Friday, April 23, 2010
This is how it feels when your team wins the big one.
FULL PARTISAN DISCLOSURE. I wrote a couple of days ago about the need for a "humor resistance," but perhaps I should have broadened it to a "life resistance," because laughter is not the only medicine for what ails us. I also noted, just yesterday that I was glad to see George Will had returned to the fight with considerably less snootiness than he was displaying a year ago. I was pleased that he compared NJ governor Chris Christie to a "burly baseball catcher." His metaphor seemed positively homespun.
But I was unprepared for what I heard this morning on Philadelphia SportsTalk radio (WIP). Host Angelo Cataldi had an interview with -- surprise! -- George Will, whose baseball book Men at Work has just been rereleased ten years after its initial publication. I've written before about the leftwing bias that seeps into WIP commentary, and so I was surprised again when Cataldi praised not just Will's baseball writings but his political punditry. Then I found out other things I didn't know. Men at Work is the bestselling baseball book ever written, surpassing the success of Roger Kahn and Roger Angell (E.B. White's son), who both wrote lyrically and brilliantly about the national pastime in the days before the NFL became the 800-pound gorilla of American sports. I knew George Will was an accomplished student of the game, but I guess his blind allegiance to the pitiful Cubs blinded me to his greater allegiance to the game itself. My bad.
I'll get back to Will a bit later, but I have to describe the additional shocker that was the catalyst for this post. Just a few minutes after I heard the WIP interview, I stumbled across Charles Krauthammer's latest WAPO column. It's about -- drumroll, please -- baseball. Specifically, the great man's love of the hapless Washington Nationals. There is something wistful and determinedly self-therapeutic about his fondness for baseball's worst team:
I’m a former Red Sox fan, now fully rehabilitated. No, I don’t go to games to steel my spine, perfect my character, or journey into the dark night of the soul. I get that in my day job watching the Obama administration in action.
I go for relief. For the fun, for the craft (beautifully elucidated in George Will’s just-reissued classic, Men at Work), and for the sweet, easy cheer at Nationals Park.
You get there and the twilight’s gleaming, the popcorn’s popping, the kids are romping, and everyone’s happy. The joy of losing consists in this: Where there are no expectations, there is no disappointment. In Tuesday night’s game, our starting pitcher couldn’t get out of the third inning. Gave up four straight hits, six earned runs, and as he came off the mound, actually got a few scattered rounds of applause.
Applause! In New York he’d have been booed mercilessly. In Philly, he’d have found his car on blocks and missing a headlight.
No one’s happy to lose, and the fans cheer lustily when the Nats win. But as starters blow up and base runners get picked off, there is none of the agitation, the angry, screaming, beer-spilling, red-faced ranting you get at football or basketball games.
I'll overlook the Philly libel (although I'll have more to say about it anon), because he has a larger point which he articulates eloquently:
Baseball is a slow, boring, complex, cerebral game that doesn’t lend itself to histrionics. You “take in” a baseball game, something odd to say about a football or basketball game, with the clock running and the bodies flying.
And for a losing baseball team, the calm is even more profound. I’ve never been to a park where the people are more relaxed, tolerant, and appreciative of any small, even moral, victory. Sure, you root, root, root for the home team, but if they don’t win, “it’s a shame” — not a calamity. Can you imagine arm-linked fans swaying to such a sweetly corny song of early-20th-century innocence — as long gone as the manual typewriter and the 20-game winner — at the two-minute warning?
I think he's groping toward several points here, which is why he seems to contradict himself fatally in the space of a couple paragraphs. If baseball isn't about "red-faced ranting," why the slams against baseball fans in New York and Philadelphia? His attraction to the Nationals is a kind of nostalgia, as if he's watching some team from the innocent American past play against the win-at-all-costs present. He's found a personal refuge from the vicious politics in which he's immersed every day in the nation's capital. And he's actually afraid of what will happen if the Nationals start to get good:
But now I fear for my bliss. Hope, of a sort, is on the way — in the form of Stephen Strasburg, the greatest pitching prospect in living memory. His fastball clocks 103 mph and his slider, says Tom Boswell, breaks so sharply it looks like it hit a bird in midair... I
I’m worried. Even before Strasburg has arrived from the minor leagues, the Nats are actually doing well. They’re playing .500 ball for the first time in five years...
