Bill Murray: Chicago Cubs true-believer, October 2016. (Imgur)

Notes On the Narrative Conundrum of Baseball Fandom

Discussed: the Psychology of Memory; the First Pitch of the Third Game of the 2015 World Series; Why People Hate Joe Buck; Denkinger v. Buckner v. Bartman; Post-Title Letdown; the Influence of Young-Adult Novels on Sportswriting; Why a World Series Victory Won’t Necessarily Make Life Easier for Diehard Cubs Fans.

I. Noah Syndergaard Once Slew a Dragon (in the Minds of Mets Fans)

As the Major League Baseball postseason goes into full swing this month, I am reminded of a moment in Game Three of 2015 World Series, when, on the first pitch of the night, Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard launched a 98 mph fastball up and in, buzzing the head of Royals’ leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar.

At the time the Mets were trailing 0–2 in the series, and before the game Syndergaard had claimed he’d had “a few tricks” up his sleeve to neutralize the hot-hitting Escobar (who had opened the World Series by clobbering the game’s first pitch for an inside-the-park home run against Mets ace Matt Harvey). Three pitches after Syndergaard’s brushback left Escobar sprawled on his rear-end in the batters’ box, the Mets’ pitcher fanned the Royals shortstop with a wicked 99 mph fastball. Fans at New York’s Citi Field erupted in joy, and the Mets went on to defeat the Royals 9–3.

Syndergaard’s game-opening dust-off gained an added potency at the post-game press conference, when the imposing, blond-locked pitcher (nicknamed “Thor” for his Nordic-superhero bearing) unapologetically reveled at what some Royals players had characterized as a dirty pitch. “I feel like it really made a statement to start the game off, that you guys can’t dig in and get too aggressive because I’ll come in there,” he said. “If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.” In pure narrative terms, Syndergaard’s brushback pitch had instantly become the stuff of myth — the baseball equivalent of St. George slaying the Dragon — and optimistic Mets fans embraced it as a potential turning point of the series.

The opening pitch of Game Three of the World Series, October 30, 2015. (MLB.com)

For Royals fans like myself this whole spectacle was exasperating — in part because Syndergaard’s buzz-pitch endangered our star shortstop, but even more so because it literally didn’t affect the fortunes of the inning, let alone the game. After Escobar went down swinging, the Royals’ next batter, Ben Zobrist worked a full count before hammering Syndergaard’s seventh pitch over the head of Yoenis Cespedes in deep center for a double. The next batter, Lorenzo Cain, reached on an infield single, and — two pitches later — Zobrist scored the game’s first run when Syndergaard failed to cover first on a potential double-play grounder by Eric Hosmer. Syndergaard’s fortunes slipped further in the second inning, when he gave up two runs on four hits — including clean single to center by erstwhile slain dragon Alcides Escobar. Though Syndergaard eventually settled in to pitch a solid game, his performance wasn’t markedly different than the reliable starts offered up by Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom amid losing efforts in the previous two games. The key factor in Game Three wasn’t Noah Syndergaard’s effectiveness; it was the ineffectiveness of Royals starter Yordano Ventura, who coughed up five runs on seven hits in less than four innings.

As it happened, Game Three was Kansas City’s only loss of the series. Two nights later, in Game Five, the Royals clinched the title with a dramatic ninth-inning rally followed by a decisive flurry of clutch hitting in the twelfth. By the time the game ended, the Mets’ meta-narrative had shifted to the fatal hubris of ace pitcher Matt Harvey, who had refused to yield the mound to the team’s closer after eight shutout innings and ultimately surrendered a 2–0 lead in the ninth. For Mets’ fans, Harvey’s ill-starred Icarus Moment became the defining metaphor of the 2015 World Series — but for some reason this only bolstered the aura of Syndergaard’s St. George Moment two games earlier.

Throughout the off-season, Mets fans pointed to Syndergaard’s Game Three dust-off pitch as an emotional high-point of the series, and as the Mets prepared to face the Royals on 2016 Opening Day, the Long Island paper Newsday breathlessly reported that “the Royals have been quietly signaling their intent to seek retribution against the Mets” over Syndergaard’s World Series buzz-job. Sinister as this prospect may have seemed to Mets fans, to Royals fans — who never fully bought in to the Syndergaard narrative to begin with — it felt absurd. As Kansas City manager Ned Yost quipped when asked about the Newsweek story, “Our retribution was winning the World Series.”

