When my son was that magical age of 6, he only knew one way of baseball: the Cardinal Way. He had grown up in a cocoon of Redbird fandom. He had never met anyone at war with Cardinals Nation before.
So, it seemed strange to my then-first-grader when one of our closest friends came over to watch the playoffs and appeared to be actively rooting against our team.
We smiled at the innocence of his "How could this be?" reaction.
Our friend, Dave Shaw, said he was doing him a favor and imparting an important life lesson: There's a lot of different people in the world. You will encounter people who really don't like your team.
"I know everyone doesn't like the same teams," my son said recently. "They have their own teams they like, and we have our team we like. I don't think anybody hates the Cardinals. But I think there are some people who dislike the Cardinals. Because no one should hate a baseball team, even if they are rivals."
Oh, dear child.
It's one thing to open children's eyes to great rivalries born of great competitive spirits, but another to shatter their delusions with the hostility and contempt that is part of the conversation in some circles.
What role does hate play in modern-day sporting events?
Plenty of thoughtful parents have made the word "hate" verboten in their homes. Children can put the word "hate" to angry, upset feelings early enough, and parents spend much energy teaching them to self-regulate and cope with strong emotions. "Hate" is the new four-letter word. We don't want to raise a generation of haters.
When they're too young to understand the truly contemptible things in life, those things well-deserving of our hatred, it's best to shield them.
But where does the line get drawn when the hate is generalized and socially acceptable? After all, a great sports rivalry requires a great enemy.
It is possible to hate someone nicely?
"It's hate with a small 'h,'" Shaw said. "I have rooted against certain teams with every fiber of my being, but I don't think I could say it crossed into hate."
Plus, he said, in sports, "you are 'hating' an abstraction. It's not a real person or real thing."
Except when it is.
I recently tweeted a story about our team becoming "America's team," and a few people who disagreed responded with obscenities. And Deadspin, a sports and news site, incites a lot of Cardinals hatred, beginning with a post called "Why Your Cardinals Suck" earlier this month.
Those accustomed to "Midwest nice" have been taken aback by the rhetoric and intensity of hatred against our team. For help making sense of it, I turned to Tim Marchman, deputy editor of Deadspin. Marchman, despite his misguided sports loyalties, was part of my Michigan Fellowship class and watched the last Cardinals World Series win with us. Rest assured, he is not actually a blood-sucking vampire.
"I feel we are more articulating the building anti-Cardinals rage than fomenting it," he said. It's fun to laugh at Redbirds fans' earnest devotion, and mock the media narratives about "the best fans" and how the "Cardinals play the game the right way," he said.
"The nicer the team is and the better the fans are, the more it makes us want to shake our fists at them," he said. "The lack of anything offensive about the Cardinals is what is so offensive about them."
For the kids discovering this ugly side of sports, Marchman suggests parents embrace this moment: "Maybe it's a good thing this is happening to the Cardinals because it's an opportunity to teach kids there are socially acceptable ways for channeling antagonism. ... Just because you're really good at something, it doesn't mean everyone is going to pat you on the head and be happy about it."
I've seen the litany of responses from those wanting to defend the home team: from long-winded, rational explanations about why there is no legitimate grounds for this sort of hatred to telling ourselves to embrace the vitriol as part of the cost of dynastic pursuit.
Truth be told, that's not St. Louisans' style. We're not comfortable being the objects of derision for what we consider to be our area's bright shining jewel, which seems to bring out the best in everyone around here.
You can't enumerate all the reasons why our team represents The Good. It just makes the naysayers hate us even more.
The best response is the one we would want our children to emulate: Rise above, cheer for your team and ignore the haters.
Fittingly, Shaw, who helped challenge my son's childhood delusions, is a die-hard Red Sox fan.