Sunday, September 30, 2007

Joy in Mudville Tonight

Well, there’s joy in Mudville tonight if you’re a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Last game of the season, they did what they had to do to make the playoffs: won, while the Mets got hammered by the lowly Marlins, the end of the worst September collapse in baseball history. While that collapse may be historic, it wouldn’t have mattered without the Phils catching fire in September and keeping the pressure on every step of the way.

That poem is a pretty solid take on emotion and sports: “no joy in Mudville tonight.” Implying there may have been the day before, and that lack of joy will fade tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. Of course, things have changed in baseball since then. These days, Mighty Casey will have enough injected testosterone and other undetectable substances coursing through his veins that his home run output would be doubled. He’d have a small jar of children’s urine attached to a rubber penis hidden in his McMansion, the one he uses for drug tests that he bought for $500 from a steroid dealer in his gyms’ parking lot . And his fatal strike-out, as each at-bat, would cost the team tens of thousands of dollars for his services.

Living in the New York area, I don’t get to see many Phillies games in the course of a season. Sure, when they play the Mets. Sometimes the Braves on TBS. Sometimes ESPN will have them on. I tend to frequent the team's website, checking in at night around 10 to see how they’ve done, or early the next morning. But as a rule, I don’t get to see the games until I go back to Pennsylvania, and I’ll try to see as many games as I can, usually up in my old bedroom, the place of dreams, where I once hung baseball gloves on bed posts and slept in Little League uniforms the night before opening day. I’ll cheat a lot, only watching the Phillies at-bat while channel surfing when they’re on the field.

While my fanhood is solid, it surely aint what it used to be, and the emotional connection is such that I’ll feel bad for a little while if they blow a game, but not to the extent of anyone noticing. I have to admit, over this playoff run for the past few weeks, I’ve been elated when the Mets kept losing and the Phils slowly closed ground. I was deflated yesterday when they dropped a key game to the lowly Nationals, thinking, what the fuck are these guys doing, how can they play so lackluster at a time like this?

But that’s the nature of the game. It’s momentum, not easy to predict and not easy to understand how or why it happens when it does. The Marlins came out today in Shea Stadium, after getting murdered the previous day, on the shit end of a very bad season, and laid a totally unexpected ass-bombing on aging ace Tom Glavine, tagging him for seven runs in the first inning. Tom sat in the dugout after being taken out, looking like the only things he wanted to do were go home, bronski that pin-up material wife of his and convert to Satanism. It didn’t get any better as the game progressed and the Mets never caught fire.

I’ve seen two games like that with the Mets in the past three days, the previous being the first game of the series the Mets lost to the Marlins. What was very odd, and somehow touching, was that when it became clear the Mets were going to lose (and that first loss represented the first time since mid-May that the Mets had not been in first place), the cameras started to show fans in the crowd as much as possible. You had people with dejected faces in rally caps (a baseball hat turned inside out), some people crying, a dejected couple, the woman rubbing the man’s back as he looked like someone just shot his dog, beefy guys with handlebar mustaches leaning on rails, the sort of faces you tend to see at wakes and funerals. The strangest thing was the silence: you could have heard someone fart in the upper decks. Shea Stadium was like a giant morgue filled with 30,000 corpses.

Same thing happened again, today, only worse, and a lot of fans didn’t leave the stadium after the game, just sat there, stunned, unwilling to let the season go. They weren’t looking for a curtain call, to have the players come out and give them one last blast of applause, as you’ll sometimes see with teams who’ve over-achieved the fans’ expectations, had a great year, but came up short. That’s a sweet thing to see, but this was more like an old woman clinging to the body of her husband of 50 years who had died two hours earlier. Just refusing to accept it on some basic level, all the while understanding that it’s over. The same way we’ve all clung to bad relationships long after we knew they should have been a memory.

But the thing about sports is you keep coming back, in a strange type of relationship that usually predates and lasts as long as any form of marriage. You fall in love again, every year, ride the season out, soak it in when it’s around, hope for the best, feel like shit when the team plays like shit, and feel great by extension when they excel. To an extent – like I’ve noted, this used to be a much more emotional experience for me when I was much younger.

What changed that? The Sugar Bowl, January 1, 1979, Penn State losing to Alabama 14-7 in the Superdome, New Orleans. I was 14 years old and watching Penn State playing for a national championship, totally in love with the team, with Paterno and his paternal style of coaching, his highwater pants and white socks, the cheap ties and windbreakers, the coke-bottle glasses, his team dressed in the most basic, faceless uniforms imaginable. I can’t pinpoint the exact year I started following Penn State, probably about 1972 or so, but seeing as how my dad’s generation all did time at the campus (although Dad dropped out on the G.I. Bill, just wasn’t his thing), it was an ongoing family thing. I fell right into line and am still there: of all the sports I follow, Penn State football is the one I tend to get the most emotional about.

