The Cubs and America: Safe at Home at Last

by Sam Buntz

The tension was a relief… I’m talking about the World Series, Game 7.

I’m not sure why I felt so invested in the Cubs’ performance. They’re not “my” team, and I hadn’t followed them during the regular season, though I wished them well in a casual way.  Joe Maddon is from the area where I grew up—Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region—so I was hoping that the Cubs would get their shot.  It’s gladdening to see someone from a low-key area manage to achieve notable things on the world stage.  First, Poconos resident Fetullah Gulen gets accused of fomenting a coup by the Turkish government, and then Hazleton native Maddon achieves the unthinkable.  Nice.  Not a bad year for NEPA…

Yet, while watching Game 7, I found myself involuntarily retracting into a posture of anxiety—not quite a fetal position, but rather the indrawn curl you assume when attempting to quiet a stomachache, huddled up against the arm of my couch.

Now, my emotions obviously couldn’t be compared to those of a devoted octogenarian Cubs fan, gasping the final triumphant breath of his earthly incarnation, as he watches Kris Bryant nail that last throw to first—Bryant smiling helplessly as he whips the ball to Rizzo. Of course, I have no clue what that kind of devotion (comparable to St. Francis of Assisi in its willingness to endure the darkest stretches of poverty and chastisement) feels like. I can’t imagine: the long-tended ember, courting extinguishment for so many decades, yet maintained with cussed resolution, suddenly flaring up within the breast…

Personal qualifications aside, I still felt the tension… Lester’s wild pitch… the sudden shelling of the previously invincible Chapman… Rajai Davis’s home run… the seventeen minute rain delay… The fearful vibe subsumed me, and the bloody, half-gnawed fingernails of Cubs and Indians fans were, for the final few innings, my own.

Yet, as I said at the beginning, this tension came as a strange relief. I was under the pure spell of American Baseball magic, swept blessedly out of the fever and fret that have so characterized 2016. Baseball, this autumn, was not just my own, but The Republic’s choice method of escape.

From the redwood forests to the gulfstream waters, people were tuning out of the NFL, and tuning into the MLB post-season. Now, this can be dismissed or over-analyzed into something sinister by critical theorists. I can imagine a cultural observer staring at the blazingly white faces in the stands at Progressive Field and Wrigley, and noting that Caucasian America seems to be letting off the steam generated by its prolonged Trumpist freak-out, indulging in a bit of nostalgia for the “good old days”—the crack of the bat, the peanuts and hot dogs, the women in the kitchen, the black and brown people safely disempowered, the red-faced Indians’ logo perfectly acceptable. It would be wildly easy to launch such a critique. On a website like Salon, it’s surely the default mode of interpretation. And there’s probably a little truth to it, when applied to some of the bad guys out there. But, speaking for myself, and most Americans, it’s—no pun intended—off base.

The main reason is this: baseball doesn’t feel like something old, actually. Or, it does and it doesn’t. It feels like it’s existed forever, and things that seem eternal don’t simultaneously seem old. For example, I’ve never looked at the sun and thought it appeared a bit ragged and shot-in-the-ass today, a little corny and out-of-date. The same goes for baseball—it’s timeless.

So, during the World Series, the sport wasn’t merely functioning as a nostalgia trip, returning us to the pleasures of an earlier and supposedly simpler time via a heroic contest between two storied, down-on-their-luck franchises. It was primarily a method of escaping from time, from the messy world of presidential elections, of “telegrams and anger” as E.M. Forster put it (though Forster’s telegrams have been duly replaced by tweets.) As rage swirls around us in dangerously widening spirals, it makes sense that Americans should seek liberation from the uncertainties and random outrages of history. Besides, as far as ugly nostalgia for a whiter America goes, baseball isn’t an example—without a generous immigration policy, a huge percentage of the players on the field wouldn’t be there, for starters.

There’s something special and transcendent about the very shape of the field. A rectangular field or court is a straightforward, rigid thing, a reflection of the metaphorical “grid” on which we all compete for survival.   But a diamond—while admittedly still rhomboid and therefore a cousin of the rectangle—suggests a different way. There’s something leisurely and free about the shape of the game, about the way it’s coordinated in time and space. The slowness of baseball, while oft derided, is also part of its appeal. Not too much slowness—but a sweet light trot. You de-pressurize, you zone-in instead of out. When things get hairy, the tension isn’t the tension of mortgages and job applications. It’s a pleasurable kind of tension. You hang out with the game. It just happens.

As George Carlin pointed out in a famous routine, there’s something nice about the fact that baseball’s goal is coming home. He said, “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home…”

That’s how America felt, for a few minutes on November 2nd, just before 1 a.m.—safe at home.

Except for the Indians’ fans, obviously.