Cubs win!

The Chicago Cubs clinched their division by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals last night. Since the expansion of the major league baseball playoffs, few teams have managed to return to the playoffs the year after winning the championship. The San Francisco Giants managed a dynasty of sorts, winning three championships in five years (all even-numbered years). The New York Yankees are the last team to win consecutive championships, doing so in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I have been a Cubs fan since childhood. We Cubs fans were known for our faithful endurance, supporting a team that had not won a championship since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, a team that had not even won a pennant since the year World War II ended. The victories of 2016 were deeply satisfying, as the Cubs dominated the opposition all season, winning more than one hundred games, and then proceeded to bring home the National League pennant. The World Series was hard-fought, memorable for all baseball fans. The championship was not decided until the seventh game of the series, and that game lasted ten innings, including a brief rain delay.

The Cubs’ first opponent in the playoffs next month will be the Washington Nationals. Although the Nationals have never won a playoff series, I am concerned about the Cubs’ chances due to an odd pattern in their post-season history. From the year teams had to win a playoff series to gain the league pennant until the Cubs’ championship of 2016, they were in the playoffs seven times. In 1984 they came close to defeating the San Diego Padres for the pennant, but the Padres managed to win the series over the Cubs. In 1989 the Cubs returned to the playoffs, only to be defeated by the San Francisco Giants. In 1998 the Cubs and Giants were tied for the wildcard position and played a one-game extra game, which the Cubs won. However, afterward they were beaten by the Atlanta Braves. Do you see the pattern yet? Each time the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, they were beaten by a different team.

In 2003 the Cubs returned to the playoffs. They met the Braves again and won the series; afterward they had to face the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were within five outs of winning game six and the pennant when the team seemed to fall apart, yielding eight runs, the game, and (the next night) the series. In 2007 the Cubs were beaten three straight games by the Arizona Diamondbacks; in 2008, they were beaten three straight by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The pattern continued.

The Cubs were sold to a new owner, who brought in new management. The new management rebuilt the Cubs from the ground up. In 2015, they surged into contention, earning one of two wildcard spots in the National League. They defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the one-game wildcard playoff game, and then won a series against the Cardinals, demonstrating that they could not be stopped in the playoffs by a team in their own division. But when they played the New York Mets, the Cubs were swept in four straight games.

Seven different teams have stopped them in the playoffs: the Padres, Giants, Braves, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Mets. Three teams remain to be challenged: the Nationals, Colorado Rockies, and Philadelphia Phillies. In 2016, the Cubs were privileged to face the Giants and the Dodgers, teams that had stopped them before. But now they have to break their pattern completely by beating a team that has not threatened them in the playoffs to date.

On the other hand, the Cubs have a pattern of winning championships two years in a row—they did so in 1907 and 1908. J.

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Summer of ’69

As we approach the end of the book in the World Civilizations class I teach, I invite students to name the earliest event they can remember happening that is in history books today. Students older than me frequently speak of the assassination of President Kennedy. Students of traditional college age used to mention the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. For several years the earliest event remembered by many students was the terrorist attack of 9-11. I discovered this summer that, for this year’s incoming freshmen, the fall of the World Trade towers is a historic event; they cannot recall the day it happened.

I remember some events from my early childhood, but the first historic events I remember took place in the summer of 1969. Chief among those events was, of course, mankind’s first visit to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while a third astronaut, Mike Collins, came along for the ride but continued circling the moon during their mission. I remember sitting in the living room watching the grainy broadcast of Armstrong climbing down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I remember hearing him say, “That’s one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” I remember the other details of the mission as well. It pleases me that my earliest historic memory consists of good news and high accomplishments, not an assassination or attack or accidental explosion.

I remember the Chicago Cubs were doing well in the summer of 1969; they seemed destined to enter the playoffs for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1945. I remember the heat of August as they began losing more games than they were winning. I remember my father’s disgust after some of those losses. I remember the New York Mets passing the Cubs in the standings and taking their place in the playoffs. Reason to hope for success would not return to Cubs fans for another fifteen years.

