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Sunday, December 07, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part II)

This is part II of "Baseball as Context"...

Growing up in eastern Iowa just a few miles from the Mississippi River, my first memory of baseball was listening to the Chicago Cubs on radio 720 WGN while driving in the car with my Dad. We had a green Ford station wagon and I can remember the call of Lou Boudreau, the Hall of Fame shortstop and manager of the Cleveland Indians who guided his team to the pennant in 1948, and Vince Lloyd (who Boudreau referred to as "good kid") the play-by-play man. Even though the specifics of the games are lost, the feel and rhythm of the game (and interestingly even some of the commercial jingles) stuck. Thus we were always Cubs fans, a condition I attribute to the dual causes of a maternal Grandfather and father who always rooted for them, and that few folks in eastern Iowa were or are White Sox or Twins fans. For my Grandfather ((who we grandchildren referred to as Papa - pronounced "paw-paw"), I can only surmise that baseball helped "Americanize" this immigrant from Denmark who landed at Ellis Island in 1910 and who, unlike his siblings, wanted very much to assimilate into the culture. His desire to be an American was so complete that he worked very hard to lose any trace of his Danish accent, a feat he accomplished by his early 20s.

I can also recall the visits to Papa’s farm every Sunday after church in the early to mid 1970s where we would eat pancakes he prepared, followed by listening to or watching the Cubs in the afternoon accompanied by the smell of Papa’s pipe (remember that in the dark days before cable TV and ESPN only one major league game per week was accessible to us on TV, and that was on Sunday afternoon). In later years we would visit him in the nursing home and immediately park beside him in his brown leather recliner to watch the exploits of Dave Kingman as he led the National League in home runs with 48 in 1979, the summer of my 11th year and the year that Papa died, all the while eating butterscotch candies, Papa’s favorite. I can vividly recall one particular Sunday when Kingman hit two prodigious homeruns accompanied by Jack Brickhouse’s signature call of "Hey Hey" as the balls sailed in majestic arcs onto Waveland Avenue and we all rejoiced in his little room. Although Papa is gone, my connection with him through baseball remains something visceral that I can instantly recall when watching the Cubs on a Sunday afternoon.

"King Kong" Kingman, although he only played three seasons in Chicago hitting 28, 48, and 18 homeruns in those three years (data at my fingertips thanks to the trusty Total Baseball, which sits on my desk in a place of prominence since you never know when you might need to study the career of Steve Swisher to discover that his lifetime average was a dismal .216), my brother, who is 18 months my senior, and I often speak in hushed tones of his singular strength as epitomized in two vignettes etched in our collective memory. In the first, with a gale blowing out to left, Kingman lofts one of his high arcing shots down the left field line that catches the jet stream, passes over the 355 marker in left, out of Wrigley Field, over Waveland Avenue, and finally comes to rest between two houses somewhere on the next block. The ball surely must have traveled 700 feet, although wind-aided to be sure (this scene also calls to mind an almost identical shot by Glen Allen Hill in 1998 or 1999). The second scene is of Kingman, having been fooled on a pitch, reaching out in front of the plate as his bottom hand releases the bat. He makes contact around his ankles with one hand on the bat and although the ball looks like a popup, it proceeds to land softly in the center field bleachers.

Yes we were, and I remain, a loyal Cubs fan, although I’ll here confess a brief affair with the Yankees in my junior high years that fortunately dissipated soon after, as infatuations are apt to do. Although pulling for the Yankees in the mid 1980s was not like doing so from the 1940s to the early 60s when it was said that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel (in fact the Yankees did not taste postseason play from 1981 until 1995), they have in recent years returned to dominance. This is in large part thanks to the inequitable and archaic economic situation that virtually ensures that teams from Kansas City (my current home), Pittsburg, and other metro areas with small television revenues, will not generally be competitive. Although some argue the point, the Twins and A’s of 2001-2003 actually bolster the argument since both teams caught "lightening in a bottle" by enjoying success with players not yet eligible for free agency and therefore won’t be able to retain in the coming years. However, the A’s (and now the Blue Jays and Red Sox as well) have at least finally recognized the utility of using the new knowledge of baseball statistics termed "sabermetrics" to more correctly value the contributions of players as documented in Michael Lewis’s fascinating book MoneyBall. The term is a play on the acronym SABR which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research, founded in the early 1970s and to which I proudly belong. Sabermetrics includes nontraditional ways of evaluating the performance of players through analyzing statistics including Runs Created, OPS (on base plus slugging), range factor, Total Average, and other measures developed by gurus such as Bill James and Craig Wright. Using this approach, small market teams might be able to gain a competitive advantage until this "new knowledge" spreads throughout baseball. For now however, with a payroll a fifth that of the Yankees, it is all but certain that even if the Royals had not made several bungling front office moves in the last three years they could not hope to achieve post season success (although Royals fans, and I am one since they balance out my portfolio being in the American League, were momentarily given hope when the team started on a tear at 16-3 in 2003 but quickly lost 27 of their next 41 and fell back to .500 by mid June).

