The Magic of Baseball Endures
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.
Fandom, with all its mortifications and consolations, is the subject of two new books, one a touching memoir and the other a jokey manifesto. The respective authors, Nicholas Dawidoff and Will Leitch, approach the subject with different tones and styles. In The Crowd Sounds Happy, Dawidoff, a former Pulitzer Prize finalist, compares the story of his love for the Red Sox to a Chekhov play, "where the impending sorrow was tolerable because it was related with such beautiful ennui." Leitch, who made his name as a blogger, is considerably more irreverent: the cover of his book, God Save the Fan, features an illustration of one of those enormous foam fingers goofy spectators wave, except the finger that's extended is the... well, you get the idea. What the two books share, however, is the basic assumption that it is perfectly reasonable for an intelligent person to devote large portions of his conscious attention to the fortunes of a bunch of men in colorful hats who wave sticks at a white speck and run around in circles.
Recalling childhood broadcasts of games on the radio, Dawidoff writes,
It seemed to me then that baseball could grow time, that its endlessly digressive nature made it not so much immediate as an activity in dialogue with immediacy. Each game might, in theory, continue forever, until it didn't. Naturally, I wanted the Red Sox to win, but, if I could have wished for anything, it would have been for this game that was played at a lifelike, real-time pace to last and last, to go ahead and become life, for it never to end and send me back into my room again, back to the world's deficiencies.
Or, as Leitch puts it: "Life is hard. Sports are where we go to hide."
The world's deficiencies, however, have a way of catching up to the game. Baseball is currently going through one of its periodic integrity crises. Last December an investigatory commission headed by George Mitchell, the former US senator from Maine, released a report on the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by major-league players. As even casual fans know, Mitchell implicated several superstars, including Barry Bonds, the holder of both the single-season and career home run records, and Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher since World War II. The investigation marked the culmination of an ugly period of public disgraces, grand jury indictments and Congressional hearings. The self-appointed custodians of baseball, a Greek chorus of politicians, league executives and newspaper columnists (inside and outside the sports pages), now condemn those players who defied the rules of mortality, altering their body chemistries to artificially increase their strength and prolong their careers. The defendants stand accused of endangering the game by toying with its very nature.
For the past few years, I've made a trip down to Clearwater, Florida, in March to watch my team, the Philadelphia Phillies, play a few spring training games. I do it for all those hackneyed, soppy reasons that are nonetheless true: I like to put aside more somber writing subjects and to escape the cold of New York; most of all, I like spending a few days with my father, who always drives down from my hometown in South Carolina. We go to the games early, watch batting practice, get acquainted with the roster. There are the mainstays--Jimmy Rollins, our puckish shortstop; Ryan Howard, our mountainous first baseman; Pat Burrell, our lothario in left--and there are a smattering of newcomers acquired in the off-season. In the late innings of the games, the manager pulls the regulars out and the fans get a chance to see the future, the young prospects who are just proving their talents, and the past, a few faded players who are competing to hang on to the end of the bench, trying to show they still have a swing or an arm good enough to keep them in the game. Those "veterans" are actually around my age, but somehow they still look grizzled and creaky to me.
I often say that my Phillies allegiance is a hereditary disease carried on the Y chromosome. According to geography, I should have been an Atlanta Braves fan, like all my friends growing up. Had that happened, I could have spent my 20s smugly rooting for a first-place team. Instead, following the lead of my dad, who's from Delaware, I chose the Phillies, and frustration. In its 125-year history, the franchise has won only one World Series, in 1980, when I was slightly too young to appreciate it. Last year, the Phillies made the playoffs, and this season, as of mid-August--based on past experience, I hesitate even to write these words--they sat atop the National League's Eastern Division. But for most of my life, and for most of my father's, and for most of my grandfather's, and for most of my great-grandfather's--all of them Phillies fans--the team has been lousy. I mean, world-historically bad.
Other teams have their traditions of failure--like the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who haven't finished the season with a winning record since George H.W. Bush was President--but for sheer, crapulous volume, no team loses like mine. Last July I watched the Phillies suffer the 10,000th loss in franchise history, a nationally televised 10-2 drubbing, apparently establishing some kind of record for futility that spans all sports. Other teams redeem themselves by losing lovably (the Cubs) or tragically (the Red Sox, until recently), but the Phillies tend to lose with such miserable ill humor that no one feels sorry. In his book, which includes several satirical "glossary" sections, Leitch defines a Phillies fan this way:
Hates everything about the team, including the fans. Does everything possible to make sure playing for the Phillies is a miserable experience, and then excoriates anyone who might deign to play for a franchise and a fan base that makes baseball fun. Like the guy who is so mean to his girlfriend that he forces her to break up with him, then calls her a bitch for leaving him.
