covered in beer." I ask Mike how many people are typically here for the Cardinals games. He tells me they pack the people in, even some downstairs, and sometimes it feels like the foundation might be in trouble. I ask for a ballpark number. "Well, capacity is 195, but..."
I ask him how the place even became a Cardinals bar, and he tells me it only became one 18 months ago, at the start of the 2011 season. "But it's not a Cardinals bar, it's a Cardinals meet-up bar, if that makes sense." Later he jokes, "We should become a Cubs bar when the Cardinals fans get bitter."
Later still, noted Cardinals enthusiast Will Leitch will tell me how Foley's and the Cardinals came to be. He tells me that a woman named Julia Furay started it back in 2003. Leitch himself didn't get involved with Cardinals fans in bars until 2006, during the NLCS. Then the group stationed itself at Dewey's Flatiron, "and it was packed." But he says that in 2007, monthly meetups turned out poorly when the bar staff began turning the games off so they could go home. Other bars were tried, but were "too small, or they just didn't care about a bunch of Cardinals fans."
Finally, his friend Mike Ryan, currently the senior entertainment writer for the Huffington Post, ran into Mike McCormack, who told Ryan to check out Foley's; the rest is history. Leitch tells me that now there will be between 40 to 50 people in the bar for every Cardinals game. "They have to shut people out during the playoffs because no one else can get in," he says.
There are two groups during these meetups, Leitch reports, the first being the old-timers, lifers who sit at the tables in the back. "And in the front," he says, "there's this swinging singles scene. You will see people get out of relationships and leave the tables to go in the front." He jokes that he wishes it was like this in 2003 when he would have liked to meet single Cardinals fans. "It used to be just four or five of us, and now it's a whole deal." Bravo's Andy Cohen comes in from time to time. But what about the big fish? "We've put our word to Jon Hamm's people, but he has not joined us yet."
Back at the bar, Mike tells me stories about the players present and former he's met. "Reggie [Jackson] loves him some Reggie" he says when the ex-Mr. October comes up in conversation after Panda's third homerun of the night. The conversation shifts, because the game has become near unwatchable. We both love DVR because we keep weird hours and it lets us skip a SNL sketch that's dying. We agree that Conan lost his fastball. We compare food at the different stadiums in New York City and elsewhere, concur that there's no reason to wait for Shake Shack at Citi Field.
When Sandoval comes up with a chance for his 4th homer, the game becomes the primary focus again and it's one of the only times I can remember where a screaming liner to left-center must have been as much of a disappointment for the hitter himself as it was for everyone watching the game; a lone enthusiastic Giants fan has somehow sneaked into the bar and claps heartily.
I step out for a cigarette and when I come back, the place is pretty well emptied out; the Cardinals are done, the game's dull and decided. Mike, though, is there with a Sharpie and a baseball. He tells me I'm going into the wall, too. There's a wall for media people, friends of the bar. Mike tells me that anyone who's not a ballplayer looks awkward signing. I do a practice run in my notebook and it looks fine, but when I try it on a curved surface, Mike is right. "No," Mike tells me, "it looks good." It's his job, of course, but I'll be back. The Cardinals fans are a hazard, but I want to see if my ball really makes it into the wall.