I, along with countless other Cubs fans, like to believe deep down that being a Cubs fan is a badge of honor worn bravely. We’ve come to this belief through hard years of spring hope followed by summer blossoming and ultimately culminating in autumn collapse. The two earliest and most lasting impressions of this pattern occurred in my formative years of 1977 and 1978 when both seasons saw the Cubs in first place near or after the All-Star break only to sink to perfect mediocrity in 1977 (81-81) and a bit below (79-83) in 1978 well out of contention. Fortunately, the penultimate disappointments would not come until I was more mature in 1984 and 1989, when having won the National League East, the first Cubs championship since 1945, the Cubs were beaten by teams from San Diego and San Francisco thanks to bad bounces (and Leon’s Durham’s legs) and timely hitting by a pair of veteran first baseman named Garvey and Clark. Oh, but I do remember the joys of that magical 1984 summer, epitomized by the June 23rd game against the Cardinals in which Ryne Sandberg hit successive homeruns off of former Cub Bruce Sutter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and tenth innings, both shots into the left field bleachers tying the game that the Cubs ultimately went on to win in eleven innings (I was recently able to relive this joy as I happened to catch the broadcast on ESPN Classic). In one other late season game I distinctly recall Harry Carey exclaiming "the good Lord must be a Cubs fan", or words to that affect, after a line drive bounced off of Lee Smith, the fire-balling closer right to Leon Durham to start a double play that sealed a Cubs victory. Unfortunately, as we were soon to learn, the deity turned out not to be a Cubs fan.

And as if to give us one last moment of elation before the impending doom, there was game 1 of the League Championship series. I was allowed by the superintendent with a twinkle in his eye, to cut class (I was a sophomore) that afternoon and watch the Cubs rout the Padres 13-0 complete with a Rick Sutcliffe (who saved our bacon by going 16-1 with the Cubs after being acquired from Cleveland in May) towering homerun out onto Sheffield Avenue in right field (Sutcliffe, a right handed pitcher batted left handed).

Sutcliffe was also on the mound when the Cubs clinched the division title on a September day in Pittsburg, after which my father, brother and I danced around the living room and Dave and I got our trumpets (we played in the marching and concert bands) and announced the Cubs victory to the neighborhood.

The summer of 1989 was also memorable as the Cubs, fueled by Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, and a pair of rookies who would soon disappear like shooting stars in the night named Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith drove to the pennant, clinching it in Montreal. That summer I was doing an internship in Des Moines and recall many an evening spent listening to the Cubs broadcast in my little room in Ames (where I attended Iowa State University during the school year) while courting my soon-to-be fiancé in Iowa City by letter. I witnessed the final crushing blow in the student lounge at her dormitory in Des Moines that fall. I asked her to marry me anyway the next spring.

Although another near miss occurred in 1998, we Cubs fans refused to despair and so my hope was brought to the point of fulfillment this October when the Cubs, powered by a strong pitching staff with phenoms Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, a capable if overrated manager in Dusty Baker, and the ever powerful Sammy Sosa, won the central division championship by edging out the Astros in the final two weeks of the season. On a roll, they defeated the Braves in five exciting games in the division series (their first post season series win in 95 years) and then took a 3 games to 1 lead over the Marlins in the League Championship Series by taking advantage of some timely hitting and a trio of players robbed from the Pirates (Lofton, Ramirez, and Simon). However, it was at this point that the true meaning of being a Cubs fan came home to roost. I could only watch in horror and stunned silence when a fan interfered with Moises Alou in the 8th inning of game 6 and Gonzales booted a sure double play to help salt the game away for the Marlins. It was 1984 all over again. Not so strangely, on the day of game 7 I was resigned to our collective fate as sure as if the game had already been played and lost, and watched, almost emotionless, as a 5-3 lead disappeared and the Cub bats fell silent.

That having been said, being a Cubs fan has also aided in forming in me a rational and grounded view of reality. As Will said in his essay "The Chicago Cubs, Overdue" written in 1974:

"The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better." [1]

Perhaps that is why I am today a conservative who believes in the fallen nature of both man and creation and that the law of unintended consequences must always be taken into account. Still, I don’t begrudge the Cubs my fate since in the end I do prefer reality to fantasy, nonfiction to fiction, and am glad the lesson was learned early. I don’t envy the feeling of despair that will someday overtake my seven year old nephew who’s favorite team is the Atlanta Braves and thus has never known a season in which the Braves did not finish first and enjoy a postseason run. His mother, my younger sister, was once too a Cubs fan whose favorite player was Bob Dernier (the first half of the "daily double" of 1984) but apparently gave in to temptation and succumbed to 140 games per year on TBS. Cubs fans however, take our lot in life in stride and so I must once again proudly wear my Chicago Cubs World Championship t-shirt, the logo of which displays 07 and one side and 08 on the other to memorialize the last world championships of 1907 and 1908.