That's a bit harsh. I would say that when your team has lost more games than any other since the dawn of time, some pessimism is understandable. My father's most prized Phillies souvenir is a pristine ticket to Game One of the 1964 World Series, to be held at Philadelphia's long-gone Connie Mack Stadium. The ticket was printed at a point near the end of that season, when the Phillies held the National League lead by such a wide margin that a berth in the series seemed assured. But as soon as they went on sale, the Phillies imploded, squandering a six-and-a-half-game lead by losing ten of their last twelve. Game One of the World Series ended up being played in St. Louis by the Cardinals and the Yankees. My father has held on to his worthless ticket for more than forty years as a constant reminder of how sick and transitory glory can be.
Rooting for a winner is easy; living with loss is real life. Dawidoff, a Red Sox fan, describes the experience of standing in an office at his high school, surrounded by Yankees supporters, and watching his team blow the one-game playoff that gave the 1978 American League Eastern Division championship to New York--the game that featured Bucky Dent's storied pop-fly homer over the Green Monster in Fenway Park. "It was embarrassing to feel so humiliated in front of everyone, and to be made foolish by baseball," Dawidoff writes. And yet later on he says he came to feel "oddly consoled" by the team's "pursuit of failure," which seemed to mirror the difficulties of his own childhood.
I was frustrated by their fuddled, fizzling breakdowns, just as I often was frustrated by my life, in which everybody close to me seemed either sick or dying or tormented with grief, and that commonality of experience made the wistful pleasures the Red Sox provided accessible to me. At sixteen I had come to believe that nothing worthwhile comes without great suffering; there was deeper meaning to me in catastrophes.
Dawidoff is the author of three previous books, including The Catcher Was a Spy (1994), an outstanding biography of a Jewish ballplayer who moonlighted as an Office of Strategic Services operative. The Crowd Sounds Happy grew out of a New Yorker article he wrote about his father, a brilliant attorney who lost his mind. In the book, Dawidoff describes how his father, as a Harvard undergraduate, began seeing green-eared creatures that told him to give away all of his possessions. Donald Dawidoff stabilized for a while, long enough to finish law school, marry and start a family, but his creeping insanity ultimately drove his wife and children away. In his son's telling, baseball filled the paternal void.
The childhood memoir is a tough genre--no kid is really that insightful--and The Crowd Sounds Happy sometimes projects suspiciously adult insights onto Dawidoff's younger self. Yet it is hard to hold that against a book that's filled with so many passages of recognizable truth--and sadness, such as the scene in which Dawidoff's troubled father takes him to his first baseball game. It turned out to be a plodding fifteen-inning affair, and as night fell, Nicholas asked if they could go home. His father reproached him, saying, "A real fan stays for the whole game."
"Many years later," Dawidoff writes, "when I thought about what my father had said, it would occur to me that it was one of the last times he ever tried to impart wisdom to me. What to do when your father doesn't know best? If you were me, quietly you stopped asking him things."
The Crowd Sounds Happy culminates, as it must, with an account of the four games that changed everything for the Red Sox: the conclusion of the 2004 American League Championship Series. Down three games to none to the hated Yankees, a postseason deficit no baseball team had ever overcome, Boston reeled off a series of tense victories, two of them in extra innings, to force a decisive Game Seven. Dawidoff describes himself "pacing, trembling" as he listens on the radio, and confesses to feeling conflicted about the unfolding miracle--an emotional response shared by many Red Sox fans he knew. "Failure was the team's distinction, what made them unique--and it was the same with us," Dawidoff writes. "If we won, we'd lose our true selves."
Of course, Boston did beat the Yankees in Game Seven. The Red Sox have since won two World Series, banishing all talk of a curse. They've become boring--just another obnoxious juggernaut. In his concluding pages, Dawidoff seems to miss his old losing team. He even confesses an unlikely sympathy for Kevin Brown, the disagreeable former ace the Yankees sent to the mound to start that fateful Game Seven. Brown just couldn't summon the intimidating stuff that had once made him a star; he gave up five runs in just one-and-a-third innings. After the game, Dawidoff relates, the humbled pitcher told reporters, "I just wish I could have been the guy I used to be one more time."
