The Curse That Is Loving Baseball

Los Angeles Dodgers losing streak game log from 2017

Today is opening day in baseball, a moment for hope and promise for fans across the country. The preseason predictions may have rendered their verdict, but as we see each year, a 162-game season has other plans than simply confirming the overconfident understandings of our ordered minds. Even teams with the highest expectations must slog through six months of unknowable obstacles to reach the promised land.

It’s a particularly disorienting opening day for me as a long-time, unrequited fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I became a fan of the team a half-decade after their last championship in 1988. Although the Dodgers have generally been a strong, entertaining, competitive team over the last twenty-five years, it was not until last season that they succeeded in returning to the World Series. After a succession of playoff heartbreaks, the 2017 Dodgers won a league-best 104 games and ran through two rounds of National League playoffs to reach a decisive Game 7 of the Fall Classic. Although they lost that game and the sport’s highest honor to the Houston Astros, the team accomplished nearly every other milestone for which a fan could hope. For those wedded to a championship-or-bust mindset, the season was a letdown. But for me, it was a seven month odyssey of pure pleasure—sports at its absolute best. The Dodgers were the best team in all of baseball in the regular season, they won more games than any team in thirteen years, and at one point they won an astonishing 44 of 51 games. From start to finish, last year’s run was the greatest of my life. And yet, at the beginning of a new season, looking back on the last one, I’m forced to conclude that my most powerful memory of that time is the darkest.

From August 26th to September 11th, the Dodgers inexplicably lost 16 of 17 games. It was stupefying, confounding, unnerving, and ultimately meaningless. The team posted a sparkling 91-36 record in its first 127 games before the losing streak, recovered after it in time to win the National League West comfortably, and then shined in the playoffs, coming one game from the sport’s ultimate prize. It was the least consequential collapse in the history of baseball in every respect. And yet, I’m forced to admit, it was my defining baseball experience of 2017. Continue reading

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Much Wahoo About Something

Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians displays the Chief Wahoo Indians baeball cap.

We are now entering year four of what some might call our national war over political correctness. In 2015, multiple Republican presidential candidates placed curtailing political correctness at the heart of their campaigns. In 2016, one of those candidates engaged his supporters with racially charged, politically incorrect rhetoric and won the presidency. In 2017, that president reignited the conservative version of political correctness, condemning football players, mostly African-American, for boycotting the national anthem in protest of racialized police violence. And we’ve begun 2018 with a debate about immigration from “shithole countries” and the dismissal of hundreds of thousands brought to this country illegally as children as immoral and deportable.

It is into this thicket that Major League Baseball stepped gingerly last week when it reached agreement with the Cleveland Indians to retire Chief Wahoo—the grinning, red-faced caricature of America’s first people that has symbolized Cleveland’s professional baseball club since 1947. The Indians will continue to sell limited issue Wahoo merchandise in northeast Ohio to retain its intellectual property rights and prevent mass marketing of the image by others, but the team will heavily reduce the logo’s circulation and will cease featuring it on its uniforms after next year.

One might imagine that an athletic team’s choice of mascot would not engender controversy or bitterness. That might be the case were it not for the deep-seated emotions caused by issues of race and sports in American culture. The day MLB announced its decision, a poll on Cleveland.com was running about 9 to 1 in favor of retaining Chief Wahoo, before settling a little above three-fourths support over the following week. A change.org petition collected over 15,000 signatures in support of the mascot and against “all the P.C. hype!” Polite opinion and corporate dollars are on the side of change, but the passion is with Chief Wahoo. Continue reading

A Rose By Another Name

Pete Rose's statue outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati

I went to Cincinnati, Ohio two weekends ago to see a baseball game. So did 42,431 others. That kind of turnout there is rather unusual. Yes, the high-flying Los Angeles Dodgers were in town to take on the Reds. But quality baseball alone has not been enticing enough to lure fans to Great American Ballpark. Since the team’s last World Series in 1990, the Reds have routinely been at the bottom of baseball in that measure, and attendance is down even further the last few years. In 2017, they sit thirteenth out of fifteen National League teams, averaging only a little over 23,000 a game. A Reds game these days is hardly the place to be seen. Besides, on this day, June 17, 2017, it was nearly 90 degrees. The Reds were mired in last place, coming off a string of dismal loses. Father’s Day was the next day. There were plenty of other places to be.

But Cincinnatians weren’t at the ballpark to see the Reds. They came to see Pete Rose. On this hot Saturday afternoon, the Reds revealed their new statue of Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits, captain of two Reds championship teams, and native Cincinnatian. Rose’s statue is cast in the heroic pose of sliding headfirst into second base. It is placed directly in front of the ballpark’s main gate so that the words “Great American” hover directly above it (though the stadium is nominally in recognition of an insurance company). Reds fans responded enthusiastically, completely, and uncomplicatedly in celebration of the local hero.

I came to the ballpark to see Pete Rose, too, although with entirely different emotions. Continue reading

Lavar Ball’s World

It’s Lavar Ball’s world; we’re just living in it. The father of UCLA freshman and college basketball phenom Lonzo Ball has taken American sports media by storm in the first step on the inevitable road to national stardom. Even if you’re not a diehard college basketball fan, you may have heard of the elder Ball’s antics by now. With his oldest son tearing through the college ranks on the way to being a top pick in this June’s National Basketball Association draft, Mr. Ball has used the small bit of fame that goes along with his son’s rise to showcase his unusual family and promote the brand he has created for it. In doing so, he has heaped notoriety upon himself by foisting an escalating series of outlandish statements on a content-hungry public.

