Maybe now I can cheer up…

“So, J., what did you do this weekend?”

Well, aside from church and sleeping and eating, I also moved some chairs around the house. You see, I’ve got this comfortable chair that we bought when we moved into the house some years ago. It was my main chair for watching television. I’ve seen many movies from that chair. I watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series while sitting in that chair. When this year’s virus crisis kept us from gathering in family groups, I watched my daughter get married while sitting in that chair. When the sirens were blowing, I generally sat in that chair and watched the television coverage of where the storms were hitting and who needed to take cover. (One tornado came within a mile of our house while I was sitting in that chair.)

This spring we replaced the carpeting in that room and ended up redesigning the room. We got rid of our old AV storage and replaced it with new shelving, and at the same time we mounted the television on the wall. Now the family sofa is centered in front of the TV, and my old comfortable chair had retreated into a corner. I rarely sat in it any more. I decided this weekend to move that favorite chair into the library/reading room and put the chair I had been using there into the corner of the den/television room.

I am not as possessive of that chair as Archie Bunker was of his favorite chair. Other members of the household—including cats—have used that chair without any objection from me. Even when it was a new show, I recognized All in the Family as political propaganda, an attempt to persuade Americans that conservative politics are inevitably linked to racism and intolerance. Fifty years later, many Americans still believe that message. So please do not mistake me for Archie Bunker, even if I do have a favorite chair.

Also, I helped my daughter with some body work on her car. Four years ago, she was legally stopped at a stop sign shortly before midnight, and a white pickup truck took the corner too wide and struck her fender. The driver was, of course, uninsured. All these years she has been driving a car with a dented fender, and the rust was increasing on the fender. So, she did some research about the cost of replacement. All along she and I assumed that the work would need to be done at a body shop and would cost several hundred dollars. Last week, though, my daughter found the part for her car available online for sixty dollars, and she found a YouTube video showing how to replace a fender. So, I helped—but she did most of the work. It took a long time to get the old fender off—it would have been far easier if the car was put on a rack and the wheel was removed, because many of those bolts are hard to reach with the wheel in place. We finally got it off, though, and got the new piece in place. She is very happy to be driving a car that is less damaged than it was. She has requested new seat covers as a Christmas gift.

Oh, and this weekend I also published my latest book on Kindle and Amazon. My writing project for 2020 was The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. The publishing effort was a struggle that took part of Saturday and part of Sunday, because the publishing software didn’t like my files. (Also, the car repair took some time away from wrestling with the publisher.) The book is finally available, though—three dollars for the Kindle version and six for the print version.

With the book finally out of the way, I hope I can escape the cloud of darkness that hovered over its writing. Of course the election is looming on the horizon; but once that is decided and out of the way, perhaps a cheerful holiday season is on its way. J.

Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

Ebony and Irony

Two dozen years ago Alanis Morissette had a hit song called “Ironic” which was annoying, for the most part, because most of the situations it described were merely contrasts of opposites, not ironic at all. Getting a free pass when you’ve already paid for a ticket—that, I will grant, is ironic. But rain on your wedding day? Where’s the irony there? Meeting your dream man and his beautiful wife? Awkward, perhaps, but hardly ironic.

Here’s some genuine irony for you. Imagine an author whose latest project is writing a book about depression. He wants to describe the condition, offer some helpful explanations of depression and some workable remedies, and—most important—make it clear that Christians can face depression in this sin-polluted world. Christians should not feel guilty about being depressed. (What a spiral into deeper darkness!) Christians should let no one tell them that, if they had more faith, they would not be depressed. Christians should stop expecting joy and flowers every step of the way. They should believe Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale.” Christians should rediscover the meaning of “the dark night of the soul,” the time when faith grows strongest because it has no distractions from the power of God’s promises.

So, this author tries to write. But the writing goes slowly, because… the author is depressed. COVID-19 shutdowns and mask wars on social media and the politicalization of every event under the sun has this author too discouraged to put into words his lessons on depression. He wants to address how physical challenges and mental challenges and emotional challenges and spiritual challenges can share responsibility for a person’s depression; he also wants to discuss how the solution to depression includes physical factors and mental factors and emotional factors and spiritual factors. Maybe the July heat and humidity and clouds and thunderstorms are interfering with the author’s creativity. Maybe the author needs to take a week’s break from news sites and social media. Maybe some spiritual enemy wants to keep this book from being written. Or maybe, just maybe, the topic of depression is just too depressing for some authors to address at book length.

Isn’t it ironic?