I remember seeing my first hippies. They were a carful of people with long hair and brightly-colored clothes, shouting happily and waving to the little boy (me) standing by the street. I knew they were hippies. I had seen something on television about hippies and about a concert they were attending somewhere in the state of New York.

I didn’t see the documentary movie about Woodstock until I was in college. They showed Woodstock on campus, and my friends and I went into a frenzy of celebrating everything sixties and hippie-related. A few years later I found the three-disc album from the concert in a record store and bought it and played it over and over. Yet a few years later, I bought the VHS package of the documentary, watching it every August. When those tapes were wearing out, I replaced them with the DVD package released for the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock—it contains several songs that were not included in the original documentary, including performances by Jefferson Airplane and by Janis Joplin.

Some five-year-old and six-year-old children today are going to remember the summer of 2017. It will be their introduction to current events that become history. I wish they could remember successes, accomplishments, and acts of human kindness. The summer is not yet over; we still have a chance to make history. J.

World Series memories part three

The Chicago Cubs won their last World Series 108 days ago.

If you follow baseball even with mild interest, you will remember last season when baseball announcers were obliged to mention, every fifteen to twenty minutes during every game, that the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. Their last championship was in 1908, setting a record of futility for professional American sports teams that may never be broken. Their last National League pennant and World Series games happened in 1945. Most Cub fans had never seen a World Series game played in Wrigley Field. Year after year, faithful fans supported the team skeptics called “the Lovable Losers.” In some ways, it was more painful to come close in 1969, 1984, and 2003 than it was to accept another losing season and move on to football in the fall.

The climb to a championship began when the Chicago Tribune Company sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts then hired Theo Epstein to oversee the rebuilding of the Cubs. Epstein concentrated on acquiring young talent. The team in Chicago fared badly at first, while the future Cubs worked their way through the minor leagues. Then, one by one, they began appearing in Chicago. The new leadership traded experienced Cubs for prospects and projects. Epstein brought in manager Joe Maddon. He also signed expensive free agents John Lester and Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. By 2016 the magic was ready to happen.

The Cubs had won the National League wild card in 2015, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game play-off and then defeating the St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the New York Mets. The four embarrassing losses to the Mets may have been one of the best things to happen to the Cubs; they energized them for the next season.

The Cubs roared off to a great start in April and never looked back. More than half their starting lineup was voted onto the All-Star team. The Cubs’ only slump in the season came just before the All-Star break, but they were stronger than ever after that. They coasted through September, using extra pitchers to keep their starters from tiring. Then they met the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. Giants fans thought that their team should be favored—they had won championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so it seemed that it was their turn again. The Cubs denied that destiny. Then they moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won two of the first three games against the Cubs, causing the Cubs batters to saw at the air chasing pitches the way they had done against the Mets a year earlier. In the fourth game, Zobrist turned the tide by laying down a perfect bunt. Somehow that was the crack in the dam which broke. The Cubs bats awoke, and they easily disposed of the Dodgers.

Their World Series opponent was the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948. The Indians’ manager was Terry Francona, who had managed eight victories in World Series games with the Boston Red Sox without a single loss. The American League had won the All-Star game, giving the Indians a home field advantage. That ended up being an advantage for the Cubs. Their young power hitter, Kyle Schwarber, had been injured on the third game of the season. He missed the rest of the season and the first two rounds of playoffs due to surgery and recovery. Now doctors said he was fit to bat and run the bases; he just could not play a defensive position. American League ballparks allow one batter (called a designated hitter) to bat but not play a position, relieving pitchers of the obligation to bat. Schwarber was that designated hitter four times for the Cubs, helping lead the team to victory.

