More Than a Diversion

Psst, pass it on: After a 32-year intermission, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series! After winning the National League West the previous seven years—this year will be the team’s eighth consecutive division title—and exiting the playoffs without the Commissioner’s Trophy, the 2020 postseason finally brought a championship banner back to Chavez Ravine.

The Tampa Bay Rays played with heart through the entire postseason. It takes untold athletic ability, strategy, and grit for any team to make it to the World Series, and while this year’s final prize went to the Dodgers, there is little question we will see the Rays again soon in October baseball. Both teams filled Globe Life Field with players of unquestionable excellence, and the six-game series came with all the unpredictability that makes baseball relentlessly nail-biting no matter your expectations.

The Dodgers simply had to get this done.

After so many failed attempts to full triumph over more than three decades, losing becomes an all-too-familiar feeling. It’s astonishing how quickly that feeling can be replaced by sheer glee. At this moment, I am experiencing glee. Devoted Dodger fans everywhere are experiencing glee. I’m finding it a different form of glee than it might have been any other year. This particular form of glee is a much-needed gulp of surely lasting but highly compartmentalized glee.

Let me try to share that qualified celebration, limited in practical application, boundless in idealistic resurgence.

So much that matters is going on in our world. We are approaching the end of one of the most difficult and painful years in our nation’s history. The year ahead of us is filled with anxiety and uncertainty no matter who is elected to lead the nation. It is only reasonable to ask ourselves why something as inconsequential as professional sports matters.

If you’re not on the team, employed by the team, or an owner of the team, does it really matter who wins the MLB World Series?

Does being a fan of any team matter?

I think it does, but only in a well-rounded, emotional context where we hold our priorities in balance.

Is the drama and endurance of a championship delivered by your home team a matter of life and death? No, in any mentally balanced sense, certainly not.

Is it a joyful diversion that can ease the burden of otherwise overwhelming demands on our time and attention? Yes, I think for many the game is just that. It has been for me.

I needed baseball this past summer. It was only a sixty-game season, but I needed all sixty of them. Even if I didn’t have time to watch them all, I needed to read about them the next day, to look at the box scores, to see who was healthy and getting the job done despite harrowing circumstances.

I needed the break from the political headlines, from the horrors of coronavirus, from the social injustices inflicted on those deserving better, from the inescapable racial bias tearing apart people’s lives, from the wildfires that came much too close to home while savaging the homes of others, and from the daily navigation of my own leadership responsibilities.

We all need things that are fun and fulfilling. Call them luxuries in perspective, but without something to capture the imagination in a time where so much focus is devoured by the absurd, our equilibrium can hang in the balance.

The Dodgers have given that to me when times were less stressful. They win, they lose, they lose when it matters most, but like every team, they reemerge every summer. This summer they mattered more.

It was more than a diversion. It was more than entertainment. It was psychological relief. It was a place I could go that really didn’t matter in the big picture of getting through 2020, but mattered enough to deflect a few minutes of serial stress each day.

I love baseball because my father loves baseball. It’s a way we discovered to connect. My dad was a talented ballplayer in high school and college. He loves to tell me if only he could have mastered hitting the curveball, he might have made a run at The Show. My brother is also an amazing ballplayer, a power hitter and respected star in high school and college. I never had the gift. I just couldn’t put the physical together with the mental. It wasn’t my thing, but it was a great way to talk to my dad.

I have no memory better than going with my dad to see the Detroit Tigers play downtown at the old Tiger Stadium. The Tigers were my first team. I collected all the baseball cards season after season. When the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I was a little kid. I listened each night to Ernie Harwell call the game on an AM transistor radio under my pillow, with one of those really uncomfortable earplugs muffling the broadcast. To this day I can name the Tigers starting lineup in those days from memory.

There was an even more important bond I shared with my father as a child. We couldn’t afford to go to major league baseball games all the time, but he played softball every week and I loved to cheer on his team. I kept the scorebook in longhand, old school. After each game, I would calculate the updated batting average of every player on the team in longhand, old school.

