Baseball – An Appreciation

And now for something completely different. Gordon Mousinho presents a very personal look at America’s summer sport and the hold that it has over him.

 

Every baseball used in a Major League game has 108 blood-red double stitches. They bind the white cowhide together like a Mobius strip. A thing of beauty. Yet in every game several dozen balls are used, so there was nothing unusual about the one Chicago Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery held in his left hand as he prepared to pitch in the bottom of the tenth inning in the seventh and final game of the 2016 World Series. What was unusual was that never before had the World Series been contested by two teams that had not won the championship for more than half a century. The Cleveland Indians’ last World Series victory came in 1948. The Cubs hadn’t even appeared in the World Series since 1945 and had last won it all a coincidental108 years ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was President.

Throughout those years, as other teams rose to championship heights and fell to miserable lows several times over, and as cities lost teams, gained them and lost them again, the one constant in baseball was the Chicago Cubs and their futility.

And then there’s ‘the curse.’ The last time the Cubs were in the World Series, in 1945, they were leading Detroit 2 games to 1. Local tavern owner William ‘Billy Goat’ Sianis was stopped at the gate before Game 4 at Wrigley Field with his goat, Murphy, in tow. Despite the fact he had his own ticket, Murphy’s overpowering odour meant that he wasn’t allowed into the game.

“You’re going to lose this World Series and you’re never going to win another World Series again,” Sianis proclaimed.

The Cubs hadn’t even come close since then, despite having many good teams in the interim. By contrast, the New York Yankees have won the whole thing 27 times since 1923. Regular season collapses like those in 1969, 1984 and 2003 are legendary and induced a sense of fatalism in generation after generation of the Cub nation, as their fans are known.

I fell in love with baseball during my working holiday in Atlantic City in 1974. It was my fellow Octopus ride operator Dave Brunette who introduced me to it. He brought a transistor radio to work and listened to games featuring the nearest major league team, the Philadelphia Phillies, sometimes in the afternoon, but more often at night. At first I scoffed.

“Girls play a game like that at home. It’s called rounders.”

But it didn’t take me long to fall for the game. It had the same rhythms and cadences as cricket, the same mountain of statistics and records. Like cricket on a summer’s day at Lord’s, I grew to appreciate baseball’s metronome-like consistency. Sometimes, when the pier was empty during the heat of the day, we could give the game our full attention, and Dave would educate me in its subtleties; double plays, hit and runs, intentional walks and its myriad other intricacies. In the evenings, when the pier was busy, we might miss an at bat, or even an entire inning, but it was always there in the background, announcer Harry Kalas’ deep baritone a comforting, reliable presence.

I’ll never forget my first visit to Veterans’ Stadium to watch the Phillies. An ugly crumbling slate grey bowl when viewed from the outside; an endless expanse of green on the inside, a pastoral haven in the concrete jungle of Philadelphia. The heart of the field is the diamond – home to 1st to 2nd and 3rd and back home – with 90 feet between each base. It turns out that both batted ball speeds and human running speeds conspire to make those dimensions perfection itself… 89 or 91 would upset the delicate balance (how often is a runner out or safe at first by just a half a step?)

The diamond shape gives each base unique character. First base is just a 30-yard dash away, just enough time for your opponent’s deft infield to throw you out with a clean scoop and throw. But if you can get to second, you’re suddenly in ‘scoring position,’ which is to say you have the likelihood of scoring a run on any base hit. But second is hard to gain as it is the shortest throw for infielders and outfielders alike, though, if you want to steal the base, it is the farthest throw for the catcher. Going to third, you gain an advantage; it usually takes a perfect throw from the outfield to ‘get’ a runner going to third.

The pitcher’s rubber is 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. Studies have revealed that if it were 60 feet defence would dominate the game. If it were 61 feet, offense would dominate. The rubber is precisely where it should be.

Baseball is so finely balanced that a pitcher facing three (the minimum) to four batters per inning on average will rack up the wins. Face five or more batters per inning on average, and he’ll be facing the long walk back to the bullpen. Victory in baseball may seem like just coincidence and lucky breaks: it’s anything but because of its fine seesaw balance that changes out by out, pitch by pitch, inning by inning.

The more I got ‘into’ baseball, the more I appreciated it. Baseball requires strength, endurance, intelligence, finesse, agility, speed, balance and skill. It is a team sport and an individual sport. It is literally timeless; uniquely among all major sports there is no clock. You can see the faces of the players. The fields they play on are unique and beautiful. The chaos in baseball is small. The complexity of the game is immense. The drama is always present. It is a marathon. There is hope for success in every team. There is no time for hype because the next game is tomorrow. The game is an allegory for life. We play as long as we can as hard as we can, not until the clock winds down, but until the last inning is over.

