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October 21, 2003
Another baseball season has wound its way to the World Series, where the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees are fighting for the championship. But unlike past Fall Classics, this one has the feel to many fans of being not climax but denouement--and a melancholy denouement at that. It's as though the party has ended, and the Yankees and Marlins have stayed behind to help clean up, because, well, somebody has to.
It's curious, at least to me, that this has come about, because I'd expected the same to happen if the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox--the two teams that seemed to become each league's protagonist this postseason--actually did meet in the World Series. Nothing the series itself could offer would seem more notable than both teams just getting there, and the knowledge that one would have to win. How could it matter that much--if both were so embraced as fitting protagonists--which one triumphed and how? They both arrived, the story is over, and let's hope for a nice seven-game epilogue.
Instead, they both faltered, the story is over, and the epilogue has begun with a very different feel, as though with the wrong characters. It seemed such a good story, and then it all went terribly wrong. But at least the writer of this baseball drama did one thing exactly right: if both protagonists did have to meet untimely ends, at least they did so in spectacular fashion.
The Chicago Cubs
The events of this year's National League Championship Series inspired a little story in my father's head, but he left it up to me to write it. So I hope I do it justice:
For forty years, Andy Campbell had watched the Chicago Cubs fail. For forty years, he had suffered heartbreaks, setbacks, and his own unmercifully relentless optimism. For forty years, he had waited. He was tired of waiting.
When the Cubs got into the 2003 playoffs, Andy let himself hope. But when Chicago beat Atlanta in five games in the Divisional Series, doubt began to set in. It seemed a little too much like the setup for another disappointment, another tragedy. So Andy did something he'd never done before: he waited until his wife was asleep, and he crept downstairs to his living room, and he knelt, and he prayed.
He didn't know where to kneel, so he knelt in front of the television set, the glass screen, presently blank, which would soon project into his home a dynamic and colorful illustration of the Cubs' success or failure. It was the messenger, the device that would tell him whether to be happy--the long suffering was over--or sad--the long suffering just got longer. He knelt there as though he prayed not to God for some outcome on some grassy field, but to the television itself, to just show the right pixels at the right time to create joy.
"God," he began, "I'm sure you get a lot of this. And I can't really say for sure why I feel this is something . . . different. But I have to ask. Just once, once, couldn't the Cubbies win the championship? I know there's a lot of other teams, and a lot of other fans, and I don't want them to be disappointed. But if there could just be one time in my life--and this was it, so I could watch, with my wife. That's all I could ever ask for."
And Andy looked up, looked at the screen, as though he expected God's visage to appear there, to tell him the answer from behind a news desk, with a little graphic above His all-powerful shoulder. But God was not there; the TV was still blank. And Andy stood, and turned around, and God was in the armchair.
Andy didn't worry; he knew this was God, there was no mistaking Him. All he could do was stand and watch and wait for God to deliver an answer.
"You think I've got nothing better to do," God began, "than to mess with the outcomes of baseball games?"
Andy stammered: "It's not--"
"There are more worthwhile pursuits than watching the players in blue shirts hit the ball better than the other players, Andy. That this is all you ask for speaks volumes, volumes about you. You pray not for a better life for your family, you pray not for a better life for all others, you pray not for the capacity to love those even that wrong you. You pray for the Cubs. To win a game of baseball." God stood and walked toward the front door, swung it wide open. "Until you can rethink your priorities," He bellowed, "I will bid you goodnight!"
"Wait!" Andy cried, before the door swung shut.
God stepped back in. "Yes?"
"I spend almost all my time working for a better life for my family. I do what I can to make life better for others. I do love even those that wrong me. These things--I do them on my own, God, because I think that's the way I should. You, when you made Andy Campbell, you made a man who does what he can, who does his best, who does all the important things you just said. And I've never asked you for your help in doing them, because it's my belief that you made me a man who has the strength to do those things himself. And I think you did it for a reason, God; I think you gave me the strength to take care of my family so you wouldn't have to. If I've never asked you for help in that, God, it's because I believe that's on me; that's what I do, and I can, and I will."