I had two dreams last night. In one of them, I was playing in the outfield for the Chicago Cubs. I was not in uniform and had not signed a contract with the team, yet there I was between center field and right field during an official ball game. Twice I had to field ground balls that had found their way past the infielders for a single. In the other dream, I was visiting an old flame. (I hope you know what that means; I’m in no mood to stop and define my terms.) To me, the visit seemed awkward and I felt that I should leave. But she said she was happy for me to be there and encouraged me to stay. Now that I am awake, the dream puzzles me. It would far better match my frame of mind, short-term and long-term, if I had wanted to stay and she was insisting that I leave.

What does it mean?

We have passed the half-way mark of the eventful year 2020. I have the instrumental portion of Kansas’ “Song for America” running through my head, which is a worthwhile soundtrack for this summer afternoon. The cats are resting; the house is quiet except for an occasional outdoor rumble. I hope that your day and your summer are going well. J.

A wedding story

My daughter got married this week. She and her husband had originally intended to have their wedding May 2, but the virus crisis clearly was going to prevent that gathering. Instead of delaying the wedding until the crisis passes, they chose to be married one month early in an essentially empty church. Their guests watched the wedding on YouTube.

My new son-in-law is in his last year of seminary. In a few days, he will be told where he will begin serving as pastor. The May 2 wedding was to have taken place in the seminary chapel. When the two of them first realized that the wedding would have to be rescheduled, their families considered the possibility they would just get the license and be married at the courthouse. In other words, they nearly eloped. (A future pastor and his bride, the daughter of a pastor, eloping—that would be humorous.) They were able, however, to arrange for a church wedding at a place that was already equipped to livestream its services on YouTube.

The groom and the best man were attired in formal Scottish garb—yes, including kilts. The bride wore a traditional white wedding dress. (She nearly had to improvise: the woman doing alterations on the dress had basically closed down her business because of the virus and could not be reached by phone. I don’t know the details of how my daughter finally got hold of the dress.) The bride’s sister was maid of honor. Because she works at a hospital, she was not able to take a day off for the wedding, so it was held at 8 p.m. In his homily, the pastor who married them commented on the unusual timing of the wedding—during the season of Lent, in the darkness of night, and during a pandemic.

So there were bride and groom, best man and maid of honor, pastor, musician, and one other woman who helped the bride and took part in the singing. They began with a traditional evening liturgy, then sang a hymn. We rushed around the house gathering hymnals and got to join in singing the fourth and fifth verses of the hymn. The pastor read from Genesis 2, delivered his homily, and then conducted the wedding ceremony. During the exchange of vows, the bride and groom had their hands bound together with a strip of cloth—another Scottish tradition.

As the father of the bride, I watched from the den. I was sitting in the same chair where I sat to watch the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. (We are never getting rid of that chair.) I was wearing a t-shirt, sweat shirt, blue jeans, and slippers. Other family members were present, as was the family cat. Popcorn was served.

This is not an April Fools prank. This is not First Friday Fiction. This is part of how the pandemic is rewriting life’s scripts for us all. I hope that you and those you love are well. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

The Chicago Cubs will be champions again

Tomorrow afternoon the Chicago Cubs begin their season and their quest for another championship. They will get started in Texas against the Rangers. The roster has not changed much from the crew that won ninety-five games last year but stumbled in the playoffs. The biggest difference is that the players are healthier now, and they are determined to make their fans forget about last year by winning it all this year.

My parents were die-hard Cubs fans, and it was natural for me to follow in their footsteps. We listened to games on the radio back when the announcers were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. (My father was not fond of Jack Brickhouse, the television announcer.) I vividly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins—they even had a pair of pitchers whose names were Hands and Fingers. The ’69 Cubs were far ahead of the competition all season, only to be overtaken by the Miracle Mets in September. Many people in Chicago joked that the Cubs were going to move to the Philippines and call themselves the Manila Folders.

Gradually in the 1970s the Cubs lineup changed, as all professional sports teams must do. Players came and went: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Bill Madlock, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, and Dave Kingman. Although they started some seasons strongly, the Cubs never put together enough wins to enter the playoffs in the 1970s or at the start of the 1980s.

This changed in 1984. Dallas Greene had been named General Manager of the Cubs, and he pulled together a championship-caliber team. He exchanged shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies and persuaded them to toss in a young infielder, future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Greene traded for starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Suttcliffe, and the Cubs won the National League East Division. They were favored over the San Diego Padres, winners of the West Division; but after winning the first two games in Chicago, the Cubs lost three straight in San Diego, coming from an early lead to fall behind in each game.

The Cubs were expected to do well again in 1985, but injuries to their starting pitchers triggered a losing streak in May from which they never recovered. They returned to the playoffs in 1989 but were handled by the San Francisco Giants, who were on their way to an earthquake-interrupted World Series against Oakland. In 1994 the Cubs earned a Wild Card berth in a season that included record-level home run prowess from the Cub’s Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGuire, but they were beaten in the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.

