Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mutando riposa
"Changing, it rests"
Herakeitos, in Italian as recalled by Francesco Clemente to Michael McClure

In the parking lot outside Staples a man shouts into his cell phone, "You wasted my miles!" He listens for a brief moment and then repeats it, "You wasted my miles!"

At the St. Vincent DePaul Store counter, a young man in a leather jacket explains that he is buying a lime green blanket for a homeless person, instead of giving him money, "which he might spend on beer." The clerk says it is probably a good choice. They agree he will be warmer with the blanket.
But the young man walks alone down the street a long ways carrying the lime green blanket in a rumpled paper bag. Is it really for a homeless person that far away---there were closer candidates near the store---or was it a story, because for some reason he was embarrassed to be buying it for himself?

For several days now I have been possessed by the idea that I should be permanently wearing a dunce cap.

I wonder if anyone in Chicago is sleeping well this week. The Cubs, who haven't been in a world series for nearly a century, blew a 3-1 lead in the league championship series. They had been four outs from the World Series at one point, with one of their two best pitchers on the mound. He got into mild trouble in the eighth inning with a 3-0 lead, and then a foul ball drifted toward the short left field stands. It was a high pop, and the fans in the first few rows were knotted together looking up. One guy stuck out his hand and the ball bounced off of it---and also away from the Cub fielder's glove waiting below these massed fans' hands. It would have been the second out. The player-third baseman I think-- was furious. The pitcher asked the umpire to call fan interference, but the ball has to be on the field of play, not a foot or so in the stands.

At that point everybody had the same bad feeling. The pitcher was unnerved and walked the batter, throwing into the dirt and moving up the runner in the process. The fans around the man who deflected the ball pelted him with beer. Park officials had to rescue him. They kept him hidden for an hour after the game was over. The Chicago Sun-Times then printed his name and occupation. By the next afternoon his phone was disconnected. I'm guessing he'll be moving out of town, his life distorted and impossible, all because of a moment in an exciting baseball game when he was trying to catch a foul ball.

Because the next batter hit a routine grounder to shortstop, an easy out, a difficult double play. But the shortstop muffed it, got nothing. And the floodgates opened. The Marlins scored eight runs. They had beaten one of Chicago's best starting pitchers. The next day they faced the other one, the most consistent and brilliant. They hadn't been able to hit either of these guys the first time they faced them. But they hit Kerry Wood in the seventh game, and they won their third in a row.

It's something that happens in sports, mysterious, fatal, and it can be painful for years and years. It happened to the SF Giants last year in the World Series, when they were a handful of outs away from winning it all in the sixth game, with an even bigger lead. Then one thing led to another and they lost that game, and they looked pretty flat in the 7th, which they lost. The Marlins did it to them this year, but what were freakish screwups and bad judgments last year became inept and dispirited play this year. Last year the Giants should have won. This year they played poorly and so their bad luck was not so surprising.

The most painful such moment for me was in the early 90s, when the Pittsburgh Pirates had their last good team, probably the best in the majors that year, with Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy van Slyke in the outfield. They were about to go to the world series in a game against the Atlanta Braves, a team I despise, not just because they were the nemesis of the Pirates (and later the Giants), but for their racist name, mascot, song and tomahawk chop. The Pirates had to get just one out, and at least twice they had to get just one strike. But they didn't. They lost. The last shot on the TV was those three outfielders, who knew they would never play another game together, lying flat on their backs on the grass.

The Pirates that year were the beginning of a trend-the Last Year for the Good Team. Not in retrospect either-you knew it then, because of money. The Pirates couldn't afford to sign their best players, and they began a process of letting them go and trading them that continues through this year---in fact some of the better Cubs started out this season with the Pirates. The same thing is going to happen to the Giants for next year. From this year's team there will be Barry Bonds and the batboy. Perhaps the most bizarre case is the Marlins. One year their owner bought up the contracts of all the best players he could get, and he got the best manager in baseball-Jim Leyland, the manager of that Pirates team with Bonds and Bonilla. Leyland took them to the World Series and they won it. I rooted for them because Leyland deserved a World Series ring. But right after they won, the owner totally dismantled the team. The fans were betrayed and they knew it, and even though this year's Marlins are going to the World Series, they have just about the lowest home attendance in the major leagues this side of Montreal.

That Pirates collapse began with the same kind of eerie moment as the Cubs', though it wasn't so bizarre. One of the best fielding second baseman in the majors booted a grounder in the ninth inning. That started it, and postponed Barry Bonds playing in the series for more than a decade.

The Cubs collapse was even more total and more humiliating, because it occurred over three games, especially the final two. How does a freak moment turn into inevitability? How quickly a dream almost fulfilled becomes a nightmare that won't stop. Was this the "inferiority complex" psychology of the loser who can't believe he deserves to win? You have to wonder about Dusty Baker, an inspirational manager who took the Giants to the Series last year and the Cubs to the league championship series this year, and saw ultimate victory collapse in the same fashion. Is this coincidence, or is there something fatal about his managing, a flaw that comes out in these situations, maybe even the other side of the virtues that gets him to these games... It's just a game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. But even within the chalk outline, life remains mysterious.

For the other side of bad luck is the team that gets the break, and then goes on to heroics to win. The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates may not have had their chance in the seventh game if a ground ball didn't take a hard bad bounce and hit Tony Kubec in the throat, instead of in his glove. It was a small moment in an otherwise fantastic game, but Bill Mazeroski might never have been in position to win the game with a home run otherwise.
The breaks of the game...whatever that really means.

For longtime or even lapsed baseball fans, this could have been a World Series to remember: the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox, two of the oldest franchises in baseball, playing in two of the oldest and most fabled surviving ball parks in the majors, and two teams with very early glory and decades of futility, heartbreak and self-inflicted disasters.

Instead we may get the most boring of possibilities: the Yankees and the Marlins. Well, more time to read.