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Metamorphosis, or Falling in Love with Baseball

Simon Ravenscroft is a doctor of philosophy and a hopeless lover of the Chicago Cubs. In this piece, he tells of how he slipped into Cubdom.

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Change is a strange thing.

You probably don’t know who Kyle Schwarber is. Well, neither did I a couple of months ago. But it is Monday evening and I am spending my time watching him play a baseball game in the Arizona Fall League (me neither until 30 minutes ago, when I googled it) for a team called the ‘Mesa Solar Sox’ (ditto… sounds like a space station), which is being streamed live on the Major League Baseball website. I am also pretending to read a book about Erasmus.

When he is fit Kyle Schwarber plays Major League baseball for the Chicago Cubs. In the third game of the 2016 season he tore two ligaments in his knee and has been out injured ever since. Now the Chicago Cubs have made it to the World Series (for the first time since 1945), which starts tomorrow night against the Cleveland Indians. Schwarber has been declared (sort of) fit… fit enough to hit a baseball with his bat but not to field. Schwarber is young, but a big hitter – a slugger in baseball parlance – and may be able to play as a ‘designated hitter’ (a batter who doesn’t field or pitch) in the away games of the World Series (in the Cubs’ home games the teams won’t get to have a designated hitter… I won’t explain why, it’s complicated). This Arizona Fall League baseball game is being streamed live so that people can watch and decide if he seems fit enough to play.

***

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin”.

It all started when I bought a Google Chromecast. This technology means I can cast a video stream from my tablet computer onto my television. On my tablet, I have the BT Sport app. BT Sport, I quickly learned, has a contract to show Major League Baseball games most nights of the week. I am a bit of a night owl. I like to have something on television in the background during an evening. So on went the baseball.

I have been to a minor league baseball game before – the Lansing Lugnuts the home team were called. I have had a photo taken, somewhat by accident, with a former World Series winner… a gentleman called Todd Benzinger. I nonetheless know barely anything about baseball. Or, I should say, I knew barely anything about baseball. Now I am watching the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League to see if Kyle Schwarber looks fit enough to play designated hitter for the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

A metamorphosis. Admittedly of a spectacularly mundane sort.

Baseball, I ought to point out, is incredibly boring. Most of the time at least. It reminds me of cricket (…I love cricket). I realised that baseball existed in the same universe of boringness as cricket when Wikipedia told me that every Major League baseball team plays 162 regular season games a year. One hundred and sixty-two. Between April and October. A Major League baseball team plays a game almost every day in summer. Like five-game series of five-day test matches, this seems deliberately arranged so as to make as much of the play as possible as insignificant as possible for as long as possible. To maximise boredom. This is not the great spectacle of the NFL; this is not slightly less great spectacle of the English Premier League. This is a kind of anti-spectacle. How do you follow 162 games a season without getting bored stiff? Is elite sport in the twenty-first century not meant to be all about fan entertainment?

Ah, but there’s the rub. Baseball is not a sport. Not primarily, anyway. Baseball is a pastime. Or so American folklore has it. The National Pastime. A slow and pastoral game, albeit one that relies on moments of extreme power and speed. Baseball is rhythmic. Nine innings. Three outs per inning. Three strikes for an out. Pitch, swing. Pitch, leave. Pitch, hit. Et cetera. For about three hours.

***

“In our sundown perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base’, a certain game of ball. … Let us go forth a while and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms. … A game of ball is glorious.” – Walt Whitman, 1846

Baseball occupies a special place in the American imagination. “Baseball, because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers.” So said the poet and critic Donald Hall. And the filmmaker Ken Burns: “Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime.”

