June 20, 2013
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PLAY'S THE THING
Root, root, rooted
"Fanned Out" by Charles Dana Gibson, c. 1904.
Sunday, while many of us focused on Boston's blunted charge into Yankee Stadium,
the bedraggled Mets played a doubleheader in virtual secrecy in Pittsburgh,
losing both games while scoring a total of one run. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays,
trying to avoid a last-place finish for the first time in their seven-year
history, made three errors and lost to the equally hapless Toronto Blue Jays.
For many in baseball September is a month of stark contrast with April, when
everyone had dared to hope. If baseball is a lot like life, as pundits declare,
it is because life is more about losing than winning.
It's an easy matter to root for the Yankees, who are in the thick of contention every year and have won more championships than any other club, but it is hardly a mark of character. We may admire success, but love requires vulnerability: What is a peak without a valley? Fans of those lovable losers, the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, may once have merited our pity but now they may be scorned, as they have made a tedious cult of their bambinos, their goats, their cursed histories. One's tears are better saved for devotees of the hermit-crab Montreal Expos, and one's compassion for the long-suffering disciples of Detroit and Milwaukee.
How do we come to embrace our teams? (We're talking baseball here, but the discussion applies to other sports too.) Do we pick a winner because we wish to see ourselves as winners? Do we settle on a regional team because we can go to its ballpark and see its games on television? Or do we choose a team as our favorite because it has an especially appealing player, a Barry Bonds or an Ichiro? These explanations may suffice for casual fans. However, for those who ardently follow the fortunes of a team, the object of their intense affections is hardly a matter of choice. As with all issues of attachment, bonding, intermittent reward, and indistinct boundary, the team may be said to pre-select or predetermine the fan as much as the fan chooses the team. Top dogs in life don't pick underdogs on the ballfield. Especially after World War II, for instance, people whose ethnic or family or personal histories were marked by oppression seemed driven, lemming-like, to become Brooklyn Dodger fans.
Victory is so sweet and in some locales and some lives so rare that it would be miserly to confine its joys to baseball's players ... which is where we fans come in. As most of us have played the game at some time and enjoyed perhaps a moment of success that impressed itself upon us (if not others), as fans we cannot help but stir the feelings we experienced as acolytes, especially the dream that we could be heroes.
The dream originates in hero worship, instructive until a certain age if destructive once beyond (the motivation of the baseball memorabilia collector is chillingly parallel to that of the Amazonian headhunter or the cannibal). More fundamentally, it is a dream that does not die with the onset of manhood: the dream is to play endlessly, past the time when you are called home for dinner, past the time of doing chores, past the time when your body betrays you ... past time itself. For a child, the grownup world accepts that play is his rightful work, to which he applies a diligence any businessman would envy. For a boy on the cusp of manhood, his hope is that in a grownup's world play might likewise be termed work.
Finally, for all of us but a lucky few, the dream of playing big-time baseball is relinquished so we can get on with grown-up things. But the dream is never forgotten, only put aside and never out of reach: Where once the dream connected boys with the world of men, now - in the life of adult fans - it reconnects men with the spirit of boys. Donning a glove for a backyard toss, or watching a ball game, or just reflecting upon our baseball days, we are players again, forever young.
The game moves along slowly, seamlessly, from inning to inning, game to game, season to season, giving a special poignance to the passage of time in baseball. The heroes of our youth grow old - "the boys of summer in their ruin," in Dylan Thomas's verse - yet we seem the same. That's why such occasions as Old Timers' Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, not diminished as we ourselves are.
At a ballgame, as in a place of worship, no one is alone in the crowd. But America's devotion to baseball is not fully explained by our craving a sense of unity and connection with other Americans. We are fans because the game also appeals to our local pride, our pleasure in thinking of ourselves as, yes, Americans but nonetheless different from residents of other towns, other states, other regions. This illuminates not only fans' interest in major league teams but also the minors and even Little League.
Baseball's antecedents, primitive games of bat and ball played in England and Germany in the medieval period, in Mayan Mexico and the Egypt of the pharaohs, formed spring training for the earth and mankind. The ancient appeal to the heavens for vegetation and fecundity is still manifest at the ballpark, in the thrill of the grass.
In response to the challenge of strangers, sport arose as a sublimated representation of a community's armed might as well as its pride of place and clan. Better to nominate a champion or offer up a scapegoat than to engage in mass combat and decimate the shire. The rise of baseball up through the Civil War was no different. Teams were constructed from neighborhoods, or professions, or fire companies; then from clustered burgs; and occasionally a ringer might be brought in from the hinterlands, as the Philadelphia A's did when they offered inducements to Brooklyn's Al Reach in 1865.
In 1869, however, the professional era of baseball dawned with Cincinnati's Red Stockings attracting the nation's best players by openly offering salaries. The team that took the field and defeated all comers for a year and a half represented Cincinnati, but only one of the team's nine starters was from Ohio. By putting a dollar sign on the muscle, the Reds earned the enmity of every other club in the land, much as the Yankees have in our day. But the citizens of Cincinnati loved their Reds because they won, no matter what their addresses had been the year before. They rooted for the Old-English "C" on the players' shirts.
From imported professionals it should have been a short step to hiring men of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, and it was. The next two decades produced teams in which African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jews, and Catholics cavorted alongside one another amiably, until Jim Crow reasserted its hold on the American imagination. However briefly, the quest for victory had been more powerful than the fear of the dark, the unknown, the different. As Allen Sangree was later to observe, in America baseball was "second only to Death as a leveler."
Fast-forward to mid-20th century. How did a man from Alabama, by way of New York, win the hearts of San Francisco? The singularity of Willie Mays was not the answer; any player who wears our city's baseball uniform becomes a hometown hero, no matter how he got here. We know these men are professionals whose services are up for bid and whose bags are packed, and yet we call them our own and take personal, even civic pride in their accomplishments.
Through baseball we sublimate martial instincts; we emulate our heroes, whom we appoint as champions or surrogates for our hopes and fears; we experience thrills and agonies vicariously, and, in a magical act of transference, we become more truly ourselves. Inside every rotund, superannuated, implausibly decked-out rooter is a trim youth of sixteen, potential unlimited and limits unposted. The ardent fan is no mere spectator but somehow a participant in the drama: the fervor of his rooting, the efficacy of his fetishes, will have a direct bearing on the outcome. At the ballpark fans are different from who they are in everyday life - masquerading no less than people do at Mardi Gras or Carnivale to revel in life and taunt death.
Baseball permits its revelers to defy not only time but also reason. Late in the game, with the home team trailing by five runs, the true fan's response may be contemplative or stalwart, but never despairing. One of the first lessons he or she learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen. Just two days ago as I write this, something happened that had never happened in baseball before. In the final game of the series for the Northern League championship, the St. Paul Saints, trailing 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and down to their last out, proceeded to score seven consecutive runs, climaxed by a walk-off grand slam, to defeat the Schaumberg Flyers 10-6. In over 160 years of recorded baseball history, no team had ever won a championship this way.
Baseball presents a living heritage, a game poised between the powerful undertow of seasons past and the hope of next day, next week, next year. As the game enters its glorious final weeks, the chill of fall signals the reality of defeat for all but one team. The fields of play will turn brown and harden, the snow will fall, but in the heart of the fan sprouts a sprig of green.
Copyright ©2004 John Thorn, reprinted courtesy of The Woodstock Times.
Copyright ©2004 Mr. Baseball