Maybe he simply needed a new prescription. When George Mitchell released the results of his investigation into performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, Kevin Brown's name was among the most prominent ones mentioned. According to Kirk Radomski, a former Mets clubhouse attendant and confessed drug dealer, Brown was one of several players introduced to him by former all-star catcher Paul Lo Duca. In 2001, at a time when Brown was having injury trouble, the pitcher allegedly started buying human growth hormone, sending Radomski thousands of dollars in cash via overnight mail. Brown's drug use was apparent to the general manager of his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Lo Duca was the team's catcher.) "Question what kind of medication he takes," read a 2003 internal assessment of Brown's performance, obtained and quoted by Mitchell. "Steroids speculated by GM."
It's no surprise to learn at this point that baseball insiders knew prominent players were using performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone could see it, including the fans. The evidence was right before our eyes. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds developed WWF physiques and mashed home runs at an undreamed-of pace. Scrappy middle infielders suddenly started hitting for power. Sportswriter Pat Jordan went to Texas to see Roger Clemens during his off-season training and ended up witnessing the weirdly tight bond between the pitcher and his trainer, Brian McNamee, whose life seemed "to revolve around the conditioning of Roger Clemens." In a resulting New York Times Magazine article, which was recently republished in The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, Clemens asks McNamee's permission before he orders potatoes with dinner. It doesn't take much to imagine the trainer injecting a syringe of Winstrol into the pitcher's buttocks, as McNamee now claims he did, according to the Mitchell Report.
The press winked at the secret, writing about steroids in code. One year early in this decade, a Philadelphia sportswriter reported that one of the team's best players had arrived at spring training looking extraordinarily "bulked-up"--the product of "hard work, nothing more, in the weight room," the player claimed. He hit a lot of home runs that season. A decade earlier, Lenny Dykstra--the star of everyone's favorite Phillies team, the rowdy 1993 National League champs--returned from a winter of "training" with thirty added pounds of muscle and told reporters he'd been taking some "real good vitamins." When the Phillies won the 1993 pennant, a starting pitcher celebrated by ripping off his shirt on the mound and flexing his muscles like the Incredible Hulk. Another player had Popeye-sized biceps and was nicknamed Head because of his tendency to fly into blind rages. In retrospect, such behavior seems a tad suspicious, but it doesn't dim my affection for the 1993 Phillies team, the only one to make the World Series in my adult life. (They lost, in six games, to Toronto.)
Leitch, in one of the many perceptive essays in his book, writes that "most fans, deep down, don't really care about steroids that much." This is, needless to say, not the mainstream opinion. Now that the steroid secret is out, pundits have treated the scandal as a crisis akin to the fixed World Series of 1919 or the strike-ruined one of 1994. In a recent New Republic essay, bioethicists Leon Kass and Eric Cohen went even further, arguing that performance-enhancing drugs threaten to turn athletics into "a strange hybrid of dog racing, fantasy wrestling, and the circus freak show, with men and women programmed to perform at the highest levels that science makes possible." Maybe. But most fans I know would agree with Leitch: we're interested, but we don't really care. "This is not an instance of fans sticking their collective heads in the sand, as many sportswriters would like to perceive it," Leitch writes. "It's a matter of keeping our sports in perspective."
Perspective is Leitch's specialty. He is, in my opinion, one of the sharper and funnier sports columnists working today. Yet to some eminent members of the sportswriting fraternity--and that is the right word--he apparently represents the end of civilization. In a joint appearance several months ago on the HBO sports talk show Costas Now, Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights and several other fine books, unleashed a gale of profane invective at Leitch and the website he founded, which the elder journalist conceded he did not read with regularity. "I really think you're full of shit," Bissinger said, initiating an attack that was soon posted on YouTube and pinging into inboxes around the world. "I think the quality of the writing generally in blogs is generally despicable," Bissinger later added. "And yes, I say this as a writer who spent forty years of my life trying to perfect the craft."
