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The Long, Hot Summer

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The grave yawns, the economy is in the tubes, the world generally is in peril, yet, upon realizing that there is a game tonight, my heart takes a small but genuine jump.

I expected this long, hot summer also to be a depressing summer—depressing, that is, to the aging, cynical, yet withal still half-ardent baseball fan that I remain. As an American, Chicago-born, I go at things in my own way, which turns out to be a way I am not supposed to go. By this I mean that I cheer on the two baseball teams in my city. In jagged point of fact, Chicago White Sox fans hate Chicago Cubs fans, and Chicago Cubs fans, being somewhat more upwardly mobile, are merely contemptuous of Chicago White Sox fans.

Even though the Cubs are under new management, no one expected much of the team this season as it went into, as the local joke has it, the 106th year of its rebuilding program. Thus far, they have for the most part lived up to these low expectations. Not much more was expected of the White Sox, who traded away two key players—their top- of-the-rotation pitcher Mark Buehrle and a natural hitter named Carlos Quentin—without adding anyone substantial to replace them. Three marquee players—the home-run hitter Adam Dunn, the Cy Young-winning pitcher Jake Peavy, and the brilliant outfielder named Alex Rios—all had a wretched 2011 season, and with none of them young, there was no reason to believe that they would get much better this year. Doldrums is what the 2012 baseball season bode; doldrums unrelieved looked to be my lot.

Yet here we are in early August and the White Sox are leading the Central Division, and looking strong. This surprising fact is a reminder that baseball is the least predictable of American sports. In what other sport can an obviously weak team smash an obviously superior team—at least, as the cliché has it, on any given day? All other sports come down to particular games—big games, pivotal games, crucial games—while for baseball the significant unit of measurement is the season. Every baseball season seems to have its own rhythm, and because a baseball season is longer than any other sports season, one must learn to manage one’s depression and excitement about a team’s fortune over the six- or seven-month haul.

In what other sport can an obviously weak team smash an obviously superior team—at least, as the cliché has it, on any given day?

Along with being unpredictable, baseball is in many ways inexplicable. No one can quite explain why teams, or individual players, slump. The White Sox’s Dunn, Peavy, and Rios, so terrible last year, are each terrific this year. Pitching is an even more mysterious part of the game. Gavin Floyd, one of the Sox’s strong pitchers last year, was dreadful in the first half of the season. John Danks, another pitcher the team counted on, went down with an injury early in the year, and has yet to return. Meanwhile, a rookie named Jose Quintana came in and turned out to be magnificent. Or consider Phil Humber, a White Sox pitcher who pitches a perfect game early in the season–a feat that had been accomplished only 20 times previously–and in his next eight or nine outings, opposing teams might have been playing T-ball. If baseball pitchers were stocks, anyone who invested in them would be crazy.

One of the reasons I favor the White Sox’s chances this year is that the team has a decent share of blue-collar players. Blue-collar players are the athletic equivalent of tough guys. They bring up the quality of other players, if only because the latter tend to be slightly fearful of letting them down. Pete Rose and Johnny Bench were such players in their day on the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. In the NBA, there were said to have been four players—Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Isiah Thomas—who had the blue-collar mentality; if you were on their team, you couldn’t let them down without paying the price in the mental equivalent of castration.

The bluest of the White Sox blue-collar players is A. J. Pierzynski, the team’s catcher. I note that in a recent poll he has been chosen the most hated player in baseball. He is hated, in his own immodest view of the matter, chiefly for spoiling the chances of other teams over the years through his clutch hitting. Modest or immodest, he does not want for courage. Pierzynski wouldn’t flinch at a play at the plate if the runner were headed down the third-base line in a Hummer.

Because a baseball season is longer than any other sports season, one must learn to manage one’s depression and excitement about a team’s fortune over the six- or seven-month haul.

Trades are another element that give baseball an element of unpredictability, and they can break a fan’s spirit or elevate his hopes. The Cubs have been mired in the slough of despond for many years because they have too many high-salaried players on their roster not performing well and whom no other team wants. The point every baseball fan must suppress is that he probably has greater team loyalty than do the men who play for his favorite team. Ballplayers go for the money, and amounts have been so impressive that it is difficult not to blame them. Sometimes favorite ballplayers are sold off to other teams for purely budgetary considerations. In a recent trade, the White Sox acquired the Boston Red Sox third-baseman Kevin Youkilis—adding another blue-collar ballplayer to the team’s roster and demonstrating the upside of baseball peripeteia.

Baseball has long been known as the national pastime. Might it as easily be called the national loss time? How many hours do Americans expend watching their favorite baseball teams? More to the selfish point, how many hours do I spend doing so? I am grateful not to be presented with an accurate count. Not that I watch all ballgames with equal intensity. In recent years, I have taken to watching with the sound turned off.  I usually have a lightish book or magazine on my lap while the game is on, placing the two—reading and ballgame—in competition. Often reading wins out, but when one of the teams has men in scoring position, or the game is in the late innings, I set down my reading for baseball.

The grave yawns, the economy is in the tubes, the world generally is in peril, yet, upon realizing that there is a game tonight, my heart takes a small but genuine jump. When my team loses, I feel a slight slump, and when it wins, a modest lift. I am not fanatic, but a fan nonetheless, in too deep to get out now. I only hope that my last words, uttered in delirium, do not turn out to be, “How did the Sox do?”

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato. His new book, Essays in Biography, will be published by Axios Press this fall.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “Anyone for Tennis?” and “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato.” Adam Fleisher discusses “What Moneyball Missed.” Roger Bate says “As American as…Cricket.” Kevin A. Hassett and Stan Veuger claim “The Saints Ain't Sinners.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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