Hopes were high in 2003 when the Cubs won the National League Central Division. For the first time since baseball’s playoffs involved more than the World Series, the Cubs won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins were the Cubs’ next opponent. The Cubs were five outs away from earning the National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series in game six, played in Chicago, when the wheels fell off the cart. Surrendering eight runs in a disastrous eighth inning, the Cubs lost game six, the Cubs went on to lose game seven the next night, ending their championship hopes. They returned to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 but failed to win a single playoff game either year.

In 2011 the Cubs organization hired Theo Epstein to handle the structure of the team. He came with a plan, warning fans that it would take several years to bear fruit. Before the 2015 season, Epstein hired Joe Madden to manage the Cubs and then signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. The team came together during the course of the summer and won enough games to be one of the two National League Wild Card teams. The Cubs beat the Pittsburg Pirates in the single Wild Card game, then went on to beat the Cardinals before being swept for the pennant in four games by the New York Mets.

The year 2016 was magic for Cubs fans. The team dominated baseball all season, winning the division by a clear margin. In the National League playoffs they outperformed the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing the first National League Pennant to Chicago since 1945. In the World Series they faced the Cleveland Indians. Trailing three games to one, the Cubs roared back to force a dramatic game seven in Cleveland in November. Despite several puzzling moves by Joe Madden, the Cubs jumped out to a five point lead. Four outs away from a championship, the Cubs allowed the Indians to tie the score. After nine innings the score was still tied. A rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup, and they scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Although they allowed one run in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs managed to procure the final out. Early in the morning of November 3, 2016, the Cubs were finally world champions. Their previous championship had come in 1908, exactly 108 years earlier. There are 108 stitches in a baseball.

The Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2017, overcoming the Washington Nationals in a hard-fought series before bowing to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018 the Cubs won 95 games but were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division. Losing a single tie-breaking game to the Brewers in Chicago, the Cubs lost again the next night in a Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. This led to a long winter of discontent and a spring full of hope that this is the year the Cubs will return to their champion ways. J.

The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Cold in the Heartland

The blast of Arctic air that has moved across the Heartland this week brings me memories of other winters. Growing up in the Heartland, I was accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was below zero degrees F. I was also accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was above one hundred degrees F. We learned to live with such extremes, although central heating and air conditioning made the living far easier.

When I was a boy, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they walked on the moon. When winter came, I chose to imitate their excursion in our back yard. The temperature was five degrees below zero, so it was important to leave no skin exposed; but that was just the point. I was dressing up as an astronaut, putting on double layers of shirt and pants, thick socks, black boots (which had five buckles each), mittens on my hands, a heavy coat with a hood, a stocking cap under the hood, and a scarf across my face. Dressed in that fashion, I went through the back door and backwards down the steps, making a giant leap for mankind. I observed the scenery, took samples of the snow, and played astronaut to my heart’s content. For the next couple of years, whenever the weather gave me the opportunity, I repeated the experience, leaving footprints that would never fade, since there is no atmosphere—and hence no wind or rain—on the moon.

It’s hard to describe the difference of a day below zero to people who are miserable when the temperature falls below forty degrees F. Snow has a different sound when you walk on it in the deep cold of winter—instead of crunching, it squeaks. Frozen fog is a sight to see—ice crystals hanging in the air, not falling as flakes. The coldest days come with clear skies, as the snow reflects the light and heat of the sun back into space. That sunlight glaring off the snow can almost blind a person, especially a person wearing glasses that have just become coated with frost when they hit the cold air.

Heartlanders in general, and Chicagoans in particular, are proud of our ability to face all kinds of weather calmly and stoically. We laugh at dwellers of the desert who come to visit in August and wilt, even though the temperature is only ninety degrees, because the relative humidity is also ninety. We laugh at the foreigners who bundle into their heaviest coats when the first snow falls in October and then take pictures of themselves and each other. We know how to drive in the snow, and we sneer at those who slide off the road. Harsh weather makes us strong, able to face any difficulty, unlikely to be overcome by adversity.

The story is told of a Heartlander who died a couple of years ago; he was sent to the devil’s prison for his sins. The devil knew this Heartlander to be a tough man, so he tried his best to make him miserable. He cranked the thermostat up high, but the Heartlander simply relaxed and said, “Feels like a July day back home.” Annoyed, the devil turned the temperature even higher, but all he heard was, “Feels like the middle of August back home.” The devil decided to try the opposite extreme and turned the air conditioner on full blast. Soon fog was swirling, icicles were forming, and even the devil himself begin to shiver. Satan smiled, though, as he heard the man running around in the fog shouting at the top of his voice. Strangely, though, the man did not sound unhappy. Satan lost his smile when he heard what the man was shouting: “The Cubs won the World Series! The Cubs won the World Series!” J.

Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.