But that one game blew me out on some higher spiritual level. The game came down to Penn State getting stopped on the Alabama 2-3 yard line and unable, on four running plays up the middle, to convert. Losing that game was absolutely devastating. I think I went down to the basement, wept, put on brother M’s Best of Bread eight track, and lifted my vinyl-covered cement weights for about two hours. I felt like dogshit for a good week or two after that, just pure depression.

And that was it. I pretty much decided that sports were a diversion, and that it didn’t make any sense to get that emotional over them. It made sense to follow them, to take pleasure in them, to let them help pass the time, but that’s where I drew the line. When I see people doing shit like painting their faces, getting abusive in a stadium, taking the game way too personally, I have to wonder what’s going on with that person. Why it means so much. Why the sense of ceremony, the thousands of dollars spent on tickets, alcohol and travel. No one has ever adequately explained that to me. Nick Hornby tried with is book about being an Arsenal soccer fan, but I honestly didn’t get his emotional connection to the game, it felt like bullshit to me. When I had my teenage heart broken by the Crimson Tide, I made a conscious choice to place sports in a more realistic context, must have been some type of demarcation point for me. I can see the tribal aspects of following a team, but I can also see through it. Much as I came to the same realization about Lou Reed fans, that many of them sucked and were no friends of mine, no matter how much pleasure I took from his music. I just don't get fans on some important level. The low point of this baseball season for me was some guy from Seattle with his son in Yankee Stadium, both excited to be there, and the man gets a broken neck and partial paralysis when some fat, drunken fuck, the kind of which you see in droves at any professional sporting event, fell on his back from a few seats up, was successfully spirited away by his asshole friends and never caught/held accountable for his actions. All this for a baseball game, I thought.

But in general, I still get much pleasure and pain from sports. Penn State went on to win the national title twice in the 10 years following that crushing loss, but they’ve had some rough times since then, and frankly kind of suck this year. The Phillies have sucked for a long time since the early 80s, going to the World Series in the early 90s with that freaky team of fat white guys with mullets, but I knew they were going to lose that one, they were just too strange to make it on that level. When I identify with the Phillies now, as with all sports, it goes back to the 70s, when I was a child, and I did things like collect baseball cards and worship some of these guys. Steve Carlton was my favorite player, because he was a great, no-nonsense pitcher, got up there and fired the ball without hesitation, like a machine, and never talked to the press, which I loved about him, the most intense, zero-bullshit player of my 70s fanhood. I later learned, when he finally started talking to the press years after his retirement, that he was hung up on jews in spaceships ruling the world, thus explaining his choice to live in one of those wilderness states out west, probably with a bunker stocked with ammo and canned soup. But even then, I still loved the guy, even with full knowledge of how totally nuts he was.

This season, for me, goes back to a moment in a supermarket parking lot in Frackville, PA, some time in April. When I go back there and Mom needs to grocery shop, I make it a habit of going along with her to help out. I was doing just that, only she had to stay in the store to renew her animal shelter key chain: it’s from a local shelter with a no-kill policy that she swipes with every purchase at the store to make a $1.00 donation. She was inside getting that taken care of, while I took the groceries out to load in the car.

As I was doing so, I noticed an old-timer a few cars over having trouble loading his groceries. Guy must have been in his late 70s. So I walked over and helped him, loading the bags into the backseat of his car. Thank you, young man, he said … I like that hat. I was wearing a throwback 70s Phillies hat, with the big fat “P” on it from that time period.

We got to talking about the Phillies, both of us bemoaning the lack of pitchers like Carlton, hoping this new kid Hamels would step up. It was a windy/cloudy day, chilly. I think the season was a week away from starting. Well, he said, whatever happens, life goes on.

So we bid goodbye and he drove off. It was such a nice, quiet moment to share with a fellow fan, one who obviously went back decades further than I did, and I often get the impression that I’m the old man by knowing my 70s baseball history. Both of us acknowledge that our team had been losers for a long time, would probably be losers again this year, yet somehow, we’d still go on wearing our hats, and having polite conversations in parking lots about the state of the team. I could tell he enjoyed speaking with me as much as I did with him.

And little did either of us know, until the last fucking day of the season, that what both of us suspected wasn’t going to happen this year, happened. And if I see him again in that same parking lot when I got back there again later this week, I’ll be sure to say, wasn’t that something. And he’ll probably respond, that it was, that it was. Wonder how long they’ll take to blow it in the playoffs. It's not so much the nature of the Phillies as it is of life itself: something you learn when your team loses as much or more than it wins.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...