Sunday, October 30, 2011

Of Destiny and Miracles

Until now, the Cardinals had never won a World Series with a team like this. A team that was lost, left behind and stranded in the standings. A team too proud and stubborn to accept the hopelessness of the situation. A team that fought back like no other has in franchise history. – Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
There are some things in life that defy logic and reason. This past baseball season was one of them. As a Cardinals fan, this was a season of beauty and despair, jubilation and heartache, quirky plays and momentous comebacks. When the final out of Game 7 was recorded Friday night, a fly ball lifted high in the air towards the left field warning track that was caught by Allen Craig, I celebrated, hugged Andrea and my daughter, and yelled a cheer of joy and jubilation. But mostly I exhaled a sigh of relief, my emotions having been shot these past two months in a wild season of zany comebacks, devastating losses, and up and down swings. Invested as I was in this magical, historic season, the day after was anti-climactic, sad almost, as if something special and unique had been lost, forever extinguished to the dustbin of history, lost to the invisible forces of time and memory.

I am not certain if I really believe in destiny, or in miracles, but at least in the realm of baseball, if such things do exist, I witnessed it these past two months. To explain the Cardinals comeback in Game 6 of the World Series requires more than a mere knowledge of baseball folklore and physics. Having made three embarrassing errors earlier in the game, they trailed by two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and were down to their last strike – their last breath really – when suddenly, magically, the forces of destiny overtook the cozy confines of Busch Stadium and willed the Cardinals to victory. The Rangers had on the mound one of the most reliable closers in the major leagues, Neftali Perez, a man who throws 99-mile-per-hour fastballs mixed with devastating sliders. But in a high intensity, pressure-filled at bat, with two strikes on him, David Freese, the Cardinals’ young third baseman, a hometown kid with two injury-plagued half-seasons under his belt, drilled a two-run triple off the right field wall to tie the game. I was delirious.

A few minutes later, when Josh Hamilton of the Rangers hit a two run home run in the top of the tenth to put the Rangers back on top 9-7, it appeared as if the Cardinals had finally run out of steam. We should have known better. Since August 25th, when the Cardinals were declared dead and finished by virtually everyone in baseball before going on a five-week run that is among the most brilliant and improbable comebacks in baseball history, this team has made clear they will fight to the finish. In the bottom of the tenth, with two outs and two strikes on Lance Berkman, the Rangers again one pitch away from a championship, Berkman hit a sinking line drive into the outfield to bring in the tying run, again. So, when Freese led off the bottom of the eleventh and hit a soaring 429-foot home run into the grassy knoll beyond the center field fence to win Game 6 in dramatic, walk-off fashion, it seemed almost inevitable, the forces of destiny having officially descended upon the Cardinals faithful.

“One of the great mysteries of sports is why some teams win and others lose,” writes Tyler Kepner of The New York Times. “Is it talent? Fate? Character? Karma?” The Cardinals seemed to have all of these things this year, although it did not seem that way in Spring Training when ace pitcher Adam Wainwright was injured and lost for the season, or when 17 key players at one time or another wound up on the disabled list throughout the first four months.

This may not be the most talented Cardinals team in my lifetime, but it may be the most memorable. The Cardinals were at times exasperating this year, blowing more saves than every other team in baseball except the Washington Nationals, and setting a National League record for grounding into the most double plays in one season. And yet, there were moments in mid-September that you sensed the possibilities. The Braves were slipping, descending into mediocrity, or worse, just when the Cardinals were putting it all together. When the Cardinals took three-out-of-four from the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in mid-September, destiny became a possibility. And then, when the Phillies swept the Braves in the final three games of the season, the Cardinals also needing to win on that final day to even have a chance at the playoffs, there was a sense that the Gods of Baseball were believers themselves.

The rest is history now. After losing the opening playoff game to Roy Halladay, and down 4-0 in Game 2 of the League Division Series against Cliff Lee, who until then had a 72-1 career record in games in which his team led by four runs or more, the Cardinals came from behind to win, and then won two of the next three to upset the powerful and highly-favored Philadelphia team, beating them on their home turf in the fifth and final game. They were not supposed to beat the Milawaukee Brewers in the League Championship Series either, and when they lost Game 1 in Milwaukee, it seemed like their magic had run out. But then they rallied to win four of the next five games against the team with the best home record in all of baseball, and another miracle was in the books.