They might soon be, gasp, a contender. In the race deep into September. Good enough to give you hope. And break your heart.
Where does one then go for respite?
Answer? Baseball. At some level, he knows that, else why reference the anachronistic ritual of thousands of fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during every seventh inning stretch. He's on the verge of remembering something he needs to remember but that is hard to remember because of where he lives and what he does. Baseball fans are the closest thing there is to the Tea Party phenomenon, and they suffer from the same mostly unfair slanders, some of which Krauthammer has thoughtlessly repeated. Permit me to use Philadelphia as an example.
Yes, there are boo-birds. But they are a tiny percentage of the fans who follow the team. Something like the few glunks who show up at tea party rallies with racist signs. They cannot compare to the outpouring that followed the death of broadcaster icon Harry Kalas, who filled the ballpark with mourners. He was ours and no one threw beer or punches. Time for some math, which is especially relevant in Philadelphia's case because the past few years have reminded even WIP sports analysts that their city is, and always has been, a baseball town as much as a football town. The Eagles always sell out their seats, which at eight games per year, amounts to less than half a million well-heeled asses in the stadium. The Phillies, on the other hand, sold out 72 of 81 home games last year, for a total of about 3 million in season attendance or six times what the Eagles get each year.
And, as has been abundantly pointed out elsewhere, the Philadelphia Phillies have lost more games than any professional sports team in history, over 10,000. The truth is that baseball loyalties run very very deep and are local in a way that the NFL can only envy. WIP hosts experience a constant stream of Philly residents who root for other NFL teams, most notably the more successful Steelers and the hated Dallas Cowboys, and they have a practice of hanging up on them with formulaic epithets. This is not the case with baseball. On the contrary -- and I've observed this in early games this season in Washington, Florida, and Atlanta -- the transplanted Philadelphians in these cities are so numerous in their jerseys and caps that their cheering for the Phillies sometimes rivals that of the home team's fans.
Baseball allegiance is a lot like patriotism. Its intensity may ebb and flow, but it is always there, an inviolable component of personal identity. Philadelphia has been so vilified as a locus of thug fans that no Philadelphia team will ever become America's team. The Phillies fans who sometimes outnumber National fans in the National ballpark are Philadelphia born if no longer resident there. They "cling" to their team because they cannot do otherwise, like all the armchair ladies with their cigarette coughs who watch (or listen to) every inning of every game all season long, year after year, win or lose. They call into WIP, too, and they know their baseball. They worry, and they may criticize, sometimes harshly, but they never give up rooting for their team.
Interestingly, George Will knows this too. In his WIP interview he reminisced about his stint in graduate school at Princeton, where he used what free time he had to attend games at the Polo Grounds in New York and Connie Mack stadium in Philadelphia. He stressed that the element he found most inspiring was this very localness, the sense that the team was of the city and its neighborhoods, a family affair. His words resonated with me because the first major league baseball game I ever saw was at Connie Mack stadium, a complicated and antique structure that made it hard for a kid to see what was going on for all the pillars and overhangs in the way. But I saw Dick Stewart (also affectionately/derisively known as "Dr. Strangeglove") blast a titanic grand-slam homerun to win the game. Which is why the clip from "The Natural" above is like an instantaneous wormhole to my childhood. Dick Stewart was a Phillie. I was a Phillie fan, born and bred. We won. I was there. That slicing line drive into the right field stands was part of my destiny. I was a kid.