II. The First Conundrum of Baseball Fan Narratives

Baseball has, for at least the past century or so, distinguished itself by its uncanny ability to create vivid — and, at times, epic — narratives out of what is, in practice, a fairly tactical-statistical athletic contest. This has resulted in two key conundrums — the first of which is that losing teams (or, at least, teams that don’t quite manage to win it all) yield narratives that are denser and richer, more fraught with tragic mythos and speculative agony, than title-winning teams. The tales of ball-clubs that manage to win it all may have a certain unity and elegance, but these narratives can’t match the ragged energy that enlivens futile hopes and heartbreaking losses. To invoke, say, the 1998 New York Yankees (or the 1939 Yankees, the 1976 Cincinnati Reds) might call to mind certain notions of competitive excellence, but these phrases carry a mere whisper of the narrative power that can be summed up by a string of multisyllabic names — think Denkinger, Buckner, Bartman — associated with anguish and misfortune.

Steve Bartman and company. NLCS Game Three, eighth inning, October 14, 2003. (MLB.com)

These three surnames are emblematic of what can happen when fan narratives wind up becoming the official metaphor for postseason fortunes in baseball. Don Denkinger is, of course, the American League umpire whose blown call on a Jorge Orta groundout is said to have cost the St. Louis Cardinals the 1985 World Series. Bill Buckner is the hobbled infielder whose misplay of a Mookie Wilson grounder is said to have cost the Boston Red Sox the 1986 World Series. Steve Bartman is the headphones-wearing fan whose interference with Moises Alou’s play on a foul ball is thought to have cost the Chicago Cubs a trip to the 2003 World Series. Tellingly, each of these fabled incidents took place in in Game Six of a postseason series; for the unlucky teams in question, the immediate result of melodramatic misfortune was not competitive oblivion, but the potential redemption of Game Seven.

In his groundbreaking 1932 book Remembering, British psychologist F. C. Bartlett describes an experiment in which people were told fables sown with non-sequiturs and illogical complications; when asked to recount the tales later, the test subjects smoothed and simplified the anomalous-seeming details, resulting in clearer, easier-to-comprehend stories. Bartlett’s conclusion — that we remember events via simplified narratives rather than convoluted facts — seems perfectly tailored for the lore of baseball. As the 2011 ESPN documentary Catching Hell illustrated, Bill Bucker became the unworthy scapegoat of a much more complicated Red Sox meltdown (including managerial blunders by John McNamara, and pitching gaffes by Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley), and Steve Bartman’s foul-ball interference was far less catastrophic than a string of eighth-inning shortcomings by the Cubs’ defense (including poor fielding by Alex Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa, and ineffective pitching by Mark Prior and Kyle Farnsworth).

As a Kansas City fan who still savors the team’s first World Series triumph, the 1985 Denkinger incident (popularly remembered as “The Call”) is a particularly disgruntling metaphor, since it implies that a villainous umpire — not the Royals’ superior on-field play — vanquished the St. Louis Cardinals. Three decades on, any tried-and-true Royals fan can cite a litany of moments that were more consequential to the Cardinals’ ninth-inning fortunes than Denkinger’s missed call (Jack Clark’s misplay of a Steve Balboni pop-up, Darrell Porter’s passed ball during Hal McRae’s plate appearance, etc.), but the most detailed argument for the legitimacy of Kansas City’s victory came in an 80-page essay written by sabermetrics guru Bill James just weeks after the 1985 Series.

Entitled “A History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan,” the essay culminated in a rundown of factors (the Royals’ .288 batting-average in the Series versus the Cardinals’ .185; the Royals’ 28 total runs versus the Cardinals’ 13; the Royals’ seven stolen bases versus the Cardinals’ two) that proved Kansas City’s dominance. In terms of statistical analysis, James laid out a conclusive case for the Royals’ supremacy; in terms of raw narrative, however, James’ carefully crunched-numbers could never compete with the emotional primacy of The Call.

III. Why We Resent Sportscasters (and How They Were Invented)

James’ essay also touched on the reflexive insecurity that Kansas City fans displayed in the face of national media coverage during the 1985 Series. Every time ABC’s Al Michaels said something nice about St. Louis, James noted, skittish Kansas City fans accused the sportscaster of anti-Royals bias. This knee-jerk paranoia resurfaced in 2014, when the Kansas City made it back to the World Series to play the San Francisco Giants, and Royals fans developed a pathological loathing for Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck.