Even so, the Indians won three of the first four games against the Cubs. They needed only one more victory to become champions; the Cubs needed to win the next three games. Once again, pitchers for the opposition had been fooling the Cubs’ batters, inducing them to swing wildly at bad pitches. But the Cubs had some good pitchers of their own. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta held the Indians’ offense in check while the Cubs recovered their ability to score runs. The fifth game was a 3-2 nailbiter, but in the sixth game the Cubs broke out early and maintained their lead for the victory. Admittedly, Maddon overused his ace reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher who regularly throws the ball more than one hundred miles an hour. Chapman prefers to pitch just one inning (usually the ninth), but Maddon  brought him in earlier, which would have dramatic consequences in game seven.

Once again the Cubs broke out with an early lead, and all over the world Cub fans prepared to celebrate. Kyle Hendricks was pitching a gem of a game, but Maddon replaced him in the fifth inning to bring in Jon Lester along with catcher David Ross, who planned to retire at the end of the season. After Lester, Maddon brought in Chapman, and the Indians fought back. Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, horrifying Cubs fans everywhere. (It was in the eighth inning in 2003 that the Cubs lost a big lead in a key game due to a freak circumstance which does not deserve to be mentioned.) Neither team scored in the ninth, bringing the game to extra innings.

Rain delayed the game, and Jason Heyward called a meeting in the weight room by the visitors’ locker room. There he reminded his teammates that they were talented, that they had won games all year, and that they were capable of winning this game. A string of hits in the top of the tenth inning gave the Cubs a two run lead. They gave up one run in the bottom of the inning, leading Maddon to change pitchers one last time. Mike Montgomery threw two pitches. The second pitch was grounded to third base, where Kris Bryant, wearing a huge grin, captured the ball and threw it to first base. Anthony Rizzo caught the ball, raised his fists into the air in victory, and slipped the ball into his pocket.

One hundred eight days later, the joy has scarcely diminished. The players are gathering for spring training, preparing to battle toward a second championship. Chicago sports fans have high hopes, but also long memories. In the 1980s the Chicago Bears assembled a talented team of great personality who had a marvelous season in 1985, ending with the Bears’ first Superbowl victory. The team should have been a dynasty, but they failed to return to the Superbowl. On the other hand, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls also assembled a talented team of great personality, centered around Michael Jordan. His team won six championships in eight seasons. Cubs fans hope that the current Cubs will imitate the Bulls and not the Bears. Either way, the names will remain engraved forever in our memories. Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Fowler, Heyward, Zobrist, Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Lackey, Chapman, Montgomery, Edwards, Almora, Montero, and Ross: most of them are young as well as talented. Chapman and Fowler have moved on to other teams and Ross has retired, but the rest of them are back and ready to play again. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere: Go Cubs, Go! Bring home another trophy! J.

World Series memories, part two

While the Chicago Cubs were becoming champions, life continued happening. I needed to go to work, teach classes some evenings, take part in church services on Sundays, eat, sleep, breathe, and all the rest. In fact, some unusual events took place during the same days that I was watching playoff baseball on television.

One Saturday morning I began to take a shower, and there was no hot water. The water heater was replaced less than two years ago, and I have had to relight the pilot light twice before, so I threw on some clothes and went outside to light it again. (Our water heater is in a closet that can be reached only from outside, probably to reduce the risk of a gas leak into the house.) Although I tried several times, I was not able to light the pilot light. Instead (this being a new heater), I received an error message—a light flashing seven times, which according to a sign on the side of the heater signified a “gas control or valve failure.”

That sent me to the telephone. First I called the gas company, who assured me that the problem was inside the heater and not their responsibility. Then I called a plumber certified to work with gas lines. He said that he could replace the part, but he could not get it from the warehouse until Monday. He also suggested that I contact the manufacturer, since the heater should still be under warranty. After checking the warranty, I called the manufacturer and described the problem. After asking to be sure that the red light was flashing seven times, they said that they could send the part by overnight shipping, but not until Monday, since the warehouse was closed for the weekend. I called the plumber again and he promised to install the part, but he refused to schedule an appointment until I had the actual part at my house.

