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The Life and Death of a Vintage Cardinals Fan

The Cards won five World Series in his lifetime, while falling short in the Fall Classic another five times. That’s a team resume fans in the majority of baseball towns would covet. Except Rygelski. He was a perfectionist.

Busch Stadium
Busch Stadium

Oct 28, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Signs on the seats prior to game five of the MLB baseball World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

“I hate Willie Mays!”

On some traumatic day in 1961, when the Say-Hey Kid personally did a number on his favorite St. Louis Cardinals, 12-year-old Jim Rygelski scrawled that epithet on his scorecard at the first Busch Stadium.

And for the next 52 years, Rygelski – also a writer, baseball author, and avid St. Louis baseball historian – would cheer for this Redbirds through more success than not.

The Cards won five World Series in his lifetime, while falling short in the Fall Classic another five times. That’s a team resume fans in the majority of baseball towns would covet. St. Louis, perhaps the best baseball town in the country, is luckier than it realizes.

Except Rygelski, whom I met attending college at Northern Illinois University when he strayed into Chicago baseball country for five years, was a perfectionist. If the Cardinals slipped up, he got disgusted. On innumerable occasions, he was ready to give up his fanship and just not go out to Busch Stadiums II and III. At best, he’d stay home and listen on the radio.

I knew him better. Every cold spring heating up quickly to the St. Louis tropical summers, Rygelski was reliably back in the fold, the cycle of optimism and dissension generated anew.

Call it the life of a baseball fan, cheering for the game that features the greatest quotient of failure of any sport. Baseball at once disgusts you, but keeps drawing you back after you think you’ve disowned it.

If you started early enough, in the mid-20th Century as Rygelski did, it’s the mother sport. Interest in football, basketball, and hockey plays off the original love of the summer game.

I talk about baseball and the St. Louis vs. Chicago relationship that bonded us from our early twenties, because until the end of his days it was central to Rygelski’s mindset, along with his family, friends, and faith.

He submitted his forecast, among 54 predictors for my article prognosticating the World Series. A month later, around Thanksgiving, Rygelski suddenly fell ill. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer.

He had no advance warning. Rygelski was too far gone for 21st Century medicine to even make a dent in the insidious rot within him. In a hospice just one day, he died much too young at 64 on December 17.

I write about Rygelski not just as a friend and co-author with me of “The I-55 Series: Cubs vs. Cardinals,” our 1999 book about the colorful history of the Midwestern National League rivalry. Perhaps Jim, whom I nicknamed “Harry” after broadcaster Caray and ne’er-do-well Cardinals pitcher Parker, is the canary in the coal mine for the Baby Boom generation of baseball fans.

I’ve drawn pay as a journalist since Richard Nixon’s final presidential days, but have the basis of a baseball fan starting out in the cheap seats, going to a game with $5 in your pocket and preferably returning with significant change.

My age cohorts shared a common upbringing in the game. No matter what city in which we lived, we could typically wake up on any game day and decide to go to the ballpark. Plenty of tickets were available, although for some Sunday doubleheaders you’d have to arrive early to wait in line.

The cost was in line with our pay. I’d get $4.60 an hour working as a copy clerk – an office boy – in the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune. Wrigley Field bleachers were $1.25 and went up 25 cents every few years. In St. Louis, Rygelski paid no more than $2 for his bleachers admission in the 1970s. An upgrade to grandstands and even box seats wouldn’t set you back more than $5 or $6.

Jim Rygelski

Jim Rygelski

Better yet, you got more bang for your buck. Teams weren’t so cost-conscious to save an hour or two in pay for both ticket-takers and security. They’d open the gates in time for home batting practice. For a twin bill, that meant the effect of a triple-header – to see both teams take their pre-game cuts, then witness a pair of games for the price of one.

All of which promoted attendance. Instead of going to a mere handful of games due to the high cost and lack of accessibility of good seats, our generation might sneak out there for 20, 40, even as many as 55 games, as I did at Wrigley Field in 1976. That frequency had the same effect as at-bats or innings pitched. The repetition built competence, in this case knowledge about the game along with building an institutional memory as we went along.

And the more games we as friends attended together, the firmer our relationships grew. During any contest’s many natural breaks, we’d gab about just about anything under the sun – women, school, the politics of life, our hopes and dreams of earning a living in our preferred profession when we no longer had youth as a cushion.

The game conditions Rygelski witnessed at this time stuck with him. The last few years featured many e-mailed diatribes about managers pulling starters, by rote, after eight innings no matter how spectacularly effective they were.

Rygelski railed about closers needing to be installed automatically in the ninth just because they were on the roster. Agitating him further were setup men who’d easily retire the side in the eighth, but still be pulled in favor of the closer because, well, the ninth inning belonged to the latter.

I tried to calm down my friend, reminding him as a historian that the game evolves, albeit slowly, and that pitching endurance had declined since our youth. The four-man rotation has been expanded to five. Two- or even three-inning closers now have their workload cut by a gaggle of setup men, even “loogie” specialists. Starters simply aren’t used to huffing and puffing through a ninth inning to the complete game as Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins typically did.

Maybe Rygelski got more cantankerous with age. I remember how the oldsters of our teens and 20s seemed out of phase, adhering to the customs of a sport that no longer applied. Now here’s the shock. Time has flown faster than we could have ever figured, and we’re the ancients. And we’re starting to drop away, one by one.

It’s inevitable. “Harry” Rygelski had some health issues going back years. He felt he’d be lucky to make it to 70. He didn’t. Seemingly yesterday we were sitting in Busch Stadium II’s left-field bleachers. The date was July 3, 1977. Rygelski was stunned into silence as Bill Buckner slugged a three-run ninth-inning homer off Al “Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky to pull out a 3-0 Cubs victory as Bruce Sutter nailed down the bottom of the ninth.

There’s no way to freeze time and make us forever young. But I have that hot Sunday afternoon memory, along with so many others, still envisioned clear as a bell. That’s the only comfort, the mental time trip into youth, when the cosmic cycle starts breaking up the old gang.

There is a forward gear, though. Just for “Harry,” keep analyzing and reporting a game he sometimes didn’t understand anymore.

Past is prologue in baseball, and we’re fortunate to have that depth, that historical track. My cultural norm is to keep someone alive as long as he’s mentioned and talked about. As I decipher the ebb and flow of baseball, I’ll silently report it to Harry’s spirit. What would you think now?

Here’s to good days past, and more to come, in a game that somehow outlives everyone.

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