As a sportscaster, Buck’s job was to weave the official story of the World Series in real-time — and that year the narrative rightly centered on the dominance of Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner. The Royals’ inability to hit Bumgarner in an otherwise close Series proved so painful to Kansas City fans that, as the Series progressed, Buck’s ongoing praise for the San Francisco ace began to take on what felt (to Royals devotees) like a taunting quality. To this day, when asked to mention a name that encapsulates the 2014 Series, most Royals fans will say “Mike Jirschele” (i.e. the good-natured Royals base-coach who held Alex Gordon on third with two outs in the bottom on the ninth in Game Seven), if only to avoid having to remember Buck’s hagiographic play-by-play of Bumgarner’s performance.

In truth, if any one factor points to Joe Buck’s intrinsic talents as a postseason announcer, it’s the fact that fans of the losing team tend to despise him, while fans of the winning team feel like he’s stating the obvious. In 2015, when Kansas City mounted its successful run to a second World Series title, the same Royals fans who had hated Buck for marveling over Bumgarner’s pitch-placement scarcely reacted when he praised, say, Alcides Escobar’s batting-box aggressiveness, or Lorenzo Cain’s base-path speed, or Eric Hosmer’s tactical boldness. Indeed, for those of us devoted to a given baseball team, the formal sportscast-narrative of a high-stakes game is only satisfying — only conclusive — if our team ends up winning; in the case of a high-stakes loss, a given fan-base will invariably wallow in the self-protective self-laceration of ten-dozen nitpicked counter-narratives (including, for some 2014 Royals fans, the demented notion that Joe Buck harbored repressed psychosexual longings for Bumgarner). For as long as there will be baseball, the stories fans tell themselves will be at odds with the stories spun by journalists and sportscasters.

Ralph Henry Barbour’s youth-market novels changed the way sports stories were told.

While fan-driven narratives have probably existed for as long as there have been sports (in Ancient Rome, Pliny the Younger lampooned the “childish passion” of chariot-race enthusiasts), official sports narratives offered up by the likes of Joe Buck and Al Michaels have scarcely existed a century. Were one to pinpoint the day that baseball first embraced an objective-minded sense of story-craft, it might well be October 14, 1908, when a group of sports journalists founded the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Among the many goals embraced by the BBWAA (including standardized scoring techniques and improved press-box working conditions), the group aimed to broaden interest in the sport by writing more exciting baseball narratives.

At the time the very notion of a newspaper sports department was less than two decades old, and baseball coverage tended to be blandly descriptive and statistical, focusing more on team outcomes than individual efforts. Pioneering journalists like Charles Dryden (later dubbed the “Mark Twain of baseball”) had begun to inject humor into sports writing, but the biggest influence on baseball-narrative as a mass-media art in the early years of the BBWAA might well have been Ralph Henry Barbour, an immensely popular Boston-based fiction writer who, in youth-market novels like Double Play and Finkler’s Field, had an uncanny knack for tying the mechanics of the sport to themes of everyman heroism and vicarious in-the-moment drama.

As novelist Robert Cantwell noted more than a half-century later in a 1962 Sports Illustrated article, “Barbour’s carefully described games were more interesting to read about than the actual games that were reported in the newspapers. They were vivid and clear, and they chained the imagination of a youthful reader to the emotions of the players, explaining, clarifying and dramatizing what was happening on the diamond as no factual explanation could possibly do it.” Cantwell added: “A pretty good case could be made that after [Barbour’s] baseball books swept the country, sports reporting became interesting, and the accounts of imaginary games formed the model for the reporting of real ones.”

By the 1920s, sportswriters like Grantland Rice and Paul Gallico had distinguished themselves for the cinematic sweep of their prose (“No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined,” Gallico enthused), and the rise of radio in the ensuing decades solidified baseball reportage as its own distinct narrative genre. As the twentieth century progressed, sportscasters like Red Barber, Vin Scully, and Jack Buck (Joe’s father) achieved renown for their ability to nest stories within stories — melding myth with minutiae — over the course of a three-hour game.

IV. The Second Conundrum of Baseball Fan Narratives

Sharp-eyed baseball fans will note that October 14, 1908 is remembered less as a symbolic turning point in the craft of baseball narrative than for the fact that it marked the day the Chicago Cubs clinched their second consecutive World Series with a 2–0 Game Five win over the Detroit Tigers.

The 1908 Cubs: Steinfeldt, Tinker, Evers, Chance. (via Just One Bad Century)

As of this writing, that 1908 triumph was the last time Chicago’s north-side club won a title, which — by dint of the first conundrum of baseball fandom — makes the Cubs the most spectacularly narrative team in the modern history of the sport.

The Cubs also opened the 2016 postseason as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, having posted a dominant 103–58 regular season record (winning the NL Central title by 17.5 games). Which brings us to the second narrative conundrum of baseball fandom.