This World Series was exceptional in part because each team was so evenly matched. Except for Game 3, when Albert Pujols hit three home runs and propelled the Cardinals to a 16-7 win, the outcome of each game seemed determined by luck and fate and plays decided by a matter of inches. If Yadier Molina’s throw to second on Ian Kinsler’s steal attempt in the ninth inning of Game 2 is a millisecond faster or four inches lower, Kinsler is out and the Rangers probably lose Game 2. If Nelson Cruz gets a better jump on David Freese’s line drive in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6, or if he stretches out just a few inches more, he probably catches the ball and the Rangers win the Series in six games. If God had been a Rangers fan, he would not have allowed a rainstorm on Wednesday night to postpone Game 6 until Thursday and make it possible for the Cardinals to start Chris Carpenter on three days’ rest in Game 7.

I cannot remember how many times this season, down the stretch in September, and throughout the postseason, that the Cardinals were deemed all but finished. But then Friday night in Game 7, when Jason Motte retired the final Rangers batter and the Cardinals jumped for joy, embracing each other like little kids who had just won a prize, the season finally came to a close with the Cardinals on top. “You gotta be a man to play baseball,” the great Roy Campanella once said, “but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” It has been tremendous fun to watch.

* * * *

As I look out my window this morning on our quiet tree-lined street in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the ground is covered with snow and ice, winter having come early this year. A cold, harsh chill has replaced the crisp October air and the leaves cling desperately to their branches as if caught unawares by the forces of nature. Baseball is over now and life goes on, the long season but a collage of memories as the images of this wild and magical season quickly blend into the tide of baseball history. The Cardinals will stick around for a couple of days and enjoy the moment. They will bask in the glow of victory on Sunday afternoon as they parade down the streets of St. Louis to thousands of cheering fans, forever grateful that, for one brief and glorious moment, they could forget about the struggles of everyday life and together experience a baseball miracle. The Cardinals players will then head home for the winter, to rest, reflect, and prepare for next season, when they will endeavor to repeat the illogical, beautiful, exasperating, routine zaniness that is baseball.

In a few days, as I begin my annual sabbatical from baseball, it will again be time to rake the leaves. Meanwhile, I will join the ranks of the lucky few who can sleep with the knowledge that their team has won the last game of the season. In a quiet moment, when I have time to reflect, I will replay in my mind this miraculous season to better understand just how close things really were to a completely different, less satisfying result. And I will be forever grateful to the Gods of Baseball who, this season at least, allowed an outcome that may only properly be explained by destiny and miracles.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Howling at the Moon and the Lost American Dream

We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent. – “We Are The 99 Percent” (
Although I have never been entirely comfortable with street protests and Guerilla Theater, preferring instead the traditional tools of democracy, debate and persuasion to achieve a better world, I understand the need for them. On occasion, public demonstrations have changed the course of history. When in 1963 the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized a group of black students and clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation, the ensuing photographs displaying the vicious attacks and fire hoses of Bull Connor shocked the nation’s conscience. More importantly, it awakened Americans to the injustices of racism and moved public opinion, eventually resulting in equal rights for all Americans. A few years later, when hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose the Vietnam War, a sitting president chose not to run for reelection and influential members of Congress began questioning U.S. involvement in an immoral war. More recently, protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo helped propel an Arab Spring that has toppled corrupt dictators in Egypt and Libya.

Viewed from the broad perspective of history, the Occupy Wall Street movement may prove ineffectual and less momentous. Its message is unclear and its solutions virtually non-existent. But I do believe the protesters are tapping into something real. A sense of frustration with the lost American dream, perhaps, or a feeling that the system is rigged against the middle class, that it is no longer enough to finish school and work hard to get ahead in America, and that the rules have changed. The economy has become a high-stakes casino where the lucky 1% (or even 5%) wins all the prizes, while the rest fight for the scraps. There is something not right with America right now. The reasons are most certainly complex and not entirely understood, but the notion that our political and business leaders have for too long ignored the plight and suffering of the average citizen resonates strongly.

