Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Almost Time to Rake the Leaves

The long shadows of September now behind us, the leaves change colors as the sun sets and darkness descends by early evening. Dried sunflowers, orange pumpkins, and the multi-colored gourds of autumn decorate neighborhood porches, as the brisk air and blue skies of October transform summer into fall. The Cardinals having fallen from grace with a mysterious and inexplicable late summer collapse, baseball season is essentially over for me and all of the unfortunate souls who embrace the 24 teams that failed to make the postseason. Weaker fans with football allegiances transferred their emotional investments to pigskin rivalries weeks ago, filling their weekends with tailgate parties and the sounds of clashing helmets. Soccer moms transport budding athletes to tournaments and practices, where soccer and lacrosse and field hockey are played on rectangular fields devoid of the charm and history that pepper the diamond-shaped pastures of our national pastime.

For the suffering baseball fan, whose team was mathematically eliminated or realistically out of the race by early September, the last weeks of the season are a slow, tortuous journey into the abyss of the soul. It ends only after the last out of the ninth inning of the 162nd game, when the season comes mercifully to a close and the baseball angels, at least those of non-playoff teams, pack up for winter.

After the locker rooms are emptied and clubhouses cleaned out, after the players and coaches return to their real lives, to their families and homes and off-season workouts, only then can one partake of a sabbatical from the excesses of fandom and the irrationality of caring so much for a team that knows not of your existence. The sports pages no longer filled with box scores and the running soap opera that is the pennant race, it is almost time to rake the leaves again.

For the third time in the last four seasons I have been forced to watch the post-season with an unwelcome dispassion. Granted, it is less stressful and, with the Cardinals a distant memory of a long, frustrating summer, I can watch and enjoy the games for the pure skill, strategy and drama that is baseball at its highest level. How could anyone not appreciate the masterful performance of Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in Game One of the National League Division Series, or the nearly equally impressive, fourteen strikeout performance by Tim Lincecum? I can relax and enjoy, as a baseball fan, the pitching matchups between the pesky Giants and the powerful Phillies, as I look forward to the much anticipated rematch between Philadelphia and New York in the World Series.

But in my solitary moments, if I am completely honest, thoughts of the postseason without the Cardinals – even the act of writing these words – brings a sharp and profound pain to my heart. If my lifelong love of the Cardinals has taught me anything, it is that there is far more losing than winning in baseball. “Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character,” wrote William Carleton. “The strength of a man is to be measured by the power of the feelings he subdues not by the power of those which subdue him.”

Baseball is a metaphor for life, or so it seems, and I could not help but feel sorry for Brooks Conrad, the 30 year-old journeyman infielder of the Atlanta Braves who made three errors in Game Three of the NLDS against the Giants, costing the Braves the game and, quite possibly, a chance at the World Series. Brooks is the Everyman, a hard working, career minor leaguer, who only made the post-season roster because of injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, two of the Braves best players. He had played a total of eleven games at second base in his major league career when, due to circumstances outside his control, he was called into duty against the Giants. But in baseball, as in life, when you seek anonymity, there is no place to hide. The ball will always find you.

Before a sellout crowd and a national television audience, with millions of people watching, Conrad made a wild throw to first base in the first inning, dropped a pop fly in the second, and let a routine ground ball go through his legs in the ninth. The last two errors resulted in two of the Giants’ three runs in what turned out to be a 3-2 Giants win. To make matters worse, the ninth inning error followed what would have been a heroic two-run homerun by the Braves’ Eric Hinske in the bottom of the eighth, a dramatic shot that propelled the Braves to a 2-1 lead and erupted a previously quiet hometown crowd. But when Buster Posey’s ground ball went through Conrad’s legs with two outs in the top of the ninth, the go-ahead run crossed the plate and the Giants won the game. Brooks Conrad is now forever tarnished as the kid who blew the playoffs for the city of Atlanta.

“Don’t you know how hard this all is?” Ted Williams famously asked a reporter who had criticized his team in the previous day’s paper. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Baseball is a test of character that regularly challenges one’s capacity for handling adversity and coping with failure. Even a great player fails more than he succeeds, and a really good team will lose 60 to 70 times in a season. It is for this reason that the true fan develops defense mechanisms for coping with disappointment, for caring about a team that consistently breaks your heart.

But fans can be cruel. As the Braves came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, after Conrad’s two-out error had parlayed victory into possible loss, and as Conrad sat in the dugout, alone and head bowed in shame, the Atlanta scoreboard played a video of Conrad’s walk-off, pinch-hit grand slam that had beaten Cincinnati earlier in the season. The crowd at Turner Field booed mercilessly, even though it was that home run in May and a second pinch grand slam later in the season that helped the Braves earn the wild card berth and earned Conrad more playing time -- and the confidence of his teammates. “What have you done for me lately?” is today’s constant refrain, magnified in professional sports, where exceptional play and heroic efforts are expected every day.

"You hurt for him," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said after the game. "This should be the time of his life." For Conrad, the memories of this one game will linger for a lifetime; his dream has become a nightmare.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Conrad is hardly alone in the annals of baseball misery. When Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s groundball slip under his legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, allowing the winning run to cross the plate for the Mets (who naturally went on to win Game Seven), it took Red Sox Nation two decades and two World Championships before it could offer forgiveness. No one suffered more than Buckner. Despite a magnificent career that spanned 22 years and compiled over 2,700 hits, he was forever marked with a scarlet “E” on his chest to the fans of Boston. When his son and daughter were cruelly mocked and taunted in school, Buckner, a strong, rugged first baseman, moved his family to Idaho, where he could live in peace and in the solitude of his own suffering.

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century. In 2008, twenty-two years after his misplayed groundball, Buckner was invited to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch. When he walked from the Green Monster in left field to the pitcher’s mound, the Boston fans gave him a prolonged, apologetic standing ovation, as if to say, at long last, we forgive you. Buckner stood on the field overwhelmed with relief, tears streaming down his face. He had finally come to peace with his internal demons and soothed his misery; and in his own gentle way, he could now offer forgiveness for the unfairness of it all.

As fans, we too easily forget how truly difficult it is to play this game, even when the outcome is not magnified by world-wide television coverage and the exaggerated meaning individual fans ascribe to what is, in the end, just a game. Baseball is a team game, and the cumulative performance of the parts is what counts, not the individual success or failure of one player. “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success,” Babe Ruth once said. “You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Good teams not only have good players, they have chemistry, that intangible something that the Cardinals desperately lacked this year. I could sense it when I watched them play, especially in late August and early September, when the stress of the pennant race and the burdens of competition were at their peak. They looked uptight, a group of men blessed with the opportunity to play a child’s game, something that many of us can only dream of, that still dream of; and yet, it appeared, they were not having fun.

So, for me and the faithful loyalists of all but a few remaining teams, it is time to rake the leaves. Yet the sense of loss I feel at season’s end is inevitably and optimistically followed by a sense of hope. For a baseball fan, the end of one season opens up fresh dreams and new possibilities, the unbridled optimism that spring will once again bring a harvest of bright young stars and reliable veterans, when team chemistry will click, and when the baseball angels will reward my faithfulness and determination with a contender. “Wait ‘til next year” is the oft-repeated maxim, from which I have found comfort on many occasions. Although the darkness of fall has arrived and the harshness of winter beckons, for baseball fans, next year is never all that far away.

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