My family and I were taking fast cold showers. We were heating pots of water on the stove to wash dishes. Mostly, we were waiting for the repair. I stayed home from work on Tuesday. The part was delivered around ten o’clock Tuesday morning. I telephoned the plumber, who said he would try to get to my house that afternoon but might not be able to make it until Wednesday morning. I called him again around four to tell him not to try to make it any more on Tuesday, as I had a class to teach that evening. He finally arrived about noon on Wednesday. It took ten or fifteen minutes to replace the faulty part with the new part, and another fifteen minutes to complete the paperwork.

When I spoke with him on Wednesday, he asked me if I had drained the heater. When I said no, he asked me to do so while he was on his way to the house. I found a hose in the storage shed, attached it to the heater, and opened the valve. When I checked it a few minutes later, water was still coming out of the hose. I was about to go back inside when it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to turn off the valve at the top of the heater that brings water into the heater. Shortly after I did that, the heater finished draining.

Overlapping the drama with the heater was a second drama with a dishwasher. The weekend before the water heater stopped working, I decided that the time had come to replace the family dishwasher, which was no longer getting dishes clean. I checked prices and reviews online, then went to a store at the mall to order the best dishwasher I could afford. I ended up applying for a store credit card to get the benefit of no interest for a good number of months and then scheduled delivery and installation.

The truck came as scheduled, the workers came into the kitchen, and immediately one of them said, “We can’t do this.” The old dishwasher was too far from the sink; they didn’t have the right connectors for our house. They left the new dishwasher in its box in the corner of the dining room and promised to return. After a few days, a phone call to the company verified that they had not scheduled a return visit. Such a visit was scheduled, but not until the Saturday one week after the water heater failed.

Moreover, the day before the water heater failed, our city services failed to pick up the recycling on our street, something they are under contract to do every fourteen days. I waited until Monday, and when they still hadn’t come, I began contacting the company. Twice a day I was in touch with them, sometimes by telephone and sometimes through an online chat. Each of ten such conversations included a sincere apology on the part of the company and a promise to get the truck out to our street as soon as possible. I reminded them that I was one of fifteen customers who had been missed, but the one time that week a truck did come, the workers picked up only the recycling from two houses at the other end of the street. Friday afternoon I was told that they would probably wait until the next scheduled pick-up. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” she sweetly asked.

“I know this isn’t your fault,” I told her politely, but this is getting old. Is there any way I can file a complaint?” There was indeed such a procedure, which I followed. I never heard back from the company about my complaint, but the recycling did get picked up during the day on Wednesday. And they did come back again Friday as scheduled to take what little recycling we had generated in two days.

So all three of these problems were happening at the same time: no hot water for five days, a new dishwasher in its box in the dining room for nine days, and a recycling bin at the curb for twelve days. Was I complaining? In fact, I was not complaining. I figured that, as long as Murphy’s Gremlins were busy at my house, they couldn’t cause any trouble at Wrigley Field. The inconvenience was worth the reward. J.

World Series memories, part one

Over the course of a month, the Chicago Cubs earned a championship by winning eleven games over three opponents—the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cleveland Indians. To achieve those eleven victories, they played seventeen games, and I was able to see parts of all seventeen on television—in most cases I saw the entire games from beginning to end. I missed the beginning of some games because of the classes that I teach, and I left one game early because the Cubs were playing poorly. For seventeen evenings I welcomed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Joe Maddon and the rest into my home. I should spend more such quality time with my own family!

Along with the baseball players and their manager and coaches, I also brought a few more people into the house those evenings. One of them repeatedly bought a cell phone from an attractive sales clerk. When she said “Enjoy your phone” at the end of the sale, he responded, “You too,” and then enhanced his awkwardness by walking into a glass door, to her consternation. He did so Every. Single. Time.