As far as I can discern, the protestors that make up the Occupy Wall Street movement have no definable political demands, and the vague, open-ended character of their message is a bit frustrating. But the catchphrase We are the 99 percent has a plain-speaking directness that gives voice to the widening disparity between the richest Americans and everyone else, a level of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Consider just some of these facts:

• The 400 wealthiest Americans today have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans (The New York Times).

• The top 1 percent of income earners has more accumulated wealth than the bottom 90 percent (The New York Times).

• To join the ranks of the top 1 percent requires a minimum annual income of $516,633 and an average net wealth of $14 million. By comparison, 50% of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 in 2010 (The Washington Post; Social Security Administration).

• The average salary in the financial sector in New York City is $361,330, nearly six times what the average worker makes in all other private sector jobs in New York (The New York Times; New York State Comptroller).

• 25 of the 100 highest paid CEOs in the United States took home more pay than their companies paid in federal corporate income taxes (Institute of Policy Studies).

• The average CEO at publicly-traded corporations makes 350 times that of the average worker. Only thirty years ago, this disparity was 50-to-1. (Institute for Policy Studies).

• Adjusting for inflation, the average hourly earnings of American workers have not increased in 50 years (Institute for Policy Studies; Bureau of Labor Statistics).

• The United States ranks 93rd in the world in income inequality (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010).

It is hard not to question the morality of an economic system that so greatly rewards a small few while requiring all others to struggle in a survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog world. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” As the Rev. Jim Wallis noted in Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street (Howard Books 2010), “The rules of the game seem to have worked for those who set the rules, but not for those who played by them.” America’s economic system, built on a foundation of profit-motive and self-interest, an economic model based historically on a pre-industrial, agrarian society, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions and multi-national conglomerates did not control the reins of power and wealth, has reached a point where the American dream is no longer accessible to the vast majority of participants. For the past thirty years, ever since the Reagan Revolution, Wallis states:

We were promised that as the rich got richer, the rest of the country would prosper as well. If we handed our finances and ultimately our lives over to those who knew the market the best, it would benefit us all. If we took the virtues of the market and made them the virtues of our lives, we, too, would experience boundless prosperity. Fulfillment would come if we could just trust the market enough to work for us…
“Left to themselves, economic forces do not work out for the best except perhaps for the powerful.” So wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in Economics and the Public Purpose (Houghton Mifflin 1973), the last installment of his classic trilogy that started with The Affluent Society (Houghton Mifflin 1958) and The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin 1967). A Harvard economist and public intellectual who served in the Office of Price Administration during World War II and as United States Ambassador to India in the Kennedy administration, Galbraith wrote eloquently and plainly about the practical effects of economic theory, explaining the workings of free market capitalism in the real world of global conglomerates, oligopolies, and a powerful financial sector. According to Galbraith, how economic systems perform and for whom are very much dependent upon a society’s distribution of power and wealth. A capitalist economy is in constant tension with our democratic ideals, for “the man who spends $70,000 in the course of a year speaks to the market with ten times as much authority on what is produced as does the man who disposes of but $7000.” Although power rests with the individual, “in the exercise of that power, some individuals are more equal than others.”

This is evident in the faces and stories of the many people who have joined the protestors in 150 cities throughout the country. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor of international affairs, told The New York Times, “Go to the Web site ‘We Are the 99 percent’ and you will see . . . page after page of testimonials from members of the middle class who took out mortgages to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses . . . worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up . . . on the precipice of financial and social ruin.” It seems that the economic system we have relied upon for so long to provide stability and opportunity to all who are willing to play by the rules and work hard, has left behind all but a select few.

In 2010, corporate profits as a percentage of the economy exceeded $1.4 trillion, an all-time high, while wages as a percentage of the economy have dropped to an all-time low (source: St. Louis Federal Reserve). And yet, many companies continue to downsize, cutting costs (and people) to further increase profits. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers officially at above 9% and the real jobless rate (including those who have stopped looking for work and part-time employees in need of full-time work) stagnates at 17% of the workforce. Median family income has fallen 6.7 percent over the past two years, while executive compensation has reached near-historic levels.

Of course, ask a highly-paid corporate executive why companies reduce jobs even as profits soar and you will likely receive a carefully articulated, economically rational explanation. It is precisely why we cannot rely upon the private sector alone to solve the nation’s economic ills. And it is why an economic system in which the sole legal obligation of individual firms is to maximize profits, and which rewards short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability, is a flawed and unsustainable system.

