I have not written about baseball in a while. And there has been a lot to write about; I suspect many of the topics have already been covered by more insightful authors. Moreover, I doubt that most of my loyal audience is drawn in by my peculiar insight into sport. No, my thoughts comprise an alternate form of gnostic turpitude.
What I wish to present is a stylized conversation about baseball fandom I have been holding with some friends of mine. Two voices, niqui and I, are Chicago White Sox fans. The third, InleRah, is a New York Yankees fan. InleRah is first cousin to Yankees’ phenom, Derek Jeter.
We begin in early August. The White Sox host the Yankees in Chicago. niqui and I attend the game—even having our picture taken by the White Sox marketing machine. It is an exciting game. Scott Podsednik makes the first White Sox out of the game trying to stretch a double into a triple. Joe Crede drives in two runs with a single and a solo homer in the fourth. Paul Konerko ties it up with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera. There are a number of other gaffes, goofs and guffaws, but the Sox manage to find a way to win in the bottom of the eleventh. For a moment it seems a lot like last year. I come home to find a simple message from InleRah waiting for me: Damned Sox!
And that sparks the conversation. The next night it is my turn to mutter about the damned Yankees. InleRah describes that second game: It had us all muttering, believe me. Taking a near perfect game into the seventh with a seven-run lead only to have your closer almost but not quite blow it in the ninth, for a second day in a row. That he even had to be in there is grumbly enough. Sigh. Baseball. It will drive you crazy.
For me discouragement comes in the bases loaded, no outs, heart of the order bottom of the seventh. No runs. Nothing. Not to get any runs out of that situation with the height of the offense at the plate—that is tough. That the loss dropped the White Sox to third in the division felt like salt in fresh wounds.
For completeness I should state that the White Sox go on to win the third game of the series 5-4—helped out by two Yankees errors. Minnesota’s loss to the Blue Jays means that the White Sox were back in front of the Tiger hunt.
Again I do not want to spend a lot of time recapping the various games, but rather look critically at the conversation all of this excitement generated. During the first game of the series I tell niqui one of my favorite InleRah baseball stories. In 2000, after the Yankees win the World Series over the New York Mets, InleRah writes a letter to a number of her friends. She talks about Derek Jeter’s various accomplishments throughout that season and the playoffs and the World Series. She caps it off with the note that Derek Jeter had been named World Series MVP. She is bragging a little bit—and deservedly so. But the punchline is both poignant and priceless. All of the recapping, all the bragging, everything she describes is but a lengthy preface to what is really important. To close the letter she writes: “And I just want you all to know, I diapered his butt.” I have always treasured the humility and the humanity in that story. It makes a wonderful framework through which to view sports.
I remind InleRah of this letter and the humor it contained and share some photos with her of the White Sox World Series ticker-tape parade. For a brief moment I believe she is trying to one-up me—like a good Yankee fan—when she responds: Nice pictures! Reminds me of the ticker tape parade from ‘96. And then she descends into a maudlin sort of self-pity: Back when New York winning was something novel, at least for this generation.
I write: Oh. My. God. – New York winning lost its novelty in 1904 when John McGraw refused to even play in the World Series. (Alright, alright, I know that that was one of the (many) other New York teams, but still). C’mon. By the end of Joe McCarthy’s career that comment has pretty much outlived its accuracy entirely. Let’s be fair.
She gives my attack some thought and replies: Ok, maybe I phrased that badly. Let me try again. She goes on to rather eloquently explain the situation, what things were like for a team to go eighteen years without winning. No, it is not 100 years like Chicago, but it’s a ‘generation’ in the sense that the kids growing up as Yankee fans right now had never seen a winner. You can watch all the black and white films of the Babe and Lou Gehrig, or the stuff from the 60’s with Mantle and Maris. But that is not the same as watching your current team win. She positions the Atlanta Braves as the indomitable force of baseball. So, entering into the 1996 World Series, there was a sense that this team did not belong on the same field with the Braves. The first two games of the series seemed to solidify that claim. The Yankees were pretty much blown out and away.
InleRah concludes with a respectful concession: Later, when the Yankees won 3 out of the next 4 World Series, then… Then, yes, it becomes a little routine. A little less thrilling. A little more ‘yeah, that’s the way to do it.’ A little more professionally hum drum. Does it make you want it less? No. But I’ll concede to it feeling ‘different.’ By then, the Yankees weren’t underdogs. They were the Braves.
This is the reason 1996 is InleRah’s favorite season. It was amazing, she gushes. I can understand this. Nevertheless, I remind her that she has hitched her wagon to the brightest star in the game. – Not that there is particularly more valor or dignity in deciding to cheer for a dog, but at the end of the day, when it comes to baseball, being a Yankee fan is the “easy out.” Pardon my blundering metaphor. Our conversation contains argument and fallacies, concessions and retractions. At times it flirts with becoming spiteful. Perhaps. But for my part I do not mean it as such. I have never entirely understood the mean-spirited nature of the Cubs-White Sox rivalry in Chicago, either, for that matter. I will note I do not comment on her error regarding the drought. It was eight-eight years for the Chicago White Sox. Wait ‘til next year, the northsiders say. Next year InleRah’s claim will be right. Next year will be 100 years for the Cubs.
But I can understand the larger idea: the place of sports in our lives. 2005 has a lot of meaning for me above and beyond just being good baseball. In 2005 I cling to baseball the entire year as I never have. Baseball serves as a literal lifeline. I struggle to get better. I strive to remember who I am and what I can do. In early 2005 I come out of the surgeries and the hospital just after Spring Training started. And I really do not start to get my legs under me with a lot of confidence mentally until August. Maybe even later.
I still struggle with are those tasks involving ‘executive function.’ Keeping track of large amounts of disparate data and acting on them all appropriately—like something as pedestrian as a party with ten people. Everyone talks—as they do—and I try to keep track of a couple conversations at the same time. It is a tough task for most people, I believe, but it is even tougher for me, now.
Baseball allows me to focus on one thing—or a lot of little subtle things all related to one thing: the game. Much to my child bride’s amusement, I have been watching a lot of the games this season with scorecard in hand and dilligently recording every play and out—often charting balls and strikes, too. She fondly remarked that each of us were following our own obsessions. Baseball works at its own pace. The game not overly frenetic, but it has moments of simple, brilliant action. There are stretches where you can just zone out and come back to it an inning or two later and it makes sense.
I love baseball. Since my brain injury I use that love of the game as a form of therapy. – To have the 2005 season end the way it did was tremendous for me personally.
One hour after the tickertape parade I board a train to O’Hare airport. I board a plane for a two-week business trip to London, Newcastle and Munich. This trip turns out to be arguably the most difficult set of challenges I have ever faced at work. I go and meet them because they are hard. I know it will be hard. I want so badly to prove to myself that I am back in the game.