The Baseball Desert

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Who cares?

As autumn ticks over slowly into winter I find myself wanting to stay connected to baseball, and over the last two or three years that has meant visits not just to, but to most of the blogs listed to the right as well. As a result, since the end of the season just about a month ago I've read more season retrospectives than are probably good for me. Each time I read one I thought that it might be good to sit down and write one myself, but I couldn't find the common denonminator that brought together my different thoughts on the season. The story that I - and just about any other fan of baseball (and some non-fans too) - will remember is of course the Red Sox' amazing ALCS comeback and subsequent triumph in the World Series, but I couldn't quite work out how that historic achievement fit in with my own experience. Since I couldn't quite find the angle, I left it at that - the season would be something to be savoured, but I wouldn't try to spoil the magic by looking for its deeper meaning.

Once the immediate concerns of the season were over, I found myself once again looking at the bigger picture and turning to those who write about the boys of summer for a living. I'm a fan of the game, so the specific subject-matter is almost irrelevant - it's enough to read their elegant prose and just be reminded that the game hasn't gone away - it's simply in hibernation. The offseason oftens cools the sometimes overzealous ardour with which I follow baseball from March through October, but having the time to sit down and reread the great baseball writers also paradoxically fuels the underlying passion for the game. The reading and rereading usually begins with RogerAngell, whose annual recap of the season is - rightly - a highlight for those who enjoy good baseball writing (or, in fact, good writing, period). When this year's piece came out a couple of weeks ago, Beth had this to say:
This is writing built like a Stradivarius. Each new edition of Angell is the absolute best thing about the off-season, and perfect for it, too, meant to be enjoyed first in tiny sips, pauses to stare off into space and contemplate a turn of phrase, and then frequent revisitations.
(She should know, of course, since she's a pretty mean writer herself - if you don't believe me, go read her own season recap - parts I, II, III and IV - and weep...). She was right about the Angell piece, so much so that, in an age when almost all the news and sports press that I read is online, this was one of those rare articles that I needed to print out in order to read properly.

Of course, the article was just the beginning for a self-confessed Angell-holic like me - those sips inevitably lead to a desire to read more. This year, the book that I picked up was Angell's Five Seasons, and it was there that I finally realised what this season had been all about. In October 1975 Angell wrote about Game 6 of the World Series between the Reds and the Red Sox, a game still considered by many to be one of the greatest in World Series history, which the Red Sox won on Carlton Fisk's foul-pole home run in the bottom of the twelfth inning:
I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them – in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damriscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont, in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters; and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives) and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway – jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I supposed, and on the back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night) and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy – alight with it.
The image of the lone driver leaping up and down on the macadam reminded me of this particular English baseball fan jumping up and down in his living room at 7am after Game 7 of the ALCS. What made the penny finally drop was what Angell goes on to say:
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look – I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté – the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball – seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
That was what defined my season - not just caring about the game (which is as fundamental to me as breathing), but watching a team from Spring Training through to the playoffs and really caring about that team. Historically, both for Red Sox Nation and the baseball world in general, the World Series victory means everything, but within the framework of my own private season, it's simply the icing on the cake - 2004 will always be "The Season I Found My Team". I know that the timing of my conversion might well put me squarely in the category of bandwagon jumpers, but in a previous life I used to follow my local soccer team all over the UK even though they didn't have a cat in hell's chance of ever making it out of the basement of the second division, so I can deal with that. However, should the Red Sox not win the World Series or make the playoffs next year, should they finish dead last (and here's a rash Baseball Desert prediction for you: they won't...) I'll still be there, wearing my cap with pride, but it will no longer be simply a fine fashion accessory - it will be something more, something that says I finally belong.