I am a foreigner to this. I cannot know from the inside America’s collective baseball memory. But from the outside, I have come to find it strangely beguiling. I decided upon learning a little more about the game, and watching it ever too frequently of an evening, that it would be good to have a team to support. Now, I am a firm believer that one should not choose to support a sports team. Or at least that to speak of such matters in terms of ‘choosing’ is somehow to make a category error. I am a Tottenham Hotspur fan. I got this from my father. I could no more choose not to support Tottenham, as I could choose not to hate the taste of sprouts, or not to like the colour orange. It is part of me. An apparently unchosen, inherited bond reinforced by years of habit and ritual and camaraderie. A baseball club needed to find me.

I have mentioned the Chicago Cubs. Since the Cubs are now in the World Series and had the best record in all of Major League baseball during this past regular season, a cynical reader might observe more than a lucky coincidence here. ‘The team that just happened to find you just happen to be the best in the league… how fortuitous’.

Permit me to defend myself, for this was not a foregone conclusion. Baseball, I should add, has a certain mysticism around it. At least four historic teams have suffered under terrible curses for multiple decades. These are:

  • The Chicago White Sox: The Curse of the Black Sox, 1920-2005
  • The Boston Red Sox: The Curse of the Bambino, 1918-2004
  • The Chicago Cubs: The Curse of the Billy Goat, 1945-present, arguably;
  • The Cleveland Indians: The Curse of Ricky Colavito, 1960-present (some doubt the veracity of this curse)

In this spirit of mysticism, I realised I needed to look for signs. Here are some signs:

The only Major League ballpark I have visited, years ago, happens to be the Chicago Cubs beautiful Wrigley Field, with its famous ivy-covered walls. My girlfriend has for no apparent reason some Chicago Cubs earrings purchased many years ago on a visit to Chicago. An American law professor with whom I am editing a book and who I recently saw in London, shortly after my baseball obsession began, turned out to be a big Chicago Cubs fan, and was able to fill me on matters of tradition and history. When the subject was raised, your editor Jon Mackenzie without a second thought instructed me to be a Cubs fan. The Cubs are currently under, as I just said, the ‘Curse of the Billy Goat’. This originated when a chap called Billy Sianis had his goat ejected from game four of the 1945 World Series because it smelt bad, and promptly declared that the Cubs would never win again. This goat was called Murphy. I am a big fan of Samuel Beckett’s prose fiction. One of Samuel Beckett’s first novels and most interesting character creations is called Murphy. I am a Tottenham fan. Tottenham often promise much and deliver little. Tottenham are perennially tragicomic in how they manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. The last time (before this year) they got close, in 2003, a bespectacled, turtle-necked Cubs fan by the name of Steve Bartman tragicomically interfered with a crucial play and began a chain of events that ruined everything. The time before that, in 1984, on the crucial play a ball went inexplicably through the legs of a fielder by the name of Bill Durham, ruining everything… by way of a tragicomic nutmeg. So like Tottenham, the Chicago Cubs are tragicomic. Bill Murray is a Cubs fan. I like Bill Murray. Did I mention that their ballpark has pretty ivy-covered walls?

I concede some of this may seem tenuous, even preposterous. But it is out of such random accidental nonsenses that the most resilient loves are born! Quickly I found myself waking up in the morning anxious to check the score from the Cubs late-night game of the day before. Then I found myself following them on Twitter. Then I found myself buying a Cubs jersey. Then a sleeve patch that had to be boiled in order to get the plastic backing off so it could be sewn onto the aforementioned jersey (!?). Then I found myself staying up until 4:30am watching a playoff game against the San Francisco Giants. Then setting my alarm for 2:30am and staying up until 7:45am for another, later play-off game that for some reason took five-and-a-quarter hours to complete. And now I find myself watching Kyle Schwarber bat for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and wondering whether he’ll make it to the World Series tomorrow night as a designated hitter.

I say ‘found myself’ and ‘find myself’ because I’m as mystified as anyone else about this.

One morning, Gregor Samsa awoke and found himself transformed into a horrible vermin. One morning, Simon awoke and found himself transformed into a baseball fan… a Cubs fan, even. Who knows how or why.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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