Leitch is actually a consistently excellent writer, which is remarkable, considering how mentally exhausting it is to produce a half-dozen blog posts a day. It's true that Deadspin sometimes links to cellphone snapshots of athletes engaged in drunken lechery, that it eschews the euphemistic language of access-dependent sportswriting, that it sometimes makes a vulgar joke or pokes fun at some vainglorious broadcaster. It's true, in other words, that Deadspin is enjoyable--as sports are supposed to be. But God Save the Fan is about much more than baseball. Leitch, who got his start as a campus correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writes that traditional sports reporting is "a soul-crushing job that sucks all the fun out of sports." But on the Internet he can write like a fan. "The Web has helped shrink athletes down to our level," Leitch writes. "The days of Red Smith weaving tales of brilliance and assigning godlike qualities to the players are over."
Writing a book that declares the ascendancy of the Internet is an inherently ironic endeavor. Indeed, soon after God Save the Fan was published, Leitch announced he was leaving the site (which is owned by Gawker Media) to take a job at an old-fashioned glossy magazine, New York. As a result, the book reads a bit like a long farewell, even if the author couldn't have known he was writing one at the time. Though Leitch claims that only one passage is reprinted from Deadspin--an interview he conducted with John Rocker--the book nevertheless resembles, in tone and format, a blog committed to paper. The chapters are short, punchy and episodic, only loosely grouped into four larger thematic sections: "Players," "Owners, "Media" and "Fans." The tales Leitch spins about his favorite targets, such as ESPN's Chris Berman, will be familiar to anyone who often read Deadspin during his tenure there. What I find most endearing about the book, however, is the way Leitch skillfully manages to convey his love of sports while still putting that love in its proper place. "When you write about sports in a vacuum, spending all of your time with other sportswriters...you lose touch with how the rest of the planet works," he writes. "It's a fundamental concept: Sports do not matter."
Only, sometimes they do. Leitch describes, with not a bit of cynicism, the joy he felt as he sat in a Manhattan bar, surrounded by other expatriate Cardinals fans, and watched his team win a tight seventh-game victory over the Mets in the 2006 National League Championship Series. The World Series came next, and the Cardinals clinched it in five, with Leitch on hand at Busch Stadium to witness the final out. Months later, looking back on that game, Leitch wrote on his blog, "Time completely confuses me, because age is entirely backwards; I lose perspective on how much a singular event affects me as I get older, rather than gain it." But seeing the Cardinals win the World Series, for the first time since he was a boy, was different. "It's not that I'll never forget it; it's that its existence makes me wonder if, when all is said and done, and my nicotine addiction has finally caught up with me, it will be the only thing I remember."
In his book, Leitch reveals, without embarrassment, that during that postseason, someone recorded him dancing a victorious jig outside a bar and posted the video to the web. (You can find it on YouTube.) I can understand. Last year my Phillies made a charge down the stretch, and one afternoon, when second baseman Chase Utley singled home the winning run in an 11-10 victory over the league-leading Mets, I found myself dancing by myself in my apartment. (You cannot find a video of it on YouTube.) This is why I follow a child's game: because every so often, it transports me back to that childhood moment when nothing had happened before.
As long as it can provide that feeling, baseball will survive. But there is a cost to the steroids scandal, and it's there for anyone to see in the Mitchell Report. You have to dig through its 409 pages of assessment and appendices, past the names like Bonds and Clemens and the concerns about tainted records, and back into the dry recitation of the evidence against dozens of implicated players, many of them bench-warmers who seldom made the highlight reels. You can glimpse real tragedy in the story of someone like Chris Donnels, a reserve infielder who bounced through five major-league cities and a stint in Japan over the course of eleven years. He started using steroids and human growth hormone to recover from a string of injuries, and kept using them even after it became evident that he would never make it back to the big leagues. He just couldn't give up playing the game, not when his Triple-A team had a chance to make the playoffs. He told Mitchell that players like him used drugs "just to stay on the field, not to set records."
No one knows how historians will judge this era in baseball. Mark McGwire has thus far been denied election to the Hall of Fame, despite career statistics that merit it. Personally, I think that he and Bonds and Clemens and the rest should be enshrined in their own room--perhaps shaped like an asterisk?--alongside earlier outcasts like Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. It's possible that the players who used drugs will continue to pay a high price, both in terms of public disdain and long-term health effects. I believe, however, that it's just as likely that we'll look back years from now and see the steroids scandal as quaint hysteria. Attitudes about bioethics have a way of changing according to self-interest. As the baby boom generation ages, we're likely to see new drugs and genetic therapies develop to slow the aging process, to enhance performance in the most important contest of all. Then we may no longer judge today's ballplayers so harshly. In the end, we all want the same thing: to stay on the field just a little longer.