I’d tag along for pizza with the softball team after their games and make the rounds telling everyone how they hit versus last week and last month. Some of them noted I was pretty good at math for a kid my age and thought I might be a decent student. I guess that was a learning moment for me. We can’t be good at everything, but maybe I’d be good at something.

Those are perennially restorative thoughts encoded in protective mode on my aging biological hard-drive. When I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I knew I was going to be here for a while, so it was time to adopt a new team. That was the team of Jackie Robinson. That was the team of Sandy Koufax. That was the right team for me.

In 1988 I had so little money the idea of going to a World Series game wasn’t a remote fantasy. When former Tiger Kirk Gibson helped the Dodgers win that series with that legendary walk-off swing in Game 1, I thought to myself the World Series would come again to Los Angeles, and then perhaps I’d have the money to see them win it all in person.

It’s been a bit of a wait.

And I still didn’t get to see it in person! With so many complications this year, traveling to Arlington, Texas, just wasn’t a viable option.

Dad and I were supposed to go to the All-Star Game this year at Dodger Stadium. Covid-19 also nixed that. We texted with ardor all through the postseason. Hey, it’s the 21st century. No more old school.

A diversion is not the same as a distraction. A distraction can be an annoyance, shifting our attention from determined contemplation. A diversion can be a gift, briefly capturing us with a complementary story thread that sheds light on our more serious obsessions.

When I am seriously focused on work or the ills of the world, I may think I want neither distraction nor diversion. The child in me may say otherwise, that I lose when I am too serious. You may not love baseball, but the child in you wants the same escape. I found mine this summer. I will again next summer.

It’s often said in various ways that baseball is a child’s game played by adults. Bart Giamatti also warned us that it will break your heart. In Field of Dreams, a father and a son mystically share a catch that was always meant to be. Not every diversion can open your mind and your heart. I was talking to a rabbi recently who assured me that anything that can open our hearts is essential to our well-being. He used the metaphor of baseball in his Yom Kippur sermon. Coincidence? Maybe.

Our trip around the baseball diamond begins and ends in childhood, where simple stories can last a lifetime. The Little Prince reminds us of the difference between childish and childlike. One undermines our maturity, the other ensures its sensible evolution. I hope your diversion may be as inspiring, uplifting, and rejuvenating as mine.

And psst, pass it on. For once after 32 seasons, our Blue Crew doesn’t have to repeat those mightily dispiriting words: Wait ‘til next year.

_______________

Photo: MLB

When Your Team Loses

The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers lost. It was an epic contest. Many have observed it was one of the greatest World Series match-ups in the history of Major League Baseball. It lasted into the mythic and deciding Game 7, crossing tentatively into the month of November, creating the first-ever Game 7 at Dodger Stadium and the first-ever MLB game played in November at Dodger Stadium.

This year’s fall classic delivered all of the drama any fan could want from a World Series. There were come-from-behind victories one after another, larger-than-life villains and heroes caught in an explosive discussion of racism, more lazy walks and majestic home runs than most of us could imagine, and two world-class managers locked in a battle of wits. It was an endurance contest. It began in Game 1 at 103 degrees on the sweltering Chavez Ravine field and ended there eight days later some forty degrees cooler. It brought many viewers back to the game who had abandoned baseball for its slow pace in our ever-hectic world. It was the perfect collision of talent and human will emerging from an always imperfect playing season.

Then it was over.

Only one team could take home the Commissioner’s Trophy. One team did, in a stadium not their own but on a makeshift stage they made their own. The local contenders, who could win only three of seven games, looked on from the home team dugout and watched the award ceremony broadcast to the globe. Behind the blue-flagged dugout sat their fans, also staring vacantly beyond the bright television camera lights with sadness and acceptance. I was among those fans. I slumped in my hardwood seat and watched the grand on-field celebration to my right and the silence of humility to my left.