When the richest 1 percent rake in money as if perpetual winners at a gambling table, while the wages and jobs available to working class Americans are cut; when a college education goes from something that almost any middle class family could afford 25 years ago to being a huge debt burden on the young; when the richest 5% of the country controls almost all of the nation’s wealth; and when both major political parties cater to corporate interests and the needs of their wealthy donors, it is understandable that people have taken to the streets.

But income inequality is only part of the story. Occupy Wall Street, as disorganized and ineffectual as it may be, has hit a vital nerve, because average citizens do not believe anyone speaks for them. They cannot afford K Street lobbyists or $25,000 plate fundraisers. They know that when extremely well compensated executives and investment bankers run their businesses into the ground, the politicians will come to their aid, while the average citizen who loses a job, or a home, or has his retirement fund decimated, is told to make do.

There was a time when Americans had an unshakable faith that their government stood ready to help in times of need. Under the New Deal, and later during the Great Society, the nation established the concept of economic security as a collective responsibility. Putting people to work and building and repairing the nation’s infrastructure became a governmental, community imperative. Enduring programs like Medicare and Social Security, which today serves 54 million Americans, has helped tens of millions of Americans avoid poverty. At a time when corporate pensions and job security have become quaint notions of a distant past, I am astounded that government programs which aid our most vulnerable citizens, which provide a fair shake for the middle class, and which put people to work, are under constant attack.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a nerve because it encompasses the majority of Americans who feel left behind, ordinary people struggling with hard times and looking for answers. It is a movement of people who yearn to be heard, whose voices are calling out for a political and economic system that truly provides economic opportunity and fairness for all. They are the 99% who wish for a country where the government wisely spends tax revenue and works to create jobs; a country that takes care of working families; an economic system that values people and encourages corporations to invest in the American workforce, even at the expense of a small portion of profit. It is a movement that wishes to retain the American Dream that has all but vanished from our grasp.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Still Believing in Miracles

I think it’s really good for baseball. It’s not so good for my stomach. – Terry Francona
“I hear you’re a Cardinals fan,” a co-worker said to me the other day, as I retrieved my morning coffee. A slightly disdainful glare penetrated his raised eyebrow. He looked none too pleased.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, resisting the need to explain myself. “Yes, I am, in fact.” There, I said it, what’s it to you? “Who told you?” I asked. If you’re surrounded by assassins, the first thing you need to know is where the sharpshooters are positioned.

It is a part of life to which I have become accustomed, rooting for a team that plays 1,500 miles away in a city to which I have no physical or familial connection. I journey through life in a baseball diaspora, wandering through the streets of Philadelphia in a permanent state of isolation, an outsider, a fan in perpetual exile. It can be a lonely journey indeed.

The hometown faithful in Philadelphia have had much to cheer about these past five years, their baseball team the dominant force, along with the Bronx Bombers, in Major League Baseball. It is not something Phillies’ fans have experienced much in the past half century. Nevertheless, here we are. For the first time in 80 years, Philadelphia and St. Louis are meeting in the postseason (in 1931, the Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in a best-of-seven World Series matchup), and the Phillies are the prohibitive favorites. They have one of the best starting rotations in recent baseball history, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt providing an excess of pitching talent that is the envy of every other team in the league. The Cardinals, by contrast, are lucky to be here, having overcome a 10 ½ game deficit in the Wild Card standings as of August 25th, surpassing the Atlanta Braves with a wild and wonderful September run and sneaking into the postseason with the help of a Braves late-season slide. It was a comeback of historic proportions in a season filled with monumental collapses and miraculous come-from-behind victories.