I’ve been coming to terms with this second conundrum ever since Kansas City clinched its second World Series title last fall. In a single instant, as backup catcher Drew Butera clinched Wade Davis’s game-ending third strike, three decades dense with what-if Royals-fan folklore were folded into a seamless and sanitized happy-ending tale. More specifically, the Royals’ 2015 triumph became the retrospective capstone to a slow-burning success story that had begun thirteen months earlier, when — in what is commonly regarded as the greatest single game in Royals history — Kansas City beat the Oakland A’s 9–8 in a twelve-inning AL Wild Card epic that lasted five hours.

I attended that 2014 Wild Card game in person, sitting in Kauffman Stadium’s upper-level HyVee Section with my 75-year-old father. The game tickets were a belated Father’s Day gift (I had promised I’d buy them back in June, when it wasn’t even clear if the Royals would make the postseason), and dad listened to KC sportscaster Denny Matthews’ play-by-play on a transistor radio while I sat next to him, reflexively checking Royals Twitter on my iPhone as the game played out. After two lead changes in the first three innings, Kansas City fell behind 7–3 in the sixth, only to claw back to within one run in the eighth, tie the game in the ninth, fall behind by a run in the top of the twelfth, and tie the game again in the bottom of the twelfth. When Salvador Perez laced a two-strike, two-out grounder past a diving Josh Donaldson to walk off the game just short of midnight, my father and I jumped around like schoolchildren (along with 40,000 other Royals fans) in the upper reaches of the stadium. The emotional release was so pure, so satisfying in the moment, that it felt like baseball would never have to be played again anywhere, ever.

The final run of the American League Wild Card game, September 30, 2014. (MLB.com)

Thus the second conundrum of baseball fandom: No matter how gratifying it is to win — and, in particular, to win it all — your team still has to come back and keep playing. In the months after the Royals’ 2015 World Series title, my thrill at the team’s resilient fight for the championship (eight come-from-behind wins in a single postseason, including all four World Series victories), gradually became tempered by the fact that another season was due to start in April of 2016. For bandwagon fans (whose loyalties are reserved for fair-weather seasons) this is a benign prospect, since you can simply change the channel and get on with your life if your team fails to replicate its success. If you really love your team, however, a new season means new uncertainty, new anxiety, and neurotic new narratives that you tell yourself in an attempt to explain why your team is no longer quite as good as you’d like it to be.

V. The Curious Case of the 2016 Royals “Rally Mantis”

As someone who has desperately loved the Royals since before I could tie my own shoes, Opening Day 2016 offered a strange mix of emotions. Granted, it was great to see the newly raised 2015 World Series Championship flag fluttering above the Royals Hall of Fame, and I cheered as Kansas City collected nine hits en route to a 4–3 victory (for the record, no Mets batters were plunked, despite Newsday’s baleful warnings). Still, I felt a twinge of dread in the top of the eighth inning, when Kansas City’s newly reacquired relief pitcher Joakim Soria surrendered three runs on three hits and two walks, nearly squandering the team’s lead.

Over the course of the following six weeks the Royals’ on-field performance proved inconsistent, until a late-May surge and a six-game winning streak left them atop the AL Central on the first day of June. The team seemed poised to extend the win-streak to seven games on June 2nd, taking a 4–3 lead against the Cleveland Indians into the final inning — but Soria came in and blew the save, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth. The Royals went on to lose their next seven games, squandering their AL Central contention for what proved to be the rest of the season.

If my recollections of the Royals’ 2016 fortunes seem unfairly focused on Joakim Soria, it’s because, as a diehard fan, a disappointing season is easier to deal with when it has a clear thread of cause and effect. In truth, the Royals’ post-championship season was doomed by a number of factors — not the least of which was key injuries to All-Stars Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon — but (in keeping with the first conundrum of baseball fandom) it’s more satisfying to seize upon a villain figure.

August, 2016: “Rally Mantis” masks were selling for $45 in Kauffman Stadium. (MLB.com)

It can also be satisfying to seize upon symbols of hope, no matter how absurd, which is why so many Kansas City fans believed that the presence of a preying mantis in the Royals’ dugout during an August 6th victory against the Toronto Blue Jays is what led to an 18–4 late-summer winning surge. By the morning of August 30th the Royals were a mere two games out of AL wild card contention, and green-rubber “Rally Mantis” masks could be had for $45 at Kauffman Stadium. I myself dropped $172 sending off for a custom-designed preying mantis flag to fly at September ballgames.

