The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Monday, January 19, 2009


We’re putting the blog back together. [1]

After a hiatus of more than three years, The Book of Mike is back.

What’s the impetus? The Arizona Cardinals and their improbable run through the playoffs.

I’ve been on the fence about resuscitating the blog and writing this post for a few weeks now. I’d held off because I didn’t want to “jinx” the Cardinals playoff run. Sure, I could theoretically “jinx” the team’s Super Bowl chances now, but I’m not worried about it.

The Cardinals are in the Super Bowl and that’s unbelievable. Whatever happens at this point is lagniappe. Actually, it’s been lagniappe since kick off of the divisional round game against the Panthers. More than that, it means a lot to me personally, for a variety of reasons.

Now I just hope I don’t embarrass myself too much in trying to tell the story (I probably will, as I haven’t written much in a long time – and that’s part of the reason why I need to bring the blog back: so that I write and do a better job of expressing myself. That’s a story for another day).

Now that my recent lack of writing and how difficult it will likely be to read this lengthy entry has been addressed, I will admit something else: Yes, I know that I have attached too much meaning to sports throughout my life.

In the case of the Cardinals and their current run though, the meaning I’m attaching to it all feels different. Much of what’s so special to me about the Cardinals doesn’t take place on the field. My Cardinals fandom is more about the relationships I’ve built, hope to build, and wish I could have built than it is about any product on the field. What happens on the field is usually an afterthought (although maybe that will change if they keep winning).

With that said, let’s jump into the middle of the story, because that’s the least logical place to begin (which is befitting of a story of the Cardinals, isn’t it?)…

The Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988, right around the time I turned 11 (the Cardinals regular season debut in the desert took place two days before my birthday; I still own the #30 Stump Mitchell jersey that was part of that year’s birthday haul – although the size medium no longer fits me).

Originally the team renamed itself the Phoenix Cardinals. That was kind of fun, since a phoenix is a bird, like a cardinal. My dad and I talked about how we wished the team had renamed itself the Phoenix Phoenix, or even better (so we thought at the time) as simply the Phoenix – using the name of the new “home town” (well, no Cardinals game ever actually took place in Phoenix, as games were originally in Tempe and are now in Glendale) as both the location and nickname of the team.

In hindsight, I’m glad the team didn’t change its nickname. Cardinals not only fits, but it helps to tie together a lot of other things in my life.

First, it ties me to my grandfather (my mother’s father) in some way. I never had the opportunity to know my grandfather well (at least in terms of memories that stick with me as an adult). My family moved from Chicago when I was 7 and my grandfather died just after I turned 12 (during the Cardinals second season in Arizona). I knew my grandfather. We visited him in Chicago after we moved and we saw him plenty when we lived in Illinois. While I didn’t know my grandfather well, I like to think that we both enjoy a Cardinals game.

What I didn’t know back then was that my grandfather was a Cardinals fan. A Chicago Cardinals fan to be more exact. While it’s long forgotten, there was a time when Chicago’s football alliances were split much like its baseball alliances. In baseball you had the White Sox and the Cubs. In football you had the Cardinals and the Bears.

Given all of the migration from greater Chicago to metro Phoenix, I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I consider myself a 3rd generation Cardinals fan. No, we don’t really have a link to the team in St. Louis. But that’s okay. My grandfather was a Cardinals fan. My father took me to Cardinals games from the time the team moved to Arizona until I left for college. And despite the Cardinals ineptitude, we could always find something to talk about with the Red Birds.

I will always remember the game against the 49ers in the Cardinals first season. It was the first game that the Cardinals taught me to hope. The 49ers were defending Super Bowl champions and had a roster full of future Hall of Famers like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott. Not surprisingly, the 49ers staked themselves to a 23-0 lead. But the Cardinals made a tremendous comeback and ultimately won the game, 24-23.

Cardinals fans, my dad and I included – from the first row of the upper deck in the North end zone – celebrated by throwing cups (mostly the souvenir plastic kind) throughout the stadium. It was years before souvenir cups returned to Cardinals games.

After that 49ers game, the Cardinals lost each of their remaining games that season. They finished 7-9. It was disappointing at the time. But given what would come over the next two decades, it was a pretty good season. We just didn’t know it at the time. Plus, with all the flashes of brilliance from the likes of Neil Lomax, Roy Green, Stump Mitchell and the rest, there was hope.

The Cardinals always gave you hope.

Even if they turned around immediately afterward and took it away.

More than just providing (fleeting) hope, the Cardinals played a big part in giving me bonding time with my father when I was young. Dad always bought season tickets (first in the upper deck of the end zone and later in the South end zone). We always tailgated before the games (usually in the armory just southwest of the stadium). My love of tailgating definitely comes from those tailgates. While the outcome on the field was usually not what we wanted, we always had a great time.

As a sports fanatic throughout my life, the Cardinals were the only one of “my teams” (other than the Suns – who I mostly watched and listened to, but didn’t attend live very often) that I was able to see live with regularity (the White Sox, my first love, were far away after we moved). Once the Cardinals came to Arizona, they were a staple in my life. Even since I’ve moved, they’ve stayed that way, even if they’ve been difficult to follow (that’s what happens when you win less than six games per year, on average).

To help alleviate some of that “difficulty” my wife has encouraged me to get a DirecTV subscription and to buy the NFL Sunday Ticket package. Accounting for all of the things we would “need”, the total package and set up would cost over $500. I haven’t been able to justify that investment to myself.

Sticking with my wife’s side of the story for a moment, it has always struck me that cardinals (the birds, not the team) were important to my wife and her parents (who passed away before my wife and I came into each other’s life). In some way I’ve always felt like my love of the NFL’s Cardinals connects me to her family’s love of actual cardinals and what the birds represent symbolically:

“As we observe the cardinal…we are reminded that even when things appear bleak or isolated, there is always the presence of beauty, hope, and love.”
While it’s often gone unrewarded, that is – in one simple sentence – what I have taken from the Cardinals on the field over the years. Most importantly “hope” has stuck with me.

And this season, more any other before it, has re-taught me hope. This year I’ve had my hope renewed (more than once, actually, given the late season swoon). I’ve been reminded that it’s good to dream. You may need patience, but dreams and hopes and wishes really do come true sometimes. Even if they don’t (or it they take longer to come to be than you’d hoped) you can still have fun along the way.

I’ve had my fun along the way with the Cardinals. But now they’re realizing things that are bigger than I had ever hoped or dreamed of. They’re going to the Super Bowl.

Before I wrap this up, I have to explain how my mother a role in the story too... it’s the venue: Raymond James Stadium.

My mother spent her last years in Tampa and she sometimes said that she would like to see a game at Raymond James. She wasn’t a Buccaneers fan; she wanted to see the giant pirate ship, with its cannons that fire with each score, in the end zone.

So here we are – fast approaching Super Bowl XLIII, starring my Arizona Cardinals. The game takes place at Raymond James Stadium, which is a mere four hour drive from my house.

Given that the Cardinals managed one playoff win in my grandfather’s lifetime and just one win in my mother’s lifetime (and neither of them saw a playoff win during the overlapping part of their lifetimes), I’m not too confident that the Cardinals will be back to this mega-stage anytime soon.

So I’m going to the Super Bowl. Laura and I have tickets, in the “pirate ship” end zone no less. We’ll see the Cardinals play in their first ever Super Bowl. Hopefully we’ll be sprayed with confetti from one of the stadium’s cannons as the Cardinals celebrate a championship on the field.

No matter the outcome, it’s more than a game to me. Actually, it’s not about the game at all. The game is lagniappe.

I can’t wait.


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