Four weeks ago, it appeared as if September would be uninspiring, merely a place setter until October baseball arrived, when the dominant teams could finally go head-to-head. But in baseball, as in life, expectations can easily be destroyed. Disappointment and despair once again hovered over the banks of the Charles River as the Red Sox faithful watched helplessly as their team lost 20 of its final 27 games, its lead steadily eroded by the advancing Tampa Bay Rays during the worst September downfall in baseball history. Boston’s playoff hopes still alive on the last game of the season, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was just one strike away from securing a 3-2 win over the Orioles. Then, in a flash, the Orioles ripped three consecutive hits, scoring two runs and beating the Sox 4-3. Three minutes later, Evan Longoria put the finishing touches on a 8-7 Rays victory with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth against the Yankees, who just thirty minutes earlier had led 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth. It seems the Curse of the Bambino has not entirely vacated the spiritual descendants of Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Nation erupted in cheers as the Cardinals put the finishing touches on an 8-0 win in Houston, while the Braves, who had led the Cards by 8 ½ games on September 1st, were swept by the Phillies during the final three games, the last an extra-inning nail biter won by the Phillies in the 13th inning. The Braves had simply run out of gas.

In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager played by Brad Pitt, downplays the importance of a winning record, because history “only remembers the guy who wins the last game of the season.” Winning a lot of games in the regular season is fine, but only one team is left standing at the end. Thus, my exuberance and delight on Wednesday night quickly turned to nervous anxiety on Thursday, as I began listening to Philadelphia sports commentators discuss how the Phillies would manhandle the Redbirds, and as co-workers and “friends” started saying things like, “Your boys are going down!” and less publishable dispensations.

I am a modest, quiet fan (this is a general observation that, unfortunately for those around me, does not apply at game time). I believe that if I brag or boast or predict certain victory, the Baseball Gods will punish me with vengeful retribution. So, I take the potshots and ribbing offered by Phillies fans in stride, waving them off with a gentle laugh and an indecipherable, “Well, yeah, we’ll see.” After all, isn’t it always better to come into a series as The Underdog, the team expected to lose? It relieves the pressure; no one expects you to win anyway.

The Cardinals were not even expected to be in the playoffs this year. They did it with a final month of inspired play and come-from-behind victories, clutch hitting and good pitching that defied what I had witnessed during the dog days of summer, when their play was, at times, abysmal, full of blown saves, running mistakes, and fielding errors at the most inopportune times. Somehow this bandaged group of over-the-hill has beens and unproven youngsters put it all together in September, just when the Braves fell apart. So, here we are. It is why I love baseball so much. David beats Goliath more than is statistically likely, and the slow, steady rhythm of three-hour games, filled with balls and strikes and foul tips, suddenly transforms into bottom of the ninth walk-off wins and come-from-behind miracles.

The Cardinals somehow succeeded this year, despite a slew of injuries to key players, including the loss of Adam Wainwright, their best pitcher and a 20-game winner in 2010, before Spring Training even started. They will have to compete now with a hobbling Rafael Furcal and an ailing Matt Holliday. The Phillies, naturally, are speaking confidently, noting how healthy they are as a team, with no injuries presently ailing their key players. Such is my luck, of course. But I am used to it. A life selflessly devoted to one baseball team is a life filled with failed expectations and disappointing finishes, the occasional moments of sheer exuberance making it all worthwhile.

But it is October now, and the team that plays the best baseball over the next three weeks will become the World Champions. As the Cardinals discovered in 2006, when they limped into the postseason with a mere 83 wins, once you get to this part of the season, miracles really can happen.

Last night, for a wonderful sixty minutes or so, it looked like 2006 could be happening all over again. Lance Berkman crushed a three-run homer off of Roy Halladay in the top of the first and Kyle Lohse set down the first eleven Phillies batters he faced. The Cards held a 3-1 lead into the sixth. But then it all fell apart, as the Phillies erupted for ten runs over three innings. Despite a late gasp from the Cards’ bats in the ninth, game one ended with an 11-6 drubbing by the Phils, my dream of a miracle deferred for another night.

Regardless of what happens from here, however, I will savor every moment of this desperate season and dream of a miracle. I will watch every pitch and second guess Tony La Russa’s managerial calls, get my hopes up when the Cardinals do well and wither in anger and disappointment when they fail. But mostly I will be doing what I have been doing for the past five decades, anticipating an extraordinary finish, trying to will a Cardinals victory against all odds, hoping that this is all part of a real-life fantasy, when the expectant dreams of youth overcome the rational anxieties of age. Until the Cardinals are forced to pack their bags and descend into the night, when my dreams of winning the last game of the season confronts the cold, dark winter, I will continue to believe in miracles.