Unfortunately, on the very day my mantis banner arrived from from the manufacturer, the Royals lost a rain-delayed 5–4 heartbreaker to the Yankees after Joakim Soria muffed a routine grounder with the bases loaded in the top of the 10th. Four games later, Soria blew a one-run lead against the Tigers in the bottom of the eighth; three games after that, Soria blew a one-run lead against the Twins in the bottom of the seventh; five games after that, Soria blew a one-run lead against the A’s in the top of the eighth. Kansas City went 12–16 in September, and while Royals fans will acknowledge the team slumped for a variety of factors, there was something soothing about boiling our frustrations down to a simple refrain (Soria, Soria, Soria).

One year after winning it all, the 2016 Royals ended up 81–81 for the season — as middling as a major league team can get. I waved my preying mantis banner behind the visitors’ dugout during the final win of the season, a come-from-behind 5–2 victory over the Minnesota Twins. Joakim Soria, who pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth, was credited with the win.

My Rally Mantis flag is now pinned to the wall in my spare bedroom, an eccentric reminder of a Royals season that could never match up to the thrill of the previous year.

VI. What We Talk About When We Talk About (the Teams We) Love

My spare bedroom is also where I keep my oldest baseball artifact, a souvenir program from my first Royals game — July 5, 1978 — a 10–1 win that featured Kansas City starter Dennis Leonard hurling a complete game against Nolan Ryan and the California Angels.

Kansas City Royals program and scorecard, July 5, 1978.

It was around this time in my life that a new family moved into a house down my block. The youngest son, Travis, was about my age, and I was astonished when he told me he was a fan of the Chicago Cubs. I lived in Wichita at the time, and while rooting for the Cubs wasn’t unheard of (the city’s minor league team, the Wichita Aeros, was in the Cubs’ farm system), it didn’t make much sense to my seven-year-old brain. That summer the Royals were cruising toward their third straight AL West title, whereas the Cubs hadn’t posted a winning season in six years. To my befuddlement, Travis didn’t seem to care; he savored what wins the Cubs could scratch out, and that was that.

Travis’s parents hailed from Illinois, which could be why he originally chose the Cubs over the Royals. But as he grew into adolescence, Travis seemed to embrace the Cubs with an intensified sense of devotion, as if purposely choosing to celebrate the hope-against-hope that came with loving a club that hadn’t made the postseason since Harry S Truman was president. Travis had been born with muscular dystrophy, and while the rest of the kids on our block looked forward to joining youth baseball leagues and track clubs, he faced the prospect of physical therapy, leg braces, and, eventually, life in a wheelchair. He grew to be an intense and cerebral teenager, a fan of Dostoyevsky and public radio, a freelance theologian who scoured scripture for solace and guidance and loopholes. Baseball became a part of his belief system, and he made regular pilgrimages to Wrigley Field. He relished the Cubs’ playoff run in 1984, and again in 1989; it was as if he lived with the conviction that if there could be hope for the Cubs, there could be hope against the disease that had atrophied his muscles.

I realize that, in speaking of Travis’s relationship to the Cubs, I might be projecting my own narrative simplifications onto a young man who, like most young men, could be a complicated and conflicted person. I was a complicated kid, too, and perhaps not always the most reliable friend, for a number of reasons also pegged to the throes of young-manhood (among other things, I recall a teenage girlfriend noting in passing that Travis was “like, movie-star handsome, when you really look at him”; I harbored jealousy in the pit of my stomach for days). But it was through knowing Travis that I came to better understand how, when you decide to love a baseball team, making peace with a disappointing season is a way of making peace with life.

My friend Travis died on March 22, 2001. He was 27 years old. I was on magazine assignment in India at the time, and when I read the news in an email from my mother, I sat in a Pushkar Internet café and wept.

If the Cubs win the World Series this year I might just cry again, if only at the thought of how Travis would have savored the moment.

VII. If By Chance the Chicago Cubs Do Win It All

Cubs fans will, I’m sure, shed tears one way or another this postseason. In a sense things will be simpler for them if their team can’t quite clinch the World Series, as this will merely add another status-quo hard-luck chapter to the most epic futility story in the history of baseball.

If the Cubs do win it all, the release will be as sweet and joyous as any tale that takes 108 years to arc toward a conclusion. The ecstasies that play out in the streets of Wrigleyville after the final out will most certainly provide us with one of the most rapturous sports-related spectacles of this generation.

Once that celebration dies down, however, baseball will go on as usual: A new season will begin, and diehard Cubs fans will have to prepare for the uncertainty, anxiety, and neurotic new narratives that ensue when you have no choice but to keep on loving your team.

Someday. (via Flickr)
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