Then there was the complacent man who drove a Mercury when he wasn’t busy gazing into his own eyes in the mirror or falling backward into a pool of water.

There was also a gentle man with a well-groomed beard who posed as a customer research specialist as he tricked groups of people (Real people! Not actors!) into saying nice things about Chevrolet vehicles.

There was an actor who was fond of reminding me that he used to do commercials for Verizon but was now representing Sprint. One of his frequently-aired spots was set in a barber shop. An elderly barber stood behind the main actor, stirring a pot of shaving cream with a brush through the entire commercial. What was that supposed to represent? Was their some subliminal message involving that barber that I kept missing?

A pair of commercials for an insurance company cleverly portrayed situations in which different people said the exact same words in different contexts. In one commercial, a girl is given a new car by her father while a man is discovering that his car has been stripped by thieves. In the other, a girl is showing off her new suede couch to her friend, and later two thieves are admiring the same couch before they carry it away.

There were repeated advertisements for Live Facebook, none of which depicted anything I would bother to watch on Facebook.

Another car commercial showed clever split screen scenes accompanied by Cat Stevens’ catchy song, “If you want to sing out.”

I also recall a talking llama, a talking gecko, and a talking hockey puck named Alexa.

All of these commercials were part of my play-off and World Series experiences this fall. Even Taco Bell almost managed to make their meals look appetizing, not to mention a monstrously unhealthy sandwich from Burger King that I saw over and over.

Had the Cubs lost at any stage of the play-offs, I would have passionately hated every one of these products and the people responsible for promoting them. Aside from the Mercury guy, I’m not hostile toward any of them, thanks to the Cubs’ victory. However, had the Cubs lost, I would have been annoyed even by the AT&T actress (who happens to be from Uzbekistan, by the way). Granted, I’m not running out to buy a new car or a cell phone, or to change insurance companies, or even to get a sandwich at Burger King. I appreciate the fact that these companies spent millions of dollars to broadcast these commercials along with the baseball game, and that those millions of dollars made the players’ salaries possible. And I’m not one of those people who starts watching a game an hour late so I can fast-forward through the commercials. The commercials are part of the pace of the game to me, and after seeing the same set of commercials dozens of times over a month, they too are almost like family. J.

Cubs fans: “We won!”

This is a repost of my very first post on this blog, from April 2015:

Two special days happen every spring. Sometimes they are a couple of weeks apart, sometimes they happen the same week, but only rarely do they fall on the same day. This year, 2015, they fell on the same day.

One of those special days is Easter. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His resurrection provides hope of our resurrection. His resurrection provides hope that our sins are forgiven and that we will live forever in God’s new creation. His resurrection provides hope that all God’s enemies (who also are our enemies) have been defeated.

The other special day is called Opening Day. Specifically, Chicago Cubs Opening Day. After weeks of practice games that don’t count, on Opening Day the games begin to matter. In my lifetime, the Cubs have not played many post-season games. Every spring, though, has had an Opening Day to celebrate. On that day, it is possible to hope that the Cubs will have a good season, one good enough to bring them to the postseason. At the start of Opening Day, all the teams are equal. Every fan of every team can approach Opening Day with hope.

Both these special days in early spring deal with hope, but the hopes are not the same. If I say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” I might get my wish, or I might not. If I say, “I hope the Cubs win the game today,” I might get my wish, or I might not. When I say, “Heaven is my hope,” I am talking about a guarantee. Jesus has lived a sinless life. He has suffered and died on a cross to pay for the world’s sins. He has risen from the dead. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because Christ has triumphed. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because God always keeps his promises.

Baseball is only a game. What Jesus did in Holy Week was no game. That week he fought and won the ultimate battle in the war between God and evil. Jesus took all the sins of history on himself and made them go away. Jesus faced the devil and crushed the devil’s head. Jesus died so he could remove the power of death and provide a resurrection for all his people, for everyone who trusts and believes his promises.

