Tuesday, October 20, 2015

And Then the Sun Set at Wrigley in October

The Last Out
The sun set in Chicago this year, on the 13th day of October. It happened on a pitch in the dirt, a slider down and away, far beyond the reach of Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals promising rookie. One last desperate swing, one last strike for the final out, and there ended an entire season of baseball, and with it the hopes and dreams of a million young boys and of older men with young boy’s hearts. For a few days in October, the Baseball Gods were inclined to permit those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, who last made it to a World Series in 1945 and last won it in 1908, a taste of post-season glory.

For me and aggrieved Cardinal fans, the baseball season, or what matters of it, is at an unceremonious end. It is how we know that winter lurks, that the cold winds of autumn have eclipsed the annual rites of spring and the observances of summer. The days are shorter now, the sun retiring by late afternoon; the leaves are turning brown and dry as an irritable chill glosses the morning air. With one last pitch, one last swing, one last out, darkness has descended over Cardinal Nation.

“I have sensed that there is more losing than winning in our sport,” wrote Roger Angell in Season Ticket (Ballentine Books, 1988). Baseball lends itself to such meditations. Though if truth be told, I have been luckier than most. For the past dozen years, ever since the miracle of satellite technology brought televised Cardinals games into my home on a nightly basis, I have been blessed with a consistently winning team. This year was no exception. The Cardinals finished the regular season with 100 wins and the best record in all of baseball. They accomplished this despite season shortening injuries to starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, eighth inning setup man Jordan Walden, first baseman Matt Adams, and All-Start leftfielder Matt Holliday. By season’s end, they limped into the playoffs with tape and bandages and a special cast for Yadier Molina’s injured thumb. In the final weeks, starting pitcher Carlos Martinez, a young star with a lightning bolt for an arm, fell to a shoulder injury. In the end, it was simply too much to overcome.

Though it pains me to write this, by October the Cubs were simply the stronger, better team. The Cardinals finished this season with a 2.94 team earned run average, the best in the major leagues and their lowest team ERA since 1969. But by September, Cards pitchers showed signs of fatigue. In the NLDS, they were undone by a young Cubs lineup with relentless power and palpable confidence. It seemed that every time the Cardinals took a lead or came within reach, some young slugger on the Cubs hit another home run and shifted momentum in the wrong direction.

“Sports teams live on confidence,” writes Angell. “It is the air they must breathe to survive at all.” As I sit and write from my study on this mid-October day, the Cubs are a talented and self-assured team. In spite of their youth, or perhaps because of it, they believe in themselves and trust that destiny is on their side. They may be right. After all, they’re too young to really know better, for unlike their fans, these young players have not experienced decades of suffering, painful defeats, and excruciating bad luck – of black cats and a cursed Billy goat – that is the lore of Chicago baseball history.

Baseball can be a cruel and unforgiving game. It will lift your spirits and offer hope for a weary soul, only to break your heart in the end. As a Cardinals fan, I have experienced just enough joy and disappointment to become skeptical and cautious whenever October baseball arrives. The NLDS began hopefully this year, the Cardinals winning Game One in a 4-0 gem in St. Louis that temporarily suppressed the Cubs youthful cockiness. For nine innings, the Cardinals looked and played like the best team in baseball, with near perfect pitching, good defense, and timely hitting. They were smooth and fluid of motion, and everything went their way. The next night, a leadoff homerun by Matt Carpenter staked Jaime Garcia to a 1-0 lead. For a moment, I sensed that something special was in the works.

And then . . . .

A throwing error by the Cards’ second baseman Kolten Wong and a misplay by Garcia on a safety squeeze led to a second inning meltdown. Three runs had crossed the plate before the Cubs hit the ball out of the infield. By inning’s end, almost instantaneously, the Cubs had scored five unearned runs and taken control of the series. The Cardinals never recovered. After the Cubs won Game Two and the series moved to Chicago, the Cardinals pitching fell apart and their bats could not match the Cubs display of power. By the ninth inning of Game Four, before I processed the cruel swiftness of it all, the series was over. And then . . .  the Cardinals packed their bags and flew home for winter.

*     *     *     *
Out by an Inch
The desire of the true baseball fan – the one who lives and dies for a particular team every night – is for the end of fortuity and bad luck. We understand that a significant part of the game is beyond the control even of the players and managers. A broken bat, a bad hop, an injury, a blister on the pitcher’s forefinger, a bloop hit by the opposing team’s pitcher with two outs and a runner on second, a gust of wind at the wrong moment, a throw home that beats the runner and nullifies the potential go ahead run – your team’s run – by an inch. All too often it is the little things that affect the outcome of an at bat, an inning, or a game.

What we desire, if we are honest, is an unrealistic string of good luck. We wish, we hope, we pray…we wear the lucky hat and drink from the lucky mug, ready to bargain with the devil to make things go our way. But deep down, in the inner reaches of our soul, we know everything about the game, and how the players perform, are matters beyond our control. As in life, we can only hope for the best and brace ourselves for the worst.

In writing of the fan’s predicament in the summer of 1986, in a New Yorker essay called “Fortuity,” Roger Angell recounted an essential truth:
Because I am a fan, all I can do is care, and what I wish for, almost every day of the summer, is for things to go well – to go perfectly – for the teams and the players I most care about. . . . I think every true fan wants no less. We wish for this seriously, every day of the season, but at the same time I think we don’t want it at all. We want our teams to be losers as well as winners; we must have bad luck as well as good, terrible defeats and disappointments as well as victories and thrilling surprises. We must have them, for if it were otherwise, if we could control more of the game or all of the game and make it do our bidding, we would have been granted a wish – no more losing! – that we would badly want to give back within a week. We would have lost baseball, in fact, and then we would have to look around, without much hope, for something else to care about in such a particular and arduous fashion.
Baseball is a game of exuberance and disappointment, of great achievement and skill mixed with failure and crushing defeat. The more I watch and learn, the more clearly I see how difficult the game really is. It is why one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from A League of Their Own, when Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) informs her manager, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), that she is quitting the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Although Hinson wishes to return to Oregon with her husband, who days earlier had returned injured from the Second World War, Dugan is unmoved:
Dugan:  . . . I'm in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It's what lights you up, you can't deny that. 
Hinson:  It just got too hard. 
Dugan:  It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great.
The more we understand baseball, the more we realize it is intended to break our heart. Failure and disappointment, thoughts of what might have been, are part of the game. Winning it all is so cherished because it is so rare.

I realize that, compared to the average baseball fan, I have lived a charmed life. Consider by comparison the wretched Cubs fan. Is there anyone even alive today who was around when the Cubs last won a World Series – precisely 107 years ago? In the half century since I became a Cardinals fan in the summer of 1967, when Gibson and Brock led the Cardinals over the Red Sox in the best of seven series, only the Yankees have exceeded the Cardinals in postseason appearances. In that time, the Cardinals have played in nine World Series and won four of them. 

And yet, in 46 of those 50 years, the season ended badly, in defeat, or worse, irrelevance. It is why I will never tire of the game or take winning for granted. I will continue to care deeply about each game, the scores and statistics, the ups and downs of 25 men I know little about, who play the game I loved as a child, and still love, and wished I could have played forever. And I will continue to care about the Cardinals, just like that seven year-old boy who first fell in love with the game, with the feel of a leather glove, a wooden bat, and the smell of grass on a July afternoon, and who came to care about the destiny of a team for which he had no control.

Call me immature, childish, a hopeless romantic, it matters not. Year after year, in hopeful anticipation of a new season that will end in joyful exuberance or disappointing heartbreak, I will keep coming back for more.