October at the Wall

All over the city people are coming out of their houses. This is the nature of Thomson’s homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened, those few who haven’t heard — comparing faces and states of mind.
And Russ has a hot mike in front of him and has to find someone to take it and talk so he can get down to the field and find a way to pass intact through all that mangle.
Russ thinks this is another kind of history. He thinks they will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with protective power. People are climbing lampposts on Amsterdam Avenue, tooting car horns in Little Italy. Isn’t it possible that this midcentury moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses — the mapped visions that pierce our dreams? Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells — the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren — they’ll be gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.
“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo

Organized sports have a hold on us unlike other cultural institutions. With precise rules, boundaries, and metrics, these various games of skillful competition provide dependable amusements and diversions. Just as sure as the seasons change, baseball starts up in the spring and football in the autumn. We can’t be certain what our schools will be teaching our children from year to year or which government agency will stomp on our individual rights next, but we do know that three strikes will always result in an out and ten yards a first down.

Aside from satisfying leisurely pursuits and expectations, there are also other things sports provide. For the athlete, when skills, training, discipline, and focus all come together and reach a certain threshold, the state of optimal experience is said to occur. The best example I always think of for this is Michael Jordan in his prime playing the game on some seemingly subconscious level. At his peak Jordan could be counted on to perform “in the zone” to carry the whole team, often all the way to championships. He hit several game winning shots with the most notable being his last game with the Bulls to win the title in 1998.

The baseball equivalent of this particular rare quality of being able to elevate your team to victory at the crucial decisive moment is the clutch hitter. Except the statisticians would tell us that they can’t find any statistical significance between performance in the “clutch” and at other times. They say consistency in the regular season simply carries over to important times in games which brings the associative positive expectancy.

Of course, fans watching and players participating would find the significance of it was not any statistical frequency or probability but that the big play occurred at the appropriate moment. Rising to the occasion when the occasion presents the ultimate trial and pressure. Seizing the day when all involved are maximally invested in the outcome, whether it be facilitating or preventing it. In the context of the aforementioned flow experience, there’s a paradox of simultaneously living in the moment by being mentally outside the moment in order to dominate the moment.

It’s impossible to quantify situations like that, and that’s why we see them as transcending numbers or rules or frames of reference. All the participants – players, fans, officials – are witnessing something outside normative behaviors. It’s a transcendence of outward conventional description but still operating in immanent territory that’s opaque and obscured to the rules-givers, stat compilers, and deciders,

Where I’m going with all this is that if you’ve been following baseball lately then you’ve probably noticed that the Chicago Cubs have entered the playoffs. They aren’t just playing in the postseason, but they are looking pretty good, maybe even good enough to go all the way. Now to some this may seem like we’re really tempting fate even talking about it here because the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in over a century. I’m not going to mention it specifically because I think it’s too silly, but if you even have just a casual awareness of the Cubs history then you know why many believe the Cubs can’t win.

Again the statisticians would just tell us about numbers or probabilities or splits, but the rest of us who’ve been following the team through thick and thin for our entire lives know that there’s just a bit more that goes into either winning or, far too often in the Cubs history, losing.

For one thing, the matchups in the playoffs really are significant this time. If you remember when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls went on their historic string of championships in the ’90s, they first had to overcome and surpass a bitter rival, the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons had won two years in a row, roughing the Bulls up in the process. When the Bulls finally beat them to advance into the finals, it felt like an immense hurdle was overcome on the path to a championship.

The Cubs have seemed to be on a similar track so far in the playoffs. They just faced and defeated their historic rival, the St. Louis Cardinals in the division playoffs. Their rivalry is another example of transcending the evident situation or matchup. The Cardinals have hall of fame players and managers come and go but still always seem to finish in first place. Last season, the New York Times mapped out fan boundaries for all the major league teams. The boundary between the Cubs and the Cardinals also closely follows the voting pattern for the 1860 presidential election between Lincoln and Douglas. There’s an ancient demarcation between these two teams, and for the Cubs to beat them now feels like we just overcame a big obstacle, perhaps on the level of the Bulls and the Pistons. Perhaps it was an even bigger test.

This next series is now for the National League Championship, and it’s against the New York Mets. Many long time fans of the game may recall that the Mets were an unlikely Cinderella story in 1969 when they went on a historic run to win the World Series. They’ve since been dubbed the “Amazins” or the “Miracle” Mets or other such obnoxious monikers. Unfortunately, in Chicago that season is known for the opposite because the Cubs were the team that they overtook late in the season to win the Pennant.

The Cubs team of the late ’60s may be the most beloved of any, mostly because of its connections with baby boomer fans coming of age but also because of its many terrific players, notably the great Ernie Banks who just passed away this summer. Despite being loaded with talent, the team never made the playoffs, and their collapse in 1969 has always been the nexus of the fans’ bittersweet love for the team.

I’m sure the current team doesn’t care about it or shouldn’t care about it, but for many fans this next test is a chance to finally come to terms with their complicated fandom for the Chicago Cubs.

We don’t even want to think about what might come after that. The Cubs have a great team this year performing at its peak just at the right time. Matchups and stats and metrics confirm it, but to get over the ultimate hurdle will require intangible and unquantifiable efforts. And in turn, this “old safe game” of ours that we’ve been playing and watching for so long that it’s become a part of us will give back unsaid reward and maybe a little redemption for those efforts.

