Playing Hardball

When we got married, I vowed to love my wife forever. I never said anything about the Mets.

I caught my wife cheating the other night. I’d just put the groceries away and was bounding up the stairs when I heard a man’s voice coming from our bedroom. Then a second man. Followed by the roar of a crowd. I stormed in to find my partner of 12 years in bed—watching the game.

So what? you ask. It’s not The Bachelorette. It’s not a Lifetime movie or even one of those haunted shows she indulges in. It’s baseball, my favorite sport. Not only that, it was the St. Louis Cardinals, the team I love yet rarely have been able to watch since I left the Midwest. On this Monday night in mid-May, they were playing the Mets. My wife and I had decided years ago that we’d both pretend the periodic tilts between these two teams weren’t taking place. You see, Cards vs. Mets was at the root of our biggest fight in more than a decade of wedlock.

This isn’t just some superficial spat between spouses. This is more than simply leaving the toilet seat up or farting under the covers. My wife and I are both bona fide sports wonks. Our teams were our first loves. I grew up in central Missouri, ear to the radio listening to Jack Buck broadcasting live from St. Louis. I can recite the starting lineups of all 11 world-championship teams. Meanwhile, she was raised in Iowa, where she latched onto oft televised national powerhouses like University of Michigan football and North Carolina Tar Heels basketball. While her girlfriends were crushing on New Kids On The Block, she was cutting out pictures of UNC coach Dean Smith and an obscure guard named Dante Calabria, whom she admired as much for his skill as his Italian-American good looks.

True to form, my wife and I met as sportswriters for the newspaper at the University of Missouri in the spring of 2001. (This fact is in dispute. She claims that we actually met months earlier when I bumped into her outside of our advisor’s office. If she asks, I remember it clearly, and it was the happiest moment of my life.) I was trying to summon a brawny metaphor on deadline when I spaced on the name of the bodybuilder who had played the Hulk. She was the first to respond “Lou Ferrigno” to my newsroom-wide shout. After I filed my story, I promptly stood up and marched into my editor’s office, where I copied her phone number off the bulletin board. She covered high school tennis and swimming but was more interested in the finer points of football and basketball. As for baseball, she was only just then getting into the Mets, and I’ve never been quite sure why. Possibly it was a rebellion against her Braves-fans cousins; maybe it was the fact that, at the time, New York was playing well. Or perhaps it was just to jab at me because the boys from Queens had humiliated my Cardinals in the playoffs the previous fall.

I forced a grin and took her barbs. She was hot, after all. And how cool would it be to date someone who was actually into sports?

The answer: pretty damn cool. And it’s even more awesome to be married to one. Date nights are scarfing nachos at an NBA game or bellying up to the sports bar. Weekend getaways are tailgating in Milwaukee or drinking our way through Wrigleyville. We play hooky each March to binge on the madness of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and in May we guzzle mint juleps on Derby Day. (Obviously, it also helps that we’re both drinkers.) It’s bliss—unless our teams are involved.

For instance, if something bad befalls the Cardinals while I happen to be watching, it is my fault—we have to turn the game off immediately. When they lose an especially close game, I refuse to have ESPN on anywhere in the house the entire next day. The missus is downright weird about her teams. She won’t even watch some of their big games because she gets so nervous.

One year, we went shopping during the annual Michigan–Ohio State football game and returned home to discover that the clerk hadn’t charged us for a picture frame. When my wife found out the Buckeyes were rallying from a 21-7 deficit, she wondered whether she should drive back to the store and pay for the frame. She didn’t, and the Wolverines held on to win. But since then, they’ve lost 10 of 11 to the Buckeyes. My wife’s refrain: “That’s been the price I’ve paid for that frame.”

Still, for years none of this was a real issue because our interests never conflicted. My college football and basketball teams—both Mizzou—rarely, if ever, crossed paths with Michigan or UNC; the Mets and Cards only played each other seven times in a 162-game season. Plus, for the first few years of marriage, the Mets sucked.

That changed in 2006. New York was suddenly a juggernaut, the best record in the National League. In October they steamrolled into the NL Championship Series—where they faced my Cardinals, with a trip to the World Series on the line. We informally decided that we’d watch the game together-ish: me in the living room, her in the bedroom. The Cards had choked in the previous two postseasons and barely even made the playoffs that year, so my expectations were low. They were shut out in Game 1, and when they fell behind late in Game 2, I turned off my TV. I was resigned, almost happy for her. (Almost.) But while I was away the Cardinals tied it in the seventh on a two-out, two-strike triple by Scott Spiezio and then won it in the ninth off of Mets closer Billy Wagner. By the time I slunk upstairs and slipped under the covers, the bedroom was dark, so I can’t be sure my wife was awake. But there was no cuddling.

Now even in the series, we both decided to abstain from Game 3, a gesture of defiance—“We mean more to each other than some logo on a hat.” (Besides, my team was doing better when I wasn’t watching.) We went for a lovely autumn walk, a nice dinner with no TVs, and a movie. Sure enough, the Cardinals won. For Game 4, we decided that this was silly. We’re adults. Our relationship, our love is strong enough to endure a petty rivalry. We watched the game side by side on the couch … until the Mets went up 11-3 and my wife inadvertently clapped. I glared at her, clicked off the TV, slammed down the remote, and stormed off. No cuddling tonight!

I watched the remainder of the series from a bar. When Adam Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran with a knee-buckling curveball to win Game 7, sending my birds back to the World Series, I ran screaming, waving my rally towel through the bar, high-fiving and hugging strangers. Euphoric. Until I had to go home. Once again, the bedroom was dark.

At this point, my wife was a much bigger man than I would have been. She let me watch the World Series from our living room—except for Game 3, which I savored from a $175 Busch Stadium nosebleed, an expense she unflinchingly approved. When the Cards eventually clinched the first championship I’d ever seen, I repaid her magnanimity by stepping outside to raise hell up and down the street in my pj’s. The following year, when the Cardinals stunk and the Mets were running away with their division, I was all but on board the New York bandwagon. I sincerely wanted her to feel what I had just felt, especially now that it wasn’t at my own expense. When they began to falter late in the season, I tried to reassure her that they would prevail. “They’ve got it made,” I told her. A fatal error. The Mets went on to lose 12 of their last 17 games, one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. And it was my fault for having jinxed them.

Thus, we made the agreement that we would henceforth act as though the Cardinals and Mets played different sports on different planets. But the other night, when I walked in to find her reveling in a late 1-0 Mets lead, I didn’t say a word. I didn’t have to. Moments later, in the top of ninth, the Mets closer blew the save. The Cardinals tied the score, sending the game to extra innings. The Sports Gods had spoken. My wife turned off the TV. I turned off the lights and climbed into bed. There was no cuddling.


Tony Rehagen is a writer in St. Louis. His stories have appeared in Popular Mechanics, GQ, Men’s Health, and ESPN The Magazine. Email him at rehagentony@gmail.com.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel; Major League Baseball trademarks and copyrights are used with permission of Major League Baseball Properties, Inc.

Originally Published September 2015