"But this?" God prompted.
"But this--well, somehow, I get all tied up with this team. And I can't really do much about what happens to them. All I can do is watch, hope, and maybe, even just once, pray. Like I said, I do all I can, and there's just not much I can do about these games--but somehow, I care so much what happens. And if it's really no big deal, in the end, who wins, God--well, would it be so terrible, if just once?"
"You work for a better life for your family?" God asked.
"I do. I do my best."
"You strive for a better life for all others?"
"Whenever I can," Andy said.
"You love even those that wrong you?"
"Sometimes my emotions get the best of me, God, but I strive to, I do."
"I will give you a sign," said God. "And it shall be done."
And with that, God was gone, instantly--there was no need for the front door.
The next morning, Andy was enthusiastic. To everyone he saw, he felt the need to point it out: "This is their year! No more next year. This year!" And the games began. Chicago lost the first game, and he worried: was something wrong? Had he misunderstood?
But then, in Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, the Cubs kept winning, and the World Series was now tantalizingly close. The first World Series since 1945, years before Andy was even born!
When the Marlins, behind the pitching of Josh Beckett, defeated the Cubs in Game 5, leaving the Cubs up 3-2 in the series, Andy worried a little. But, he supposed, it was just to get the series back home to Wrigley Field. The Cubs had to lose two to finish the job at Wrigley. Still, he never allowed himself too much optimism. He never let himself feel sure.
Even when the Cubs were up, 3-0, in the eighth inning of Game 6, Andy was tense. "Come on, guys, finish the job," he said.
"They'll do it," his wife insisted.
"Don't jinx them!"
The Marlins were up in the eighth. First, there was a Mike Mordecai flyout--five outs to go. Then Juan Pierre doubled, and Andy watched, worried, as Luis Castillo worked the count full against pitcher Mark Prior. Castillo lifted a long foul ball to left field, just at the edge of the field, and as Moises Alou jumped to make the catch, a fan reached out as well--and deflected the ball.
As Andy watched the replays, he was enraged. "How can this happen? How can a fan do this? He doesn't belong at a baseball game. He doesn't belong in the front row of the playoffs. How can you be so damn clueless?" Andy's wife just watched his theatrics, knowing better than to get involved.
And then the runs started coming, eight in one fateful inning when all was said and done. And the Cubs lost, the game was over, and there was just one more chance for Chicago to reach the World Series: what had seemed so sure now seemed almost impossible.
After the game, Andy's wife said: "I just feel so terrible for that poor fan."
"Why?" Andy demanded. "That jerk cost the Cubs the chance at the World Series. I hate him. He should be banned from Cubs games; he should be kicked out of Chicago."
"Andy, calm down," she said. Andy just muttered under his breath.
By Game 7, Andy had no hope left it all; he believed it was over. You can't hope for God to do it all--you have to work with him, you can't blow it like that fan did. It was the turning point in the game, as far as Andy was concerned, the turning point in the series--and that fan was responsible.
So when Game 7 was over, and the Cubs had lost, and the Florida Marlins celebrated their upcoming trip to the World Series, Andy wasn't surprised. Failure seemed natural now. But when he went to bed that night, he couldn't sleep. Something kept him up: How could God let one fan ruin it like that? So Andy went back downstairs, knelt in front of the TV screen, and pleaded:
"God, I don't know what happened. I thought you were going to give us this one time. I thought you were going to come through for the Cubs, just this once, and make us all feel a little better. What happened?"
And he stood, and turned, and there was God again, sitting in the armchair.
"I said I would give you a sign," God said.
"I know, God, and I looked, and I didn't see your sign."
"When that fan touched that ball," God said, "when he kept Luis Castillo's at-bat alive--"
God stood, walked to the window, allowed the event to replay itself in Andy's mind.
Finally, Andy spoke: "Yes, God?"
"That was a test."
Thanks to Martin Werr.
