Archive for the ‘Baseball’ category

11.03.16 That World Series: A Cleveland-Chicago boy celebrates the joy of baseball

November 3, 2016

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I grew up in Cleveland. And I spent many glorious afternoons in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. My loyalties during this most astounding World Series seemed to float back and forth, sometimes batter to batter.

In my childhood, I went to more games than I could count at the old 86,000-seat Municipal Stadium on the Cleveland lakefront. During those 103- or 105-loss seasons in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d be one of about 3,000 lonely souls in that huge, depressing canyon. The “Tribe” only won more games than they lost three times in the first 34 years of my life. And, as most people now know, the city didn’t experience a single major league sports championship from the time I was four (the Browns in 1964) until earlier this year, when LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the pinnacle of the NBA.

But it wasn’t only sports. When I was born in 1959,  Cleveland was still the fourth largest city in the country at nearly 1 million inhabitants. Then there were riots in 1967 and the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. The city hemorrhaged population to less than 400,00 today. Cleveland was a national laughing stock (“the Mistake on the Lake,” “Cleveland’s like Newark without its charm”). In the early ’80s, the city defaulted on its debts. It took inner fortitude to admit in polite company where one was from. Then, there was a stubborn pride in doing so. Cleveland today is desperately poor, with one of the worst public school systems in the country and a brutally racist police force.

Sure other baseball teams had longer droughts than the Indians’ that started in 1949. The White Sox, the Red Sox, and then the Cubs had it worse. But all of those cities had other sports and civic victories to celebrate. Not Cleveland. (To be fair, there was a some glory in a world-class symphony orchestra and art museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) Who most desperately needed and deserved some limelight going into the World Series, the Cubs or the Indians? I think the more pitiful city was clear. Hell, even in losing, the Cubs have had a devoted national following. The Indians, meanwhile, have consistently played to the smallest road crowds in baseball, year after year.

Oh, but that Wrigley and Cubbie magic! In the mid-80s (before lights!), bleacher seats went on sale on the day of the game. You lined up in the morning and for three bucks, you got one of the best seats in baseball. There was a feeling of community in that ballpark that no other place could match. After attending dozens of games in ’84 (that heartbreak year) and ’85, I went abroad for a year. When I returned to my customary spot in the bleachers in mid-’86, everyone remembered me! They welcomed me back, asked where I’d been, and bought me beer after beer until I cried mercy. That magic has stayed with me for 30 years.

As I have previously written, the baseball “industry” has gradually, but steadily alienated me, over the years.* The year 2016, when — ironically — four of my “natural” clubs (Cubs, Indians, Nationals, Orioles) made the playoffs, was the first in my life when I didn’t follow baseball at all.

Then, the Cubs and Indians were to meet on the World Series! When I lived in Chicago, a childhood friend of mine who was living in Wisconsin came down to visit me from time to time. There was no point at all in rooting for the hapless Tribe, on their way to another last-place finish. So we were all about the Cubs. We joked that if the Cubs and Indians were ever to meet in the World Series, surely the apocalypse would follow.

There was no way I was going to stay checked out this October and November. I quickly studied all I could about both teams. I decided intellectually that I had to favor the Cubs because I am so offended by the Indians’ horribly racist and just-plain UGLY logo, Chief Wahoo. (I have long mourned that I would be too ashamed to wear any Cleveland baseball paraphernalia. The “logo” I inserted above is a placholder for Wahoo). I also learned that the home-town fans had deserted the Tribe, leaving them with the third-worst per-game home attendance in 2016. Even during the Series, Progressive Field was substantially populated by Cubs and other out-of-town fans. This could not be a city whose fans deserved a championship.

Then I started to watch. Like I said, I could never really decide which side I was on. I just had to listen to my gut, as I found myself hoping the pitcher would get a called third strike this time or that the batter would smash a home run the next. I sometimes cheered when a player stole second or when the next one got picked off first.

It is an amazing luxury to be rooting for two opposing teams at once! This saved me from frenzied heartache as the momentum swung this way and that. I was joyful no matter what happened. (The only time I had experienced anything like this was when the Indians and Orioles met in the post-season in the 90s.)

Something happened to me by Game 7, though. Chief Wahoo stopped mattering. I stopped trying to measure which city and whose fans were more deserving. Instead, I let myself fall in love with the scotch-tape-and-rubberbands, tiny-payroll Indians ballclub. I fell in love equally with Terry Francona, the Indians manger, who delivered managerial performance — strategy! — that was stunning, while he exuded nice-guy vibes.

At the same time, I felt growing contempt for the Cubs’ manager, Joe Maddon. His abysmal handling of pitchers was contemptuous. His call for a two-strike bunt with a runner on third and one out in the ninth inning of a tied Game 7 has to be the stupidest managerial decision I’ve ever seen. (Ironically, the other terrible manager I remember whose team won in spite of him was Charlie Manuel who oversaw the uber-talented Tribe in the mid-90s).

So, I just couldn’t help rooting for Francona and against Maddon. I was actually surprised to find myself disappointed when the Cubs pulled out a miraculous three-game streak to win on the road in 10 innings. But, not nearly as disappointed as my other Cleveland friends, because of the Wrigley/Cubs magic that also lives deep within me.

That was a seven-game series for the ages. The intensity and constant surprises may well have reawakened my love of the sport, even in the face of the “industry” that has been so alienating for so many reasons.

I thank Cleveland and Chicago for the heritage they have given me. I thank both rosters. I thank Terry Francona. I thank all the Cubs fans for their joyous explosion on Facebook and in the media today. And I thank my dear old childhood friends with whom I watched two games in the last week.

In a terribly depressing world, I thank baseball for delivering this week some innocent and full-hearted happiness.