I truly hope that some year soon, some year in my lifetime, the Cubs win it all. I would like to see them celebrate a World Series victory. When the Cubs are champions, their fans all over the world will celebrate. Thousands of fans in the stands will cheer, and millions watching the game on television will cheer. All of us will shout, “We won! We won!” That shout is rather strange, actually, because the fans don’t win anything. Only the players on the team really contribute to the victory. The players who throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball are the ones who won. Yet they don’t mind sharing their victory. They don’t mind that the fans say “we won” instead of “they won.”

Easter is much the same. All over the world Christians gather in churches and celebrate Christ’s victory. Essentially, we say, “We won! We won!” Yet only Jesus lived a sinless life. Only Jesus died on the cross to defeat evil in the world. Only Jesus rose from the dead on Easter to proclaim his victory. Yet Jesus does not mind that his people celebrate Easter and say, “We won.” Jesus wants to share his victory. He wants to make us more than conquerors—winners who did not have to fight to gain a victory. Jesus does not call us fans. He makes us members of his team. Then Jesus goes out and wins. And the win was provided, not by a home run, but by a sacrifice. J.

Pennant? Yes. Championship? Probably not.

I’m sure every American has heard these numbers repeatedly, for what seems like thousands of times: until this month the Chicago Cubs have not won the National League pennant since 1945—that is 71 years—and they have not won the championship in the World Series since 1908—that is 108 years. No other professional sports team in the United States has existed for one hundred years or more without winning a championship. Those teams that have never won a championship have existed for only a few decades or less.

I am a Cubs fan. I have been watching every game they played in the play-offs this month, although I had to join some games late because of classes I teach. I have been wearing blue every day this month. The Cubs and baseball have been on my mind day and night, yet I have not written a word about them to anyone—not on this blog, not on Facebook, not even in an email to family or friends. Why this silence? I have not written about the Cubs because of a personal superstition.

I am not normally a superstitious person. I share my house with a black cat and we cross paths often. I treat Friday the 13th like any other Friday. Yet as a baseball fan, I do follow certain superstitions, and one of those involves the fact that, whenever I write something about the Cubs, they immediately begin losing.

Now superstitions are the scientific method gone wrong. The scientific method is observation, interpretation, and testing the interpretation with predictions. Biologists and chemists and sociologists all use this method to learn about what they are studying. Why did something happen? Can we observe it happening, interpret its cause, and make predictions based on that interpretation? If the predictions come to be, we believe that our interpretation is valid. Every superstition involves some sense of cause and effect that is mistaken. Superstitious people do certain things expecting certain results, but other observers can see no connection between the actions and the results.

Not every tradition or custom is a superstition. When driving on the highway, I always look over my shoulder before changing lanes. A person who knew nothing about traffic might call that action a superstition, but I know that looking over my shoulder reduces the chance that my car will collide with another car.

Baseball superstitions are based on observations that appear to be cause and effect. Two friends are attending a game and their favored team is losing. Late in the game they exchange seats, and their team pulls ahead and wins the game. If this happens a second time, they will probably exchange seats every time they are at a game and their team is losing.

It is considered bad luck to mention that the pitcher is pitching a no-hitter. Many announcers scorn this superstition because they believe that they have a duty to keep their audience informed. Many fans groan when an announcer mentions the no-hitter, because often the other team gets a hit right after the no-hitter is mentioned. My father says it is bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first hitter of the game. I have heard no one else mention this superstition, but I have observed that the prediction came true twice this month for the Cubs—both times the pitcher for the Cubs struck out the first batter of the game, the Cubs lost that game.

Whenever I write about the Cubs, they begin losing. Therefore, I have not written about the Cubs all this year. They won 103 games, which is a very good record for the regular season. They beat the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers to earn the National League pennant. Now they are in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. But the Indians have won three of the four games played so far; to win the championship, the Cubs need to win three more games. If they lose just one more game, the World Series is over and the Indians have won.