It is not a sport for sissies. In Moneyball – a good movie that had little to do with what actually happened in Oakland – Billy Beane tries to convince Scott Hatteberg he can play first base.

Scott Hatteberg: “I’ve only ever played catcher.”

Beane: “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.”

Ron Washington: “It’s incredibly hard.”

Washington’s response is true for the game as a whole. It’s incredibly hard.

Baseball is a gruelling sport. Teams play 162 games in around 185 days. Games last three to three and a half hours or longer and players arrive at the ballpark six hours before the game to prepare.

Pitchers and catchers will go over the game plan, deciding situational pitching plans ahead of game time as far as possible. Hitters will review video of the pitchers they may face and defensive moves the other team is known to make. Most will take a few swings in the cage and grab a bite to eat before the game; all have their personal pre-game rituals. Those playing with injuries – that’s everyone at some level, especially towards the end of the season – will visit the trainer and get therapy of some kind if needed.

Most games are at night and finish between 10 and 11 local time. After the game players have mandatory press conferences, visits to the trainer for treatment of injuries and a meal in the clubhouse. By the time they get to the hotel and into bed it’s between two and three in the morning. And the next day it happens all over again.

Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all-time, said in his book The Science of Hitting, “Hitting a baseball…is the single most difficult thing to do in sport. The hardest thing – a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, and a ball coming in at 90 miles to 100 miles an hour, it’s a pretty lethal thing”

A hitter’s prowess is measured by his batting average. A .300 batting average is considered very good. A .400 batting average is sensational. In fact, no one since Ted Williams himself in 1941 has achieved that in a single season. Ty Cobb, the player with the best batting average ever (.367), only hit the ball successfully 37% of the time. Think about that – getting a hit (reaching at least first base) in 3 out of every 10 at bats is success. In what other sport can you get a hit only one try out of three, failing two thirds of the time, and end up in a Hall of Fame? None.

Pitching is equally difficult. It’s no use being able just to throw hard. A pitcher has to be able to put the ball where he wants it, getting the hitter to swing and miss. Sometimes the pitcher actually wants the ball to be hit, but in such a way as to get an out, or, better still, a double play. That takes immense control. Pitchers throw 98 mph fastballs then back that up with an 80 mph slider with stunning accuracy. They pay a price for that of course.

“Every fastball hurts, hurts badly,” Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez told the New York Post in 2005. “Imagine throwing a ball at 90 miles an hour, over and over again. People don’t know that every time you pitch a ball, you break blood vessels. Which is why we get our arms iced – so that the circulation can continue.5

And success is almost as elusive as for a batter. Because of the stress on their pitching arms, starting pitchers typically throw 30-35 games a season, resting for four days between starts. One measure of success is the number of games won. In 2016 only one pitcher, Rick Porcello, won over 20 games (22). You’re in the star bracket if you win 15 or more.

It doesn’t get any easier when fielding. Fielders have to demonstrate athleticism and hand-eye coordination in order to make an effective play in the field. For example, the batter may swing hard, top the ball and hit a slow roller that goes up the third base line. The third baseman must sprint in to pick it up in his bare hand and then throw the ball on the move to the first baseman to get the runner out. An outfielder may have to run 30 yards or more and then leap as high as possible in order to catch the ball before it disappears over the fence. Executing these type of plays takes rare athletic ability.

Ever since Alexander Cartwright first codified the rules in 1845, baseball has embedded itself deep into the American psyche. Baseball took hold in the major cities of the eastern seaboard chiefly during antebellum America’s rapid industrialization and urbanization. Yet even though it was, and is, a primarily urban sport, it succeeded precisely because it removed the city-dweller from urban life. The lush greenness of the baseball field marked a return to nature, simplicity, and purity. Like Jefferson’s yeomen farmer, who achieved the greatest exhilaration tilling his soil, the ballplayer and fan return to the peace and beauty of nature long gone in the city.

Alongside this notion of escape, baseball re-enacts Jefferson’s idea of a natural aristocracy, where hard work and talent alone determined worth, and rank and privilege count for nothing. In baseball, the greatest ballplayers rise to the top. And baseball history is replete with those that support this myth: Babe Ruth, the barkeeper’s son that became the greatest player in the game’s history; Joe DiMaggio, son of an immigrant fisherman, who captured America’s imagination; and Jackie Robinson, grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, who played tremendous baseball while changing the game and the nation. Over the years such examples seduced America into belief in this grand meritocratic vision.

