Thursday, February 19, 2015

In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball

It was -6° when I left the house this morning. It was still dark. I was wearing a balaclava over most of my face, which meant I had to take off my steamed-up glasses, so the world through which I trudged to the train was a bit vague. It was no great loss: the hip-high mounds of two-week-old snow are showing their age, and the salt stains on the pavements call to mind the last days of Carthage. Winter grips mercilessly.

Yet I take some comfort from the fact that this week also marks the beginning of spring. Oh, not in any climatic sense--it's a spiritual one: for right now, pitchers and catchers are making their way to camps. In Florida and Arizona, catchers are lacing up shinguards and pitchers are playing long-toss. Baseball is on its way.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I don't write a lot about baseball here, simply because I don't read all that many baseball books. But it's a constant in my life, the reliable background of every spring and summer. In April, after our annual Opening Day party, we attend to it closely: we'll have the radio on when we're cooking, turn on a random game on the TV while folding laundry. It's new and alive again, and we can't get enough. By May, it recedes: Cardinals radio broadcasts hum along in the background while I'm writing, and we'll wander to the ballpark every couple of weeks, but the majority of the season from that point is experienced more casually, through checking in on scores and trawling for highlights.

It's that very dailiness that makes baseball the perfect sport for me. You don't have to pay too much attention to any one game, because there will be another tomorrow. That's part of why actually going to the ballpark is such a pleasure, too: even for a serious fan, it's a fundamentally casual experience--and that casualness throws the moments of genuine surprise and drama that do emerge into strong relief. I've got a book of scorecards upstairs from ten years or so of games, and even if I were to flip through it, the number of games I would genuinely recall would be tiny. But I remember moments: Orlando Palmeiro leaping against the ivy to make a game-saving catch; Kerry Wood, seemingly firing nothing but fastballs, outdueling Roger Clemens at Wrigley on a beautiful summer afternoon; Jim Edmonds skywalking the wall to backhand a would-be home run ball.

In some ways, the meaningless games are baseball. If you want to play in October, you've got to go out and get the work done every damn day in April, May, and so on. It's what makes baseball most like life, or like an ordinary job. The same is true for the long arcs of its careers: I learned more about aging from watching Jim Edmonds fight the fading of his incredible talent than I've ever learned from Philip Roth.

But then there are those days when you go to the ballpark and you experience magic. Being reminded of one of those yesterday is what sent me down this path: September 21, 1997, the final home game of a dismal Cubs season. The team had opened the year with fourteen straight losses, and they were easily the worst team I've watched regularly. And I was watching regularly: that spring, I'd returned from a sojourn as a bookseller in London and taken a job at a bookstore in Evanston, the first job I'd ever had that didn't have a fixed end point in sight, and the first time when that job was my only obligation. I was, finally, an adult for real, trying to build a life to go with my job (in a way that no one describes better than Anthony Powell in the early volumes of Dance)--which meant choosing what that adult life would contain. Perhaps the only choice that was as easy as books was baseball.

So by the time late September rolled around, the idea of spending one last beautiful early autumn day at the ballpark, even watching that utterly forgettable Cubs team, was irresistible. Accompanied by three friends (two of whom would go on to careers working for or writing about baseball), I watched the most meaningless of games: a pointless contest between the Cubs and another last-place team, the Phillies. It was Ryne Sandberg's last home game, but even that felt almost like an afterthought, as if we'd already all made our peace with his leaving way back when he announced his retirement. No, this was simply a day to be out at the ballpark. We wandered from section to section, seeing the game from different angles--and at one point getting shooed from the far left field corner of the upper deck, which wasn't needed for this far-from-capacity crowd. (Yes, we'd gone there in part so that one of my friends could sneak a smoke.) As the Cubs offense came to life, hanging 11 runs on the Phillies, it was baseball pleasure at its purest: being at a game simply to be at a game.

Then the ninth inning arrived, and, unexpectedly, it got better. I'll let Ted Cox of the Chicago Reader, whose account of that day is worth reading in full, tell it:
There had to be 20,000 people still in the stands; the bleachers were full right up to the center-field scoreboard. . . . They had stayed to cheer a 66-90 team and to exact the last bittersweet drops of pleasure from the baseball season on the north side. That is what I had come to the game for, to get all there was to be gotten of baseball at Wrigley Field this year, but I had no idea so many other fans felt the same way.
With everyone standing, the Cubs hauled in the last out . . . and then we didn't leave. We didn't plan to stay . . . we just didn't go. Again, Ted Cox tells it better than I could:
Even after the last out no one went anywhere. The Cubs lined up to shake hands with each other, as they do after every victory, and then gathered on the pitching mound as if to decide how to respond to this crowd of 20,000 crazies who wouldn't be vacated. What they did was march first to one side of the screen behind home plate, near the visitors' dugout, and shake hands and throw a few caps into the stands, and then to the other side of the screen to do the same, before descending into their dugout and their clubhouse. Sosa took one last longing look at his loyalists in the right-field bleachers, then suddenly dropped his glove and went sprinting out there at full speed, the way he does at the start of each game. Let's leave the season right there, with Sammy Sosa tracing a rapid, graceful arc near the right-field wall and 20,000 Cubs fans insisting that no 90 losses--that's 90 this year, and 86 last year, and 89 seasons without a championship--are enough to chase them away.
What Cox doesn't note is what's stayed with me most powerfully: eventually, the organist began playing "Auld Lang Syne," and we all sang. Baseball was leaving us once more, but it would be back.

Nearly twenty years have passed since that game. I've seen hundreds of games since then, and thousands more have hummed along in the background as I've taken the little and big steps that together build an adult life. I'm a different person in some ways than I was that day in 1997, but I'm still in touch with those friends, and I'm still in love with the game.

As I braved the bite of the cold this morning, thinking about baseball, I remembered a line from Thoreau's journals, and it was true: "I felt the winter breaking up in me."

It's almost time again. Let's play ball.


  1. I left Chicago in 1968 and moved to Tucson--I've lived in Tucson ever since. But, I'm still a Cub Fan. You can take the Fan out of Wrigley Field, but you can't take Wrigley Field out of the Fan.

    I'm halfway through my first reading of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was my Book of 2014 and will most likely be my Book of 2015.

  2. I'm that strangest of creatures, Fred: a Cardinals fan (by birth and continuing inclination) who sees most of his games at Wrigley and whole-heartedly roots for the Cubs up to the point where those interests conflict. I've lived within a couple of miles of Wrigley for almost twenty years now, and I still feel spoiled every time I walk in there: This is my home ballpark? This is my view from the cheap seats in the upper deck? After growing up 150 miles from the nearest major league team, I get to go to the ballgame whenever I want? I'll take it!

    (And so glad to hear you've been enjoying Dance! Always happy to hear of new readers for the series.)