*In addition to all the enforced religious/military patriotism, also: the spectacle of spoiled millionaires and billionaires fighting over spoils, the utter lack of loyalty of players to cities and fans, the outrageous prices for tickets and concessions, the way steroids destroyed the baseball record books, arbitrary interleague play, and the ridiculous imbalance of having a team play so many more games against against its three or four  division opponents than against the rest of the league.

©2016 Keith Berner

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05.04.09 Seventh-Inning Stretch Gone Bad (or Why My Deity Hates Baseball)

May 4, 2009

Little affronts to freedom of conscience are steps down a slippery slope to fascism and theocracy.

Back when I used to go to Baltimore Orioles games (before Peter Angelos’s misrule and disgusting politics soured me on the team), I used to get upset every time 7th inning rolled around.  Everyone’s favorite baseball song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” lasted all of about 45 seconds and was immediately followed by John Denver’s (ah-hem) classic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” which seemed to go on forever.  Not only is it an awful song, but what the hell does being a country boy have to do with downtown Baltimore?

Now I long for the days of simply hating a baseball team’s taste in music.

Following the horror of 9-11, Major League Baseball ordered all teams to play “God Bless America” during the 7th-Inning Stretch, because – evidently – it wasn’t enough to sing the national anthem at the beginning of the game.  Those were the days of Freedom Fries and “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” when national paranoia could only be combatted by US military aggression and nose-thumbing at the Geneva Convention.  Invoking God’s special love for the Best Country Ever fit right into the ethos of the time.

Even the superpatriots of MLB backed off a bit the next season, requiring teams to play the hymn just on Sundays and holidays, a rule which is still in effect.  By 2007, only the New York Yankees – under the enlightened leadership of George Steinbrenner – saw fit to subject their fans to enforced religious patriotism at every single game. 

So, you want to quibble with “enforced,” do you?  After all, there were no brown-shirts or Iranian-style morals police punishing nonbelievers and non-nationalists, right?  Wrong!

Beginning in late 1991, Steinbrenner hired off-duty NYC cops to restrict fan movement during the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.”  Mean stares from the cops were not enough, though, so the team actually has ushers stand holding chains to block aisles and prevent fans from leaving their seats!  (Eight other teams — the Astros, Athletics, Marlins, Padres, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox, and Twins  — also have ushers restrict movement during Moments of Enforced Religious Patriotism, but they don’t use cops or chains.)

According to the Yankees, they have never gotten any complaints about their ongoing exercise in compulsive observance.  And the ACLU, while warning against “enforced cultural conformity and the use of a ballgame to impose political correctness on a captive audience,” said that the Yanks apparently were free to do as they wished, since they are a private entity.

That changed when the Yanks decided last August 27 to arrest someone for going to take a pee while he should have been standing still and pondering how perfect our country is and how much the Judeo-Christian deity loves it.  Yep, Bradford Campeau-Laurion (note the French name!), of Astoria, Queens committed the crime of daring to walk past a police officer during a Religiously Patriotic Moment and got his sorry ass thrown out of Yankee Stadium.  Now, he and the ACLU are suing on the grounds that forcing everyone to think and act exactly the same might not be the greatest embodiment of freedom (and might not be constitutional, either).

Having recently read about that incident, I trotted out to a Washington Nationals game last Thursday evening (note: not a Sunday or holiday).  I was enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, in a gorgeous new stadium, watching the Worst Team in Baseball prepare to drop yet another one when BOOM!  God Bless America came blaring out of every loudspeaker in the stadium and everyone around me – folks who moments earlier were thinking for themselves and holding various opinions about various things – stood bolt upright and all thanked God for His love of Our Special Country.

What’s my problem, you ask (apart from my little constitutional quibbles).

Well, for one thing, I don’t believe in God.  (I write this with a capital “G,” because it is the name of one religious tradition’s top being.)  No less a figure than the president of the United States grudgingly accepts my right to live here and have rights and everything, even though I don’t buy the whole thing about some white dude up in the sky who made everything and decides everything.  So, I also don’t feel like I have to listen to songs about deities, unless I’m going to an event (a Christmas concert, say) where that is the purpose.

I also don’t believe that deities should be in the business of determining which teams win or favoring certain teams over others.  (If deities are going to be in that business, the least they could do is make the Yanks lose!)  And I think they should turn deaf ears to humans who think of themselves – or their particular countries or teams or gardening clubs – as better than everyone else. 

No, if I had a god, he/she/it certainly wouldn’t be blessing America without also blessing Mexico, France, and Iran.  In fact, my god would also bless North Korea and Sudan (though, not their current leaders), not to mention cats and trees and amoebas.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of oneself or of one’s country, on those rare occasions worthy of pride.  But such pride ought not be competitive or zero-sum.  And that’s the problem with almost all patriotism: it isn’t sufficient to be happy about ourselves.  Rather, it’s about our victory over others, or the fact that we’re richer than they are, or have more and bigger tanks.  Such patriotism is inherently aggressive and hostile.

When aggressive patriotism is combined with a certainty of heavenly favor – and when that combination is then enforced on captive masses — I see great danger.  At the very least, the captives lose their ability to ask hard questions and challenge ingrained assumptions.  This loss of individual freedom or ability to think is also a loss of constraint on those in charge.  Little affronts to freedom of conscience are steps down a slippery slope to fascism and theocracy.

This is why I will not stand up for patriotic displays or pretend to worship a god I don’t.  This is why I object to being requested – nonetheless required – to do so.  And this is why I will not be attending any more Washington Nationals baseball games.  Even once the team gets on God’s good side and is no longer Among the Worst Ever, they’ll have to carry on blessing America without me.

©2009 Keith Berner