Filled with the history, lore, traditions, and shared memory of magical moments that have been passed down from generation to generation, baseball has become a vehicle, perhaps THE vehicle, of American nostalgia. It has come to stand as the symbol of a bygone age and an irrecoverable past, a way of life that America valued, yet has abandoned.

As baseball columnist Thomas Boswell puts it: “Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few places where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket.”

Over the years, numerous books (e.g. The Natural, The Southpaw, Underworld,) films (Bull Durham, A League of Their Own, The Pride of the Yankees,) plays (The Hot Corner, Rounding Third,) poems (Analysis of Baseball, Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,) and songs (Mrs. Robinson, Centerfield) have contributed to, and solidified, the mythology of baseball. Most present the sport in an idealised way, perhaps none more so than Phil Alden Robinson’s movie Field of Dreams, released in 1989.

Basing the movie on the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, Robinson uses an Iowa farm field to pastiche baseball’s most sacred myths. The pastoral game springs from a corn field. The myth of timelessness produces legends of the past, who make the seemingly short stroll from eternity to second base. The use of the banished Shoeless Joe Jackson and his Black Sox asserts the pre-eminence of the game as refuge; apart from, even superior to, the rules and regulations of daily life. Nowhere does the rhetoric of baseball myth sound more triumphantly than Terrance Mann’s (James Earl Jones) speech about baseball as ‘the one constant through all the years.’  As Jones tells the star, Ray Kinsella:

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again, but baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”

Yet there are also many depictions of baseball in popular culture that are about heroic, and sometimes not so heroic, failure.

The Natural, by Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud, skilfully blends the realistic and the mythic together in a way that alternately celebrates and demonizes baseball in all its cruelties. Malamud posits baseball as an epic, ritualistic pastime that forms part of America’s mythological landscape, where the failures and successes of the sport became a metaphor of modern American experience.

Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (would anyone else be able to get away with a title as arrogantly self-congratulatory and sardonically tongue-in-cheek?) pushes so far into mythic fantasy and satire that it lands some powerfully funny blows. In his sprawling, picaresque novel, Roth ties in several big ideas; American exceptionalism, the Depression, capital vs. labour squabbles, and, especially, anti-Communist sentiment, all within a sprawling, often hilarious epic about a baseball team with a penchant for futility (parallels with the Cubs anyone?) and the bad luck to get mired in a communist conspiracy.

Stories about baseball, like the 2011 novel The Art of Fielding, are also often subtly about the way we react to adversity. In Chad Harbach’s book, we meet Henry Skrimshander at Westish College. For his entire life, Henry has been an almost magical, zero-error shortstop, defining himself through the game of baseball. But the crux of the story comes when, as a senior, he must learn how to deal with failure and disappointment. The novel sees baseball and human existence as relatively analogous, like most literature that finds itself baseball-inclined.

The myth of baseball continues simply because America wants to believe it. People want a tie to the past, to traditions, to some greater sense of meaning, and baseball offers this for only the price of a ticket, a beer and a hot dog. The ballgame remains as powerful as ever. It seems historic and unchanged, precisely because that’s how Americans, yearning for a tie to the past, wish it to seem.

And the Chicago Cubs fitted beautifully into that mythology, or at least they did up until November 2. The cursed Chicago Cubs. The lovable losers, the Charlie Browns of baseball, who could never kick the football, no matter how much they tried. The one constant in baseball’s ever changing firmament. Something America could rely on, year after year. Sometimes, as in 2003, so near and yet so far.

But baseball is all about renewal, and every spring brings hope, even to Cubs fans. Having won their division in 2015, and having strengthened the team in the close season, the Cubs were the bookies’ favourites to win it all in 2016. For once they seemed to be living up to their billing. They coasted to a playoff berth with 103 victories in the regular season, eight more than any other team. Despite one or two hiccups they beat first the San Francisco Giants and then the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League pennant.

They were back in the World Series at long last.

In the World Series, the Cubs faced the Cleveland Indians, a team that had torn through the American League playoffs, losing just once in eight games, and a manager, Terry Francona, who had started his World Series career 11-1.

After splitting the first two games in Cleveland, the Cubs charged into Wrigley Field with a chance to win it all at home. That disappeared in a 1-0 loss in Game 3, and then they lost again, trounced 7-2, in Game 4. Just four teams in major-league history had ever come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the best-of-seven World Series, and none since 1985. Another season of futility beckoned.

