On the afternoon of October 27, 2006, the day that year’s World Series reached its soggy conclusion, a nervous fan of the St. Louis Cardinals sat in front of a computer to compose his thoughts. The series had been a desultory affair, most notable for the number of fielding errors committed by the vaunted Detroit Tigers pitching staff in the process of coughing up three unsightly losses. The Cardinals were not the favored team–they’d finished the regular season with a lukewarm eighty-three wins, whereas the Tigers had won ninety-five games, their highest season total in nineteen years–but to the fan at his computer, it scarcely mattered. St. Louis had a chance to win the series that night, in Game Five, and he was holding a ticket. Before heading to the ballpark with his father and mother, the fan thought about his first Cardinals game, in 1982, when he was 6.
“Rookie Willie McGee hit a triple, Tommy Herr homered and Ozzie Smith made one of his acrobatic, Matrix-like plays at shortstop, and the Cardinals won,” wrote the fan, Will Leitch, in a post on Deadspin, his immensely popular sports blog. That first game, Leitch reflected in the mock-heroic first-person plural, grew into a childhood obsession–“You do not want to know how many different Topps cards of Dane Iorg we had”–and his fandom, in turn, ripened into an adult career. St. Louis won the National League pennant in 1982 and edged the Milwaukee Brewers (then an American League team) in a tense seven-game series showdown. “And here we are, tonight, with the Cardinals playing at home with a chance to win the World Series…for the first time since 1982,” Leitch wrote. “We will be at Busch Stadium, with our parents, hoping to jump and cheer and dance. Nothing about our life is the same as it was when we were seven–except for this. If that’s not an example of why sports matters, and why we gleefully give up so much of our lives for it, we don’t know what is.”
When baseball writing–good baseball writing–isn’t simply about baseball, it often touches on themes of mortality. In his famous essay “The Green Fields of the Mind,” the late commissioner and Renaissance literature scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote that the season “begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Less poetically, the game demonstrates, again and cruelly again, the way the body inevitably betrays us. A baseball career is a life span compressed: a player is drafted at 18, reaches maturity at 25, is seasoned by 30 and at 35 is contemplating an afterlife on the golf course. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the greatest book about baseball by a player–Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (1970)–is the diary of a journeyman pitcher’s dispiriting final full season, while the most esteemed work of baseball fiction–Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952)–is a fable about an aging slugger, loosely based on the medieval fertility myth of Percival and the Fisher King. In these books, promise fades, arms fail and fleeting glory can’t alter the doleful trajectory of all existence. Yet longtime fans take comfort in the game’s perennial cycles of renewal. Players come and go, but team loyalties remain, providing a pleasing continuity to the disjointed narratives of our lives.