The Boston Red Sox
For all the comparisons of the Boston Red Sox to the Chicago Cubs, there's a pretty major difference between the two: the Red Sox have a villain. Boston's struggles and heartbreaks seem to be the prelude to some great moment of comeuppance, some ecstatic instant in which the tables suddenly turn. The morning of ALCS game 7, I said: "The Red Sox are George McFly, and it's time to punch Biff."
In Back to the Future, when George McFly finally delivered his blow to his tormentor, Biff Tannen, what made the moment so sweet was the memory of that torment. It's not David vs. Goliath, either--it's not about the weak defeating the strong. It's not even about the losers defeating the winners. It's more personal than that. It's about looking your enemy in the eye, and saying, "For as long as I can remember, you felt free to take everything I've wanted. You've kicked me aside like I didn't matter, even though we both know that part of your satisfaction has always been with my failure. But not this time. This time, it's my turn, and I don't care if I have to go through you or not."
But you don't need to say it. You just do it. And even that one moment of triumph feels like it means more than all the defeats that came before it. The defeats, the agony, the long-suffering: that was prelude. That one moment: payoff.
And so, last Thursday, as Biff Tannen held George McFly's arm behind his back, as a terrified Lorraine watched, George began to curl his fingers into a fist. Hunched over, in pain, he focused all his strength into his one free hand--and it seemed as though the power of all the suffering Biff had brought him was there, too, the suffering that would define the moment of triumph as much as--more than--the victory itself. And as Biff laughed his tyrranical laugh, George swung with a might that you didn't know he possessed--that you didn't know anyone could possess--
And Biff casually caught his hand--stopped the punch midflight--and George was helpless. And Biff saw that all that energy waiting to be released provided an opportunity to inflict an even deeper level of suffering on George, and as Lorraine and the horrified audience stared, mouths agape, Biff bellowed, more mightily than ever before: "Hello, McFly!" And he ripped George's arms from their sockets, and beat George with them, chanting demonically, "Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself?" As the life force drained from George's pathetic body, he looked at the one thing he desired more than any other--Lorraine, glowing golden like a championship trophy, sweet Lorraine, who must surely be dreading another advance from callous Biff--the final indignity was her sidling up to Biff, caressing his disgusting body as though it was Biff all along she wanted. Biff, the inhuman, uncaring overdog, who could never possibly appreciate the magical thing that was Lorraine Baines, because such things came so easily to him--Biff was the one she wanted all along, it seemed.
Marty McFly was never born. And he couldn't warn Doc about the Libyan terrorists, and Doc never wore the bulletproof vest to which he owed his life--well, he owed his life to the vest and the fact that the terrorists never shot his head or any of the other large exposed parts of his body. Everything was wrong, nothing was right--or so it seemed--but behind Biff's terrible laugh, and Lorraine's idiotic cooing, if you listened, very carefully, you could still hear George's faint heartbeat. And that heartbeat had a message:
This, too, is prelude.
Well . . . maybe. It's easy to conceive of this one more defeat--especially a defeat so heartbreaking--making the eventual victory just that much better. But it's hard to imagine a better setting, a more appropriate moment, than Pedro Martinez facing Roger Clemens in an ALCS Game 7 against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. It's unlikely that the next time the Red Sox reach the World Series--and the next time they win it--the stop immediately prior will have been the Bronx. And it's even more unlikely that the two series leading up to their championship bout could be so thrilling as these two were. Sometimes, the moment seems just right, and it still doesn't happen. But, inevitably, it will happen someday, one way or another, and no matter how mundane the actual games are, how ordinary the opponent is, the reward--just by its very nature--will be so much bigger than this defeat.
In any case, right or wrong, good or evil, fair or not, this all made for good entertainment--which is, after all, all you can really ask of baseball.
October 21, 2003 - bunyon
October 21, 2003 - LSR
October 21, 2003 - JD
October 21, 2003 - Harvey
October 21, 2003 - Greg Tamer
October 21, 2003 - Guancous
October 21, 2003 - Joshua
October 22, 2003 - Ted
October 22, 2003 - Stephen Jordan
October 22, 2003 - baseball chick
October 28, 2003 - Martin Werr
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