Saturday, November 3, 2012

The End of Summer

You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it. – Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer
Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving in its wake downed trees and power lines, flooded shores and destruction. Our home in Jenkintown survived with minimal disruption, though others nearby, and many colleagues and friends, were less fortunate. The squirrels in our back yard are particularly anxious, frantically jumping and running in circles as if to say the world has gone mad. They may be on to something. Branches from the large trees lining our property are scattered across the yard, but at least the rain has stopped as a cold front settles in. As I look from the window of my second floor study, I observe the colors of autumn, orange and red leaves falling to the ground, preparing to lay dormant for the winter as the rest of nature quietly anticipates October’s end. Baseball season is over. It is time to put life back into its proper perspective and to rake the leaves once again.

* * * *

Roger Kahn’s romantic sentiment notwithstanding, it is easier to fall in love with a winning team than a losing one. For Giants fans, the gift of a championship will take the edge off of winter’s chill. The next few months will allow the faithful to dwell in the shared joy of a memorable season and look forward to the day when their grandchildren ask about life back when. “I can still remember 2012,” they will say, “when Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs in one World Series game against, who were we playing? Oh, yes, the Tigers. What a glorious year that was.” For the rest of us, it is a winter of painful reflection and thoughts of what might have been. If only Lynn hadn’t thrown the ball away in the fourth inning of Game 5. If only Kozma had fielded the ball cleanly in Game 6. If only . . .

During the early glow of October, one sensed that the miracle run of 2011 might, for Cardinals fans, be replicated. That the Cardinals even made the post-season this year, winning 88 games after losing Albert Pujols to free agency, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan to retirement, and Chris Carpenter to injury, was no small feat. They are a likeable bunch, too young and too old at the same time, with just enough talent and heart to always make things interesting.

After securing the second wild card berth on the last day of the regular season, the Cards upset the Braves in a one-game playoff before the hostile, can-throwing, tomahawk-chopping fans in Atlanta. Then, down 6-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS, playing before a loudly enthusiastic crowd in Washington, D.C., they mounted a spectacular, stunning comeback, sparked by a four-run rally with two outs in the top of the ninth that was led by the heroic efforts of a light-hitting utility infielder named Daniel Descalso, and Pete Kozma, a little known minor league shortstop who lingered without distinction until an injury befell Rafael Furcal at the end of August. I took the inspired play as a sign that, just maybe, the baseball gods continued to look with favor upon the Miracle Redbirds.

The good feelings and momentum flowed into the start of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals quickly took a three-games-to-one lead against the San Francisco Giants and needed only one more victory to advance to the World Series for the second straight season. And yet, I was unable to relax. Perhaps it was the ghosts of postseasons past, but I experienced an eerie sensation, a brooding anxiety that things were not as they appeared. “True baseball fans do not cheer for their teams to win,” wrote Will Leitch, “they cheer for them not to lose. Victory does not come with joy, it comes with relief. Losing causes only pain.” I took little comfort in the historical fact that few major league teams have ever blown a three-games-to-one lead in postseason play. I am, after all, a Cardinals fan. I have committed to memory the years of darkness – 1968, 1985, 1996, and now . . . 2012.

For me, watching the last three games of the NLCS, as the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1, was like experiencing a temporary tumor with symptoms of blurred vision, migraines, and acute depression. Chinese water torture may possibly have been an only slightly less pleasurable alternative. Jay, Craig, Beltran, and Holliday all seemed to have lost the feel of the strike zone. Fastballs sailed over the middle of the plate without challenge. Pitches in the dirt resulted in awkward swings and misses. I tried to tell myself that these things happen, that the players are only human. In between prophecies of doom and Armageddon, I remained somewhat hopeful, even after losses in Games Five and Six, that despite these momentary setbacks, one more win could erase all the angst; I would then transfer my anxieties to the World Series, where we could chance a repeat of 2006, the magical year when an underachieving Cardinals team upset the powerful Tigers. It was not to be. Perhaps learning to live with defeat builds character and makes one emotionally stronger. Whatever the truth of such sentiments, I was relieved when the final out came this year, for it put an end to my misery.

* * * *

Within a few days of season’s end, when the players pack up for the winter and return home, I start, even now, to think of next year. For the Cardinals faithful, the future looks hopeful. Rosenthal, Kelly, and Miller, young pitchers with power arms and great stuff that hint at the promise of a more dominant bullpen and rotation; Taveras and Wong, standout minor leaguers ready to compete in the spring for a place in the Show; and another year of Yadier Molina behind the plate, the best catcher in my lifetime. But although I look ahead, I know that baseball and history remain forever linked. It is “the deep Eros of memory that separates baseball from other sports,” writes Dom DeLillo. The memories of childhood and of seasons past, the youthful dreams of one day making it to the major leagues, become the cherished remnants of days gone by. It is easy to forget as a fan that the players we watch perform on the field with such apparent ease were once young boys like us, longing to play before sellout crowds in big league parks. For the select few that actually make it, the pressures of competition and media scrutiny, where every mistake is repeated in high-definition and super-slow motion, diminishes the game’s tranquility and can only make it less fun. As for those of us who some time ago abandoned the dreams of youth, we look longingly at the first baseman who between innings casually flips grounders to the other infielders as music blasts from the loudspeakers. We study the shadow of the center fielder as he plays long toss with the right fielder while waiting for the pitcher to complete his warm-up throws. We absorb and digest the game’s intricate details, recognizing that we once did those same things in the prime of our youth, still believing that, with a simple twist of fate, we could have been there too. How I would love to have had that chance. . . .

“Baseball skill relates inversely to age,” wrote Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer. “The older a man gets, the better a ball player he was when young, according to the watery eye of memory.” There remain times when I think back to high school, when baseball seemed easy and effortless, when reality and dreams had not yet been reconciled. Only later did I realize that the combination of skill, dedication and luck needed to advance was out of reach, if unknowable. Life would go on, but in a different direction.

There was a time we laughed at the old guys up on the hill. The ones who graduated a couple of years before us, and who would hang around the school and the ballpark still, and would sit on the hoods of their cars and tell us how when they were seniors they did it better, faster, and further. We laughed, because we were still doing it, and all they could do was talk. If our goals were not met, there was next year, but it never occurred to us that one day there would not be a next year, and that the guys sitting on the hoods of their cars at the top of the hill, wishing they could have one more year, willing to settle for one last game, could one day be us. – Tucker Elliott
I have been that guy for some time now, the one seated on the hood of his car, staring into the distance. I often wish I had played a few more years. At twilight on summer nights, I dream thoughts of what might have been had I the bat speed of Beltran or the balance of Pujols, the quick hands of Molina or the scrappiness of Scutaro. It is, in part, why I remain connected to the game. Living vicariously through the Cardinals, I pay heed to the ups-and-downs of a team I know only collectively, and mostly through the lens of a camera. I will, of course, do it all again next year; rejoice when the Cardinals win, silently suffer when they lose, all the while failing to understand why I care so much for the fate of a single team beyond my reach. “Addiction or obsession, love or need,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, “I was born a baseball fan and a baseball fan I [am] fated to remain.” So, indeed, am I. Until next year then . . . and the first sign of spring.

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