You see, there's a huge difference between baseball and football. I've written before about the role football plays in the seasoning and toughening of American youth, which is a great secret strength of our country, but baseball has other, perhaps more important virtues. Krauthammer is flat wrong to call it a "boring" game. It's slow, complex, and cerebral all right, but it's not boring. It is, rather, like life itself. You get out of it what you put into it. Its complexity is infinite, and despite what contemporary NFL advocates claim, its complexity is an order of magnitude beyond football's. Football is, like the military, all about building an intricate machine in which perfection is defined as human cogs executing perfectly under fire. Only one quarterback in the NFL has the freedom to call his own plays. Baseball's complexity, like the game itself, is an artistic synthesis of individuals serving the team with individual knowledge, skill, and, yes, wisdom. Every fielder on a baseball team is responsible for calling his own response to the batter's response to a pitch. Every baserunner the same; if his judgment fails, no first or third-base coach can save him. Every batter the same; when he gets a green light, he's on his own when it comes to guessing the pitch and avoiding a strikeout or double play. A great baseball team is never a machine. It's a hybrid -- much like America -- of separate persons who come together by taking advantage of and compensating for the strengths and weaknesses of its members.
Every pitch is an infinity of possibilities. There is no clock. There is no need for any game ever to end. That all games do end in the major leagues (little leagues have a mercy rule) is a testament of competence the NFL does not require. In football, the clock ticks down mercifully to an inevitable end.
Krauthammer is afraid of what happens to his peace of mind if the Nationals become a contender. He's been in Washington too long. Baseball is American life. That's why he's drawn to it, whether he knows it or not. It can be jovial and easy and tolerant as he is presently finding so healing with his Nationals, or it can be a slow, chesslike war, with ordinary fans playing their part with startling effectiveness, as when the despised Phillies fans turned the at-bat of pitcher Brett Myers into a series changing event against ace C.C. Sabathia in the World Championship 2008 season. The supposedly neanderthal Philadelphia fans knew that making the infallible Sabathia waste countless pitches on a pitcher might break his spirit. When Myers drew a walk, the fans reacted as if it were a homerun. Which in a way it was. It's a phenomenon called baseball.
Something like a Tea Party. The time comes when it's not enough to be an audience or a bystander. The masses suddenly have their part to play and they play it, intelligently and effectively.
One final point before I go. The NFL keeps advancing and changing itself, so that the game today resembles the game of yesteryear not at all. Baseball, on the other hand, is cyclical, like the American spirit. (The clinching reason I wanted to do this post.) Right now, the Phillies have the hottest pitcher in baseball. (Current ERA, Zero-point-something ) Last week, after win No. 3, WIP began soliciting nicknames for their brand new star, Roy Halladay. Callers were pretty fond of the obvious "Doc Holladay." Hosts were skeptical and kept advancing reminders of pitchers past like Steve Carlton, resulting in a bid for "Ace Holladay."
But I'm an old guy and so I thought once again of the video up top. The man's given name is "Roy." He's an old-time ballplayer. He can't stand to lose. He arrives at the ballpark before anyone else and leaves after everyone else. Unlike some of the current enthusiasts, I don't expect him to be untouchable all year. But it's clear he will fight to win every game he's in. I'm thinking of him, atavistically, as "The Natural." Roy Hobbes, after all, started out as a pitcher until he got derailed by a bizarre maniac.
I'm also thinking here of the difference between the book and the movie. In Bernard Malamud's novel, Roy Hobbes threw the pivotal game (not as in pitching it but deliberately losing it). In the movie, he won the pivotal game. Something about a difference in worldviews? We're seeing a difference in worldviews right now. The difference Krauthammer is trying to deal with. Maybe he should abandon the easy comfort of not caring about winning and start rooting for, well, the roots of America's pastime: the beauty of loyalty and principle represented by a community force that refuses to surrender to all the temptations to quit.
I've said some mean things about George Will. Now I'm asking you to read his book. Why? Because he knows we need something more than politics to get us through this season of crap. Which makes him a wiser man than I gave him credit for. And he knows a lot more about baseball too, including some things sublime. Uncharacteristically, Charles Krauthammer is fumbling in the dark. But quite properly, he's looking for hope of the un-Obama kind. We're just trying to help. If anyone can see the light, he can.
P.S. Sorry, Puck Punk. I appreciate The Hockey because Mrs. CP loves it so. But nothing can ever really compare to The Baseball. For those of us who grew up as fans and felt the supreme American-ness at its core. Forgive me.