Since that 1908 championship season in which the Cubs won 108 games (they hold the 154 game schedule record for wins with 116 in 1906 by the way, the year of the famous "Tinkers to Evers to Chance" double play combination made famous by the poem by Adams. The team also included Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown who lost half his index finger and had his pinky paralyzed in a boyhood accident. He had a devastating curve and once when asked by a reporter if having only three fingers helped his curveball he responded "I don’t know, I’ve never tried it with more."), they played in the World Series in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945 but lost each time. Actually, the 1945 pennant is a bit suspect since the league was depleted by the war effort. The level of play caused one Chicago writer to quip when asked for a prediction of the outcome of the World Series with the Tigers, "I can't conceive of either team winning a single game."

Joy for Cubs fans must therefore come in smaller doses. Most memorable for me were the annual or semi-annual pilgrimages to Wrigley Field where noted baseball writer Roger Angell once wrote in Season Ticket.

"Cub fans, by consensus, are the best in baseball. Year after year, in good times and (mostly) bad, they turn out in vociferous numbers, sustaining themselves with a heavenly ichor that combines loyalty, criticism, cheerfulness, durability, rage, beer and hope, in exquisite proportions."

The two visits to the "friendly confines" I remember most vividly are my first, a double header with the Reds our entire family attended in 1977, and a game against the Mets in 1985.

Other than being the first game I’d attended at Wrigley the doubleheader was memorable since it was the first time I actually spoke to a big league ballplayer. My brother and I had made a sign with a pithy slogan that read "Rose are red, violets are blue, come on Cubs we’re rooting for you". While the sign left something to be desired, we did hold it up proudly at the wall before the game along the left field line down by the Cubs bullpen. As luck would have it, lefty reliever Willie Hernandez, his hat neatly perched on the top of his large afro, began ambling from the clubhouse down to the pen. I quickly grabbed a ball we had brought and a pen and promptly marched to the wall and asked Hernandez to sign the ball. Hernandez, with a chuckle I’m sure, asked me in his thick Spanish accent "Why for you want me to sign the ball?" The question surprised me since I hadn’t really thought about why I should want this marginal (at that time anyway, Hernandez went on to win the 1984 Cy Young award with the Tigers) player’s signature on a ball. However, I quickly composed myself and shot back with the quite logical response "Because I just do". I do remember using the word please after a second question from Hernandez but he must have succumbed to my piercing nine-year old logic. After a little more begging Hernandez agreed and I got my autograph, I might add, only seconds before being trampled by a herd of other kids armed with balls, pens, scorecards and other weapons. Alas, the Cubs dropped the first game and we had to leave before the second was over (our home was over 200 miles from Chicago) but listened to the Cubs furious rally in the late innings to salvage the day.

The second game in August of 1985 I remember distinctly not so much because of anything the Cubs did but because Darryl Strawberry, before drugs, bad health, and bad decisions had destroyed his immense talent and career, put on a hitting display I’ve not seen duplicated. In three times at bat Strawberry hit homeruns, each more majestic and longer than the one before (1 to center, 2 to right if memory serves). However, his fourth official at bat (he was intentionally walked in his fourth plate appearance), off of Warren Brusstar resulted in a smoked line-drive single through the right side of the infield that if it had been hit higher, might have been the longest of the homeruns.

Other Wrigley games are memorable as well, including my eldest daughter’s first trip to the Friendly Confines in 2002 where we saw five Cubs homeruns, the day in 1987 when we were almost decapitated by an Andre Dawson [2] foul ball down the left field line, and a cold spring day in the mid 1980s when the Cubs game was rained out and so our group stayed to see the White Sox/Indians game at old Comiskey with a couple thousand other fans in 40 degree weather. Although I hold no special place in my heart for its namesake, who was by all accounts a parsimonious and mean-spirited owner, I also was disappointed when the new Comiskey was renamed "U.S. Cellular Field". A good part of baseball’s appeal lies in tradition, and as I’ve been arguing in this essay, in its connection to the past. The incremental revenue gained by such a break with the past doesn’t make up for what has been lost.

[1]This essay was reprinted in The Armchair Book of Baseball, 1985, edited by John Thorn who notes that perhaps by the time the reader reads these lines Will will be transformed into a liberal by the success of the Cubs. Well, 18 years later Will is still a conservative and a Cubs fan. Enough said.
[2]Dawson hit 49 homeruns that season and was first NL MVP from a last place team. His final at bat at Wrigley that year was, fittingly, a homerun to dead centerfield.

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