15 thoughts on “October at the Wall”

  1. I loved playing baseball and later softball. We did not play ‘organized’ sports, we played sandlot style with whoever was around and whoever wanted to play, whether we knew them or not. From the time I was about 8 till I was 18 I always had a baseball glove, well oiled. If we weren’t playing the actual game, catch was fine. Or stepball, or wall ball, or practicing pitching and catching in a game we called Batter Up.

    The players I remember were Orioles, our home team. Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Boog Powell. They were like giants to us. They were our celebrities.

    There was a program in the 60’s and 70’s called Junior Orioles that you could join for a nominal fee. It was sort of like season tickets for kids. Once a month (I think) they mailed you a ticket for a seat in the bleachers, plus coupons for a hot dog and a coke for a dollar each. Throw in bus fare and I could go to an Orioles game for three dollars. Lots of us belonged, so we always had 3-4 friends going to the game. It was an old stadium but nicely kept, and the grass was so green and the uniforms were so white. What fun. Like another lifetime or two ago.

  2. Michael, that was a great team. They were defeated by the Mets in the ’69 Series (unfortunately). Aside from all the great players, your manager Earl Weaver was one of the greatest strategists in the history of the game.
    His Clausewitzian philosophy of the supreme importance of the three run homer and shaping the rosters and line ups to maximize probabilities of scoring runs is now seen as a forerunner to the ‘Moneyball’ style that has swept the game lately.

    Dan, thanks for the warm regards, man!

  3. Yes, it was great team. The Orioles went to the World Series in ’69, ’70, and ’71. They won in 1970 and lost the other two. I was just looking over the opposing players on those teams. Look at these names:

    Tom Seaver
    Pete Rose
    Johnny Bench
    Nolan Ryan
    Roberto Clemente
    Willie Stargell

    In the 69 series, the pregame show included Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. Wow. :-P (I feel like a kid!)

  4. I grew up a Cubs fan and remember listening to the games on radio when I was a kid. I remember when the Cubs brought up Gene Baker and a few weeks later, Ernie Banks. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Ernie Banks in Mike Ditka’s restaurant where Ernie held court most days at his table at lunch time.

  5. Mike, you must’ve heard them in ’45 the last time they went to the World Series. After that there were some lean times with the changes in the business of baseball passing by the Wrigley’s.

  6. I can’t remember 1945 in baseball. I do remember the day Roosevelt died and a few other things but not baseball. I was listening to the Cubs when Gene Baker started at shortstop and then was moved to second to accommodate Ernie Banks as, I think, they thought Baker was so good he could adapt better to the new position.

  7. I’ve been in love with baseball all my life. I played when I could, coached my kids’ teams, and cheered the local team on, even during the bad years, and rejoiced in any good years.

    Having said that, I have been a Cub fan for a long time, even though I don’t have any other connection with Chicago, and I am rooting for them to go all the way this year.

    The Cub faithful have waited long enough.

  8. I’m thinking Madden will have to take that tuque off his head, as well as convincing the rest of The Blue Man Group to wear the uniform correctly. Baseball has been played in cold climates for over hundred years, no excuse for it Joe, effigies are being decorated and stuffed as I type…

  9. Never been a fan of any sport. I loved to play football and hockey when I was young, but I have never really understood the community who loves this kind of crap and will fight in the stands..

    Baseball, they are not even in shape many of the players. A game that you can play at pro levels, while being kinda fat is awesome.

    Me, I like violence in games. Football was amazing. I played Defensive Tackle and boy we had fun. I wear glasses but down there, who need clear vision? More meat, and where I was it delivered it’s self all the time. Hockey I played defense and the duality of the game is unparalleled. I was the brute in the way and I hit the forwards hard from the get go. Come down here, highly skilled stick handling fool, and I will flatten you.

    Hmmm, maybe I do see why I don’t much like the “team cheering on” style of things.

  10. Will, baby it’s cold outside. Cut us some slack.

    Maddon definitely approaches the game differently than most other managers. He has his share of head scratching decisions, but overall he does a good job dealing with the situations and players. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some underlying reason for all the winter gear. It seems he’s always pulling out some outside-the-box analogism to keep his team focused and prepared. Now if he could just pull some rabbit out of his hat to infuse the wisdom of pitching around Daniel Murphy and keeping Granderson off base.

    PenGun, a Buddhist tackle? Did you shake off the blockers with the old ‘sound of one hand clapping’ technique.

  11. I played Defensive Tackle, largely because of my vision originally, but came to love it. We sack the blockers, it’s in the front, we hunt blockers and really anything that comes into our little area. How? Violently is the standard way, they need to be on the ground.

    Canadians get tossed into hockey at an early age. It’s why we like violence, and why it does not make us crazy. We can indulge is stuff that you people would shoot each other over, shake hands and go get a beer.

  12. I wish them the best. The earflaps thing with Madden has irritated me since first seeing it, and now this. What’s next a latex luge suit? This, as well as all the other “changes” to the game, inter-league play, video review, the balaclavas, the weaves, the neck tattoos…I could go on and on.

    Whilst Fenway isn’t subject to the howling lake effects, it can get pretty rotten in April and October. What Would Ted Say?

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