Bart Giamatti, former MLB Commissioner and President of Yale University, probably said it best in his acclaimed essay The Green Fields of the Mind:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

That is the game, where each preliminary round of the postseason always ends in an event called an elimination game, and then the World Series itself winds down to the final elimination game. When your team is eliminated from competition, your season is over. There are no appeals. At the final elimination game, one team is victorious. The other team retains the consolation prize of league champion, but it is increasingly less of a bragging right than it was in professional baseball’s beginnings over a century ago.

The eliminated team leaves the field with a broken heart shared with its fans. That is the design. It needs no improvement. A loss is as perfect in its ability to stir emotion as a win means to those who share a parade in the glorious days following the final pitch.

So why does any of this matter? Baseball is a business, a big-money enterprise where fans shell out enormous sums of money for ballpark visits, television and internet subscriptions, staggeringly high-margin junk food, proud but ridiculously overpriced authentic field wear, signed souvenirs, trading cards, collectors’ memorabilia, and tiny parking spots where door dings are as much a part of the game as the ceremonial first pitch. Players are traded back and forth late in the season as insurance for a playoff spot, and just because you call it your home team doesn’t mean many of the players on the payroll call it home.

Why does it matter? If you are a fan, you have to answer it in your own way. Let me try to answer it in mine.

Never mind that the Los Angeles Dodgers, a controversial transplant from Brooklyn today playing in the second-largest media market in the nation, haven’t even appeared in a World Series since 1988, the year ace Clayton Kershaw was born. Never mind that the Dodgers are the team of historic #42 Jackie Robinson, whose jersey number is the only one retired across both the National and American leagues. Never mind that Dodger Stadium, the model for modern stadiums when it opened in 1962, the year I was born, is now the third-oldest stadium among the 30 in MLB. All of that is nice context, but it doesn’t reasonably define why I would feel sorrowful over a loss in Game 7.

In fact, in a world plagued by continuing terrorism, nonstop acts of violence, social vitriol, political lunacy, global instability, and wildly unjust economic inequality, why do seven months of three-hour-plus games played day and night on well-manicured fields by young millionaire athletes directed by billionaire ownership groups matter at all? It shouldn’t, right? We’re adults, aren’t we? We’ve got important stuff to worry about, not the velocity of a breaking ball walloped by a carved piece of wood and sailing 400 feet into the bleachers of a 50,000-seat arena.

Well, let’s try it another way and go back to Bart Giamatti, a Renaissance scholar and baseball fanatic who left us much too early but was gracious enough to capture some meaning in all of it in his own temporal longing:

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.

That is why it matters to me. It matters because it lasts all our lives. It dies with the coming of winter and is reborn in the spring. I love the game because my father loved the game. It is essentially the same game, forget the bells and whistles and data analytics and all that newfangled scoreboard jazz. The game no matter what is fully unpredictable to the final out, the alchemy of athleticism, calculating strategy, and too often chance. It is consistent in its ritual routines, relentless in its aggregate simplicity, intoxicating in its repetitiveness. Forever it has broken hearts. We share that from generation to generation, from season to season. It is absolute in its constancy, absolute in its recurring challenge, absolute in its finality — until it comes again.

It always comes again. It has to come again. It is designed to break your heart.

When your team loses, you internalize the emotion, politely congratulate the winning opponent, and make no excuse for the silliness of the sadness in your obsession with constancy. We all like to win. We all want to win. We all want to be part of winning. Yet more than that, we all want to be part of something that matters because it holds us together with permanence solely because its vitality is assured in its unfailing renewal.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, who didn’t win a World Series until 1955, owned the nickname Dem Bums. Each year they lost, Dem Bums and the fans who followed them would finish the season with the same words: “Wait ’til next year.” Dem Bums knew the answer to what you do when your team loses.

I’ll see you at the green field next April. Opening Day is traditionally played in the early afternoon. With a little luck the sun will be shining on all of us.

______________________

Photo: By the author, Ken Goldstein (11/1/17)