Thursday, November 22, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: Intimations of the Baseball Gods by Randall Auxier

ILLUSTRATION: Steve Ferchaud

Intimations of the Baseball Gods
Randall Auxier
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

Today the good people of St. Louis are having a big parade for their major league baseball team. After making their way through the city, the parade ends at Bush Stadium, led by the Budweiser Clydesdales and their beer-wagon, and a none-too-comfortable Tony LaRussa perched atop; now he manages not Pujols and Carpenter, but a barking Dalmatian and a teamster in a green suit that must have been stolen from a bellhop in 1954. Tomorrow he will retire, but today no one knows that. Each Cardinal player is allotted a gigantic red or white pick-up truck to convey him and his family into the stadium (courtesy of the friendly Ford or Chevy dealer at a location near you). Each player stops for a brief interview on his way to the reviewing stand. The message they convey is, basically, “Woo-hoo!” This team is together for the last time, and everyone knows it. Much will have changed by the spring; such is life and such is baseball.

St. Louis is a town long down on its luck–the current whispers are: “At least it isn’t Detroit.” The news has been mostly bad for St. Louis since about 1909. The population actually declined for a full century, as the likes of Chicago and LA and New York exploded in people, prosperity, and pulchritude. But St. Louis slept, perchance to dream of its elder days as a cosmopolitan haven in the wilderness. Even the sweetest dreams fade amid the ravages of time.

St. Louisans got used to cutting their losses, amputating pieces of the city. North St. Louis became a step child in the Depression and an orphan after the Second World War, now alternating in blocks between drastic blight and urban prairie. Then East St. Louis, unable to protect them, farmed out its children, sending the trumpet of Miles Davis’ to one coast and Tina Turner wailing to the other. The football Cardinals, bulky fellows in scarlet garb performing tricks for graying peoples who have never seen an actual redbird, vacated to the fair weather fans in Arizona, while those in St. Louis try desperately to care about a team that would rather be back in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Trans World Airlines was gobbled up by American, leaving the St. Louis airport even emptier than Wrigley Field in October.

But the city still has heart, or so I would gladly believe. Indulge me for a few minutes if you can spare them. This does concern you, even if your city is thriving and you can’t say where your baseball team finished in the standings.

PHOTO: Rian Castillo

Watching the gathering in Busch Stadium, I think back to the World Series of 2006 when St. Louis and Detroit actually met in the fall classic, and I remember thinking: “This isn’t the match-up the TV executives were hoping for, the contest between ‘worst city in America’ and, well, ‘city that celebrates not being the former’.”

It was small market baseball, and a snooze for the coasts. What about the Yankees vs. the Giants? Now that would generate some ratings. I remember reading that the 2006 World Series had the lowest viewership of any since they started televising the event. The blight of north St. Louis versus the DMZ of Woodward Avenue, more houses empty than occupied, and all of it being just a glimpse of the backside of America. Who cares?

And this brings us to a point worth considering. What is piety? You might think that’s a leap. It isn’t. Unlike 2006, for some reason, the nation took note in 2011. A vague and creeping awareness, a vision that was planted in our brains still remains, as Paul Simon put it. And what was it? Inklings of piety, rumors of grace, hints of salvation.

Part was surely happenstance. There were tight races involving what we in the middle call “coastals,” our heartland term of disdain for those who think of us as “the flyover.” Coastals are people who have no idea how weary the rest of us are at having so much of our lives in the middle dictated to us by their priorities. I speak not of red and blue, or left and right. I speak of crowds and space, and I do so from a spacious parcel of rural Illinois, where people chafe under the yoke of the coasts and would sooner be buried with Albert Pujols than have A-Rod’s autograph. But because the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Giants, the Braves, the Rays, and the Angels were all in the race until the end, the folks on the bookends were obliged to watch a few Cardinals games in 2011.

Albert Pujols

And the Coastals noticed that this particular team played with, well, guts and heart, and simply would not quit. The script was written by the Baseball Gods themselves. “Let the team be over ten games behind when September beginneth,” they decreed in their customary Elizabethan lisp. “Let them battle injuries, heart-breaking losses in extra innings, humiliating