In The Mind's Eye

By JCB on Wednesday, August 20, 2008
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

- A. Barlett Giamatti, former president of both Yale and the National League

This is the first paragraph of his 1977 essay The Green Fields of the Mind, recalling the Red Sox collapse of 1975.

* * *

It happened again after the Cubs took a slim lead; as I watched Rich Harden pitch, I was not thinking about whether the Cubs would win the game, I was thinking about whether they will win the World Series. I can't be the only one, right?

We've reached that point now, haven't we, where every game feels bigger than one game, at least at some point during the contest, as our mind drifts, searching for signals and signs, omens foreshadowing the future of our team, the 2008 Chicago Cubs.

Maybe it's just me, anyway, but I can't help myself. I can't stay in the present.

* * *

The problem with feeling this way is not that we've been burned before. (Although we have. At lunch a couple of weeks ago, trading dozens of baseball stories with another Cubs fan, the one that he later reported telling his kids about was that I was at the NLCS Game 6 in 2003. As I recalled that night, a memory materialized - of sitting there just a little towards third base from home, a few dozen rows up, hands and feet tingling with a mixture of cold and adrenaline, watching Mark Prior return to the mound for warm-up pitches in one of the middle innings, under the lights, the crowd quiet, as we reached the point where we were nearly all talked out, as our anticipation heightened and there was little left to say.)

The problem is that the story unfolding in front of us this season seems almost too perfect to trust, too much like a Cubs story. I mean, to finally win again in the 100th season - this on its own is so perfectly symmetrical that it's almost aesthetic, as literary in the mind's eye as Wrigley Field.

But there's so much more. There are so many stories this season that feel like perfect Cubs stories in the making. Redemption stories, like the one Kerry Wood is writing, and to some extent, Ryan Dempster. There's the way that the fans have embraced Kosuke Fukudome, and Jim Edmonds. There's the presumptive rookie of the year, Geovany Soto. There's the players coming into their own, like Ryan Theriot, whose on-base percentage hovers around .400. And you could go on, because this year nearly every single guy has a story that adds something to the tapestry. The team is playing the game the right way.

At some point you have to wonder if it's all too good to be true.

Then I remember: The other way the story goes is also a perfect Cubs story, just in the other sense. To come up short would invoke '69, and '84, and '89, and '98, and '03. No team has known such despair for so long without respite.

And so it is: Janus has presented us this door - it only remains to be seen what's on the other side, a victory so perfect and intense that only the steadfast Cubs could deserve it, or a disappointment so perfect that only the Cubs could endure it. It remains to be seen which ending the god of endings (and beginnings) has prepared.

* * *

Most Cubs fans have remained hopeful and faithful and optimistic all these years, and now the team has put itself in a position where it will either bring us the greatest reward in a century, made even sweeter by the drought, or the greatest letdown. This latter is not hyperbole, either; factoring in the Cubs stature on paper and their first-place standing, the media coverage, all the subtexts, the media personalization by fans, and especially the century thing, never before has it felt like it has to be this year. Still, it is also baseball, and in baseball as in life, nothing is certain. Plus, the Angels are really good, too.

* * *

Giamatti is right. Baseball will break our heart in 2008. Either it will break our heart by ending when we wish it could last forever, or it will just break our heart.

* * *

So here we are. There are six weeks left in the season. No one is on the disabled list except for a few non-essential pitchers (Lieber, Fox, and Guzman). The Cubs are ahead by five-and-a-half games; eight-and-a-half in the wild card should it come to that. As far as hopes go, we're about to pass the point of no return. It's nearly time to go emotionally all in. This can no longer be just another season. Maybe it never could, being the century mark, but now the point is stronger.

* * *

Of course, I hope the team does not get caught up in this. They need to play one game at a time, one play at a time, and focus on execution. For them, the narrative must take shape in retrospect, or at least in moments off the field.

But for the fans, with the luxury of idle moments and imagination during each game, and who can contribute nothing except for support, and will, and faith - for us, the narrative must unfold as though the end is certain but just out of reach. However it goes, it will feel predestined. It will feel as though we are dying to speed things up, to flip ahead to the last chapter. It will also feel as though we wish we could slow it down, and savor our ignorance of the future.

It will feel like life at its most intensified.

When you look at it this way, you realize the predicament is not a problem at all. It's a gift. It's rare in life to feel adrenalized by participation in something bigger, where something so significant is at stake. This is the catharsis sports offers at its best. And this year, there's no avoiding it. No matter what happens, the story will be too perfect, but it will also be real. It's true that life imitates art, but every once in a while life is more than art could ever be. Not just stranger than fiction, but better.

* * *

Here's how it ended for Giamatti:

Summer died in New England and like rain sliding off a roof, the crowd slipped out of Fenway, quickly, with only a steady murmur of concern for the drive ahead remaining of the roar. Mutability had turned the seasons and translated hope to memory once again. And, once again, she had used baseball, our best invention to stay change, to bring change on. That is why it breaks my heart, that game - not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. There are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Or, it might as well be a white flag with a blue W rippling in a crisp, cold Chicago wind, lit from below by lights atop an old green scoreboard against a cloudless ink-blue sky.

Giamatti died in 1989, in September, shortly after being promoted to Commissioner of Baseball, which is a shame because he never witnessed how the story could have ended instead. All it takes is enough seasons, and it will happen eventually: the illusion becoming reality.

* * *

Here goes. I can't wait to see whether it looks like it does in my mind's eye.

Posted Wednesday, August 20, 2008 by JCB
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3 Comments

the Cubs were ahead when I got married in August of 1969 and wound up not even coming close to winning the league... Tom Terrific and the miracle Mets went whizzing past at 100 mph...
I only hope some year the Cubs can cross the finish line with the lead cause I'm getting old.... maybe this is our century..

Several people have mentioned to me that they have been feeling like I have. I think my friend BMK summed it up best: "the regular season is prelude, and can't be much more. the stakes are raised. it's all or nothing." And the moment of truth is so close...

What a brilliant and terrific post. The wins stack up, but every time the Cubs stutter for a game or several days, you feel the collective breaths on the North side being held trying not to think it is slipping away, it is slipping away.

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