The Cubs fell behind in Game 5. It was only 1-0, in the second inning, but still: the Indians had not gone from leading to trailing in any game in the postseason. Yet in the fourth inning they did, with the Cubs’ offense showing all the ways it could score: with power (a homer), speed (a bunt single) and situational hitting (a sacrifice fly). Aroldis Chapman earned the save to force the series back to Cleveland.

Kris Bryant’s homer started it again in Game 6, and Addison Russell drove in the next six runs, including a grand slam home run, to build a commanding lead. There was no comeback for the Indians, but just to be sure, Cubs manager Joe Maddon called for Chapman in the seventh inning for the second game in a row.

The series was tied at 3-3. The whole season had come down to a single game.

The catchphrase Cubs fans have uttered over the last century and a bit has been “just one before I die,” a plea that fell on deaf ears decade after decade. Wayne Williams took things even further. He listened to Game 7 outside, in the dark, in the middle of a military cemetery in Greenwood, Indiana. His father, a Navy veteran, died in 1980. But that didn’t stop Williams from driving all day from North Carolina to the cemetery, a distance of over 600 miles, setting up a small camp, and playing the radio broadcast on his iPhone next to his father’s grave.

“We had a pact. When the Cubs – not if, when – got into the World Series, we would make sure we listened to the games together,” he said.

That’s a Cubs fan.

Game 7 will go down as one of baseball’s most epic games: four hours and twenty eight minutes of stomach-churning drama – including a seventeen minute interlude that changed history.

In typical Cubs fashion it just wouldn’t come easy, just couldn’t be won without extra drama. They carried a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning, six outs away from that cathartic victory. But a double and a two-run home run by the Indians wiped out the lead and tied the game, and the deadlock held through the ninth inning. The Cubs looked shell-shocked and were tottering. Was the curse about to strike again?

Then the rain came. Of course. With what Cubs fans will always believe was divine intervention, the seventeen minute rain delay allowed their young team to huddle for a group meeting, steady themselves, and prevent the type of classic collapse so well known to generations of their fans.

In the top of the 10th inning, the Cubs scored two runs on solid hits by Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero, the third catcher used by Maddon. They stood three outs away from glory.

But regular closer Aroldis Chapman was out of the game after throwing 35 pitches in one and one-third innings. So the Cubs called on Carl Edwards, a 25-year-old with only 41 career regular season appearances and two career saves, to close things out. Edwards started things off by striking out Mike Napoli swinging on a 95-mph fastball. He got Jose Ramirez to ground out to shortstop for the second out. Just one out to go.

Edwards couldn’t deliver. He walked Brandon Guyer, allowed him to steal second, and then gave up a hit to Rajai Davis, bringing the Indians to within one run with the potential game winning run at the plate in the shape of utility infielder Michael Martinez. That was the end for Edwards and Montgomery took his place to try and save the game. Naturally, this being the Cubs, he had never saved a major league game in his career!

It was forty seven minutes past midnight. Montgomery snapped off a curveball for strike one. He turned and smoothed the dirt on the mound with his spikes, then leaned in for the sign from his catcher. They agreed. He spun off one final curveball, the Cubs’ 172nd pitch of the night. Martinez beat it into the ground towards third baseman Kris Bryant, whose left foot skidded on the wet grass as he set himself to throw. In any of the previous 107 years, the slip might have caused an errant throw, extending the game toward greater infamy and deeper heartbreak.

Not this time. For the first time that night, the raucous crowd of 38,104 fell silent for a split second as the ball flew accurately toward first baseman Anthony Rizzo. It thumped into his glove just before Martinez reached the base. Out!

The giant electronic scoreboard flashed up the final score, 8-7. The huge contingent of Cubs fans erupted, and the players raced to the middle of the infield to celebrate. And it was suddenly possible to write a sentence that no living human has ever written: the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions.

 

Gordon Mousinho returned to university last year to study for an MA in Creative Writing. This article formed a part of his course work and first appeared on his website, The Keele Boomerang.

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Richard O'Hagan
Writer on such diverse topics as sport, music, theatre, law and politics. Author of 'Eddie the Sheep'. Supporter of underachieving teams, including the Chicago Bears from before that brief, heady, period in the mid-1980s when they were actually any good. All I want for Christmas is a Jim McMahon away shirt.
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One Response to “Baseball – An Appreciation”

  1. Andy Turner Andy Turner says:

    Baseball, once you fall for it it has you.

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