With UCLA eliminated from the NCAA tournament last weekend, Lonzo Ball will not be at tonight’s Final Four. But as Lavar would likely put it, tonight’s Final Four doesn’t have him. Continue reading

Winning Everything Isn’t Everything

The mantra, “winning isn’t everything,” has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Maybe it was always an ethos made for movies and disingenuous Little League coaches. After all, there were Al Davis’s “Just win, baby” Raiders of the 1970s and 80s. There was the Bronx belief, during the New York Yankees dominant run between 1996 and 2003, that any year that did not end in a World Series was a failure. And there has been unceasing debate over the last twenty years about the relative worth of NBA superstars and NFL quarterbacks based on their relative ability to win, and the frequency with which they have won, team championships. America has always been a nation that admires winners.

Recently, however, it seems that the belief that winning everything is everything in sports has strangely risen from conventional wisdom to incontrovertible fact. Continue reading

Political Correctness of a Different Color

This was supposed to be a year of revolt against political correctness. A major party nominee’s presidential campaign was based largely (we were told) on the bubbling resentment against restrictions on speech and thought. Millions of Americans supposedly were rejecting the thoughtless demand that they adhere to an elite-approved vernacular. Common sense would not bow to the illiberalism of liberals, who were too busy constructing safe spaces and new pronouns for an ever-expanding alphabet soup of sexuality. This was not about race or gender, they said. Political correctness was the real culprit; it was an ideology of condescension that prevented minorities from dealing with their own social deficiencies, from illegal immigration to Chicago gang culture. A silent majority would no longer be cowed into censoring their thoughts on controversial issues.

At least that was the story until Colin Kaepernick showed up. Continue reading

One Last Time for Dodger Baseball

Today and tomorrow, America’s pastime begins anew as baseball stadiums from Atlanta to Anaheim shake off the rust of winter and open their doors. Opening Day ushers in the return of a welcome and comforting annual recurrence—same as the spring renewal with which it coincides. The weather warms, the snow thaws, and once again the birds and flowers, thought lost to the uninitiated, reassuringly reappear. In one respect, however, this year’s time-honored tradition will resume with an air of sadness becoming of the knowledge that the game as many of us loved it will soon never quite be the same again. More importantly, the game as we know it, as it exists and should exist, will not survive next year’s chill. Next year, the sun will emerge, the tarp will roll back, and the teams will take the field, but Vin Scully will announce no more. Continue reading

Mile High Meltdown

Purde vs. Little Rock in the 2016 NCAA Tournament in Denver.

Outside, the snow was falling in large, sticky clumps. Seventy degrees just days before, the Rockies were now receiving their annual late March winter dusting. The change, though sudden, was rather peaceful. The streets thinned, the bars filled, and those venturing to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s first round games at the Pepsi Center were bundled up, waiting calmly in the long lines stretching to the parking lot to enter. Denver was falling under a deep freeze. Yet inside, thousands of fans hoping to take shelter from the storm were mere hours from witnessing a basketball meltdown. Continue reading

March Madness Manifesto

NCAA Tournament game between Northeastern and Notre Dame at the Consol Energy Center in PittsburghThe NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament gets underway in earnest on Thursday, beginning an annual tradition of the strangest sporting event found anywhere in America (no, the “First Four” abomination on Tuesday and Wednesday does not count). Consider that college basketball’s championship event draws enormous ratings and interest despite having a regular season that is largely an afterthought for most mainstream sports fans. Meanwhile, the event is trumpeted for providing opportunities to the have-nots, even though history and economics dictate that only a small fraction of the 351 Division I teams have a chance to win the tournament. The beauty of “March Madness” stems not from traditional sources of sports fandom, but rather the frenzied, unpredictable nature of its early rounds, its temporary elevation of the slighted and forgotten, and a brilliant structure for low-stakes gambling that brings out the degenerate in all of us. After filling out a sixty-four team bracket, teams unknown a moment before turn into old friends. The anonymous becomes personal. That is, of course, unless those teams lose or until they reach the next round against a newly favored opponent, at which point they slide back into the forgotten. Loyalty only goes as far as the next round. March Madness is a mercenary event for a success-driven culture.

Given this dynamic, bracket advice is cheap and plentiful. Yet, despite the considerable ink spilled on this subject, it is amazing how consistently terrible this advice often is. Continue reading

Achieved Forgiveness

To quote the recently deceased, yet eternally quotable, baseball legend Yogi Berra, it was “deja vu all over again.” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred concluded his year-long review of Pete Rose’s permanent ban from organized baseball on December 14th with a short but firm denial. Rose, Manfred wrote, had not absolved himself from violating Rule 21 by betting on games while affiliated with MLB: “Mr. Rose has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing…or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989.” The decision, however, has done nothing to quiet the unceasing call among sports fans for Rose’s pardon—a frequent demand for favored athletes. Nothing, it seems, will stop the continual re-litigation of his ban among fans and in the press. Continue reading