A sage has said, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” Like fans who exchange seats to try to reverse the luck of their team, I’ve tried to reverse the Cubs fortune. If I fly a Cubs flag and they win, I fly it again for the next game; but if they lose, I put it away. If they lose while the flag is away, I fly it again for the next game.

Researchers say that sports superstitions serve a purpose: they allow fans to feel as though they take part in the teams’ successes. Superstitions allow fans to say “we won!” instead of “they won!” after a game. Obviously, the reverse is true: when a team loses, the team’s fans might blame themselves. This is why it is also healthy for fans to remind themselves, “It’s only a game.” Fans root for their team, they celebrate the wins, and life goes on in spite of the losses.

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Cubs fan. J.

Playing outdoors

When my parents had their house built, they asked the builders to be careful not to hurt the two old juniper trees in the front yard. When construction was finished, the trees beautifully framed the house as seen from the street. I hope that the crew that demolished the house this year was careful to leave the trees there. It’s odd, though, to think that those trees could outlive the entire history of the house.

Juniper trees drop clusters of short, sharp needles, so the front lawn was not a place to walk with bare feet. The grass in the back yard was soft and hazard free, perfect for bare feet, but when a family member forgot that the front lawn was different, he or she received a rude reminder. The needles didn’t shake out, either–one had to sit down and pull them out of one’s feet.

My parents raised an oak tree from an acorn in front of the house, closer to the street. Nearer the house, they planted a spruce tree. In December, my father would string Christmas lights on the spruce tree. Some years I would make ornaments for the tree from the Styrofoam trays that came under meat from the grocery store. I would trace around my mother’s cookie cutters, cut the ornaments from the Styrofoam, and color them with crayons. My mother helped me to string yarn through each ornament so I could hang it on the tree. I remember December afternoons when I sat at the dining room table to trace and cut and color while she made Christmas cookies or other holiday treats in the kitchen, accompanied by Christmas songs on the record player. I think the making of outdoor ornaments was a ruse to keep me quiet while she did her baking.

The two junipers, the oak, and the spruce made a perfect baseball diamond for my summers. I had a plastic ball and a plastic bat. I would toss the ball in the air, swing the bat, and run the bases. The trees represented not only bases, but also fielders. Later, when I was bigger and stronger, the storm drain became first base and the second juniper became third base, while the oak tree switched from first baseman to pitcher. Of course all of right field was now across the street, so I learned to pull the ball to left field. Any ball that landed on my grandparents’ property was a home run.

Mowing the grass and raking the leaves became my chore at my parents’ home and at my grandparents’ home. I liked mowing for my grandparents better because they let me use their mower, which had an electric starter instead of a rope to pull. My parents did not burn autumn leaves, nor did they bag them to be taken to the landfill. They used the leaves as mulch in their flowerbeds and strawberry patch. Raking, then, meant creating leaf piles, loading them into a wheelbarrow, taking them behind the house, and dumping them where they belonged for the winter.

Aside from baseball, I did not play much in the front yard. In addition to having softer grass, the back yard was more sheltered. My father built a sandbox for me, bringing in new sand every spring. He also erected a metal swing set. Some years he would install a wading pool for the summer. My family had a croquet set; some days I would set up a course and play all four colors on my own.

On laundry day, my mother liked to dry clothes and bedsheets in the back yard when the weather permitted. At first we had a standard clothes line strung between two poles. Later, my father bought a clothes line that attached to the side of the garage. It retracted into a case, and the pole for the opposite end could be pulled out of its hole and put in the garage. My mother often sent me outside on laundry day to set up the clothesline while she began the first load of washing.

A large church two blocks away provided a soundtrack for my summers outdoors. The church had a three-bell carillon which I can still hear in my imagination. Because they rang at different speeds, they created a tune which went something like this: ding, dang, dong, ding-dang, dong-ding, ding-dong (repeats).  The “dong” was the tonic (or “do”), the “dang” was the third (or “mi”), and the ding was the fifth (or “sol”).

I learned to love some summer insects, such as cicadas that sang in the trees, and fireflies that entertained during summer evenings. I did not, however, like wasps and bees. In my childhood, I was stung about once per summer. Although the reaction was mild–pain and swelling the day of the sting, itching for two or three days afterward–I had a fear of stinging insects that bordered on phobia. If I could see a wasp or a bee, or if I could hear an insect buzzing, I was very much afraid.

Aside from that, most of my childhood memories are pleasant. I loved to ride my bicycle around the neighborhood, or swing on the swing set, or create new worlds in the sandbox (often using twigs and pine cones to create forests, or using toy trucks to build roads and excavate hills). In the winters I built snowmen and snow forts. On very cold winter days, I put on all my winter clothing–knit stocking cap, hooded coat, scarf, knit mittens, and boots–and explored the yard as if I were an astronaut on the moon. Playing outdoors allowed me to exercise imagination and creativity, as well as benefiting from fresh air and sunshine. J.

Baseball talk

As of this writing (July 4, 2016), the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants are the best teams in the National League. The Cubs have the best winning percentage; the Giants, who have played three more games than the Cubs, have one more win than the Cubs. An old tradition said that the team leading the league on the fourth of July would win the pennant. I know that tradition did not always hold true before the creation of divisions, although I suspect it was true more than half the time. Since the creation of divisions it has definitely been true less than half the time. Often, even the team with the best record at the end of the regular season does not win the pennant.

The Cubs and the Giants each have patterns that might determine their path to the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and championship on all the even-numbered years of the decade so far (2010, 2012, and 2014). The Cubs’ pattern is more complex. Since divisions and playoff series were invented, the Cubs have reached the playoff games seven times. Each time they have been eliminated by a different team. On two occasions they met a team in the playoffs which had eliminated them in a previous year. Both times the Cubs defeated that team—the Giants in a one-game tiebreaker in 1998, and the Atlanta Braves in 2003. Last year’s playoffs demonstrated that the Cubs are not eliminated by a team in their own division. That leaves only three teams that can deny them the pennant: the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals.

Many baseball games remain to be played in July, August, and September. In the current standings, though, the Rockies and the Phillies are no threat to enter the playoffs. On the other hand, the Nationals lead the East Division of the National League. If the standings remain unchanged after the last games of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets would play for the Wild Card slot, with the winner playing against the Cubs. The Nationals and Giants would face each other.

Giants fans might believe that destiny is on their side, since 2016 is an even number. Given the Cubs’ pattern dating back to 1984, I would cheer for the Giants to beat the Nationals while the Cubs beat the Wild Card team. A Cubs-Giants match-up would favor the Cubs, since the Giants barred them from the pennant in 1989. A Cubs-Nationals match-up would favor the Nationals, since they have never kept the Cubs from advancing through the playoffs to the pennant.

In addition, the “Murphy” factor would remain in play for the Nationals. According to tradition, a billy goat named Murphy was barred from Wrigley Field in either 1908 or 1945, and Murphy’s owner cursed the Cubs, saying that they would never be champions again. In 1984, the first time the Cubs played in the National League playoffs, they were within one win of the pennant, but they lost three straight games in Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Last year the Cubs were winning solidly in the playoffs until the met the New York Mets. The Mets’ offensive hero of their four victories over the Cubs was Daniel Murphy, who hit a home run in each of the games. Murphy now plays for the Nationals (and, as of July 4, had the best hitting percentage in the National League).

Real baseball is played on the field, but baseball traditions and superstitions are almost as fun as the game. The Cubs were on a record-breaking pace until injuries slowed them late in June; they are still likely to reach the playoffs where they will strive once again to earn a National League pennant and, of course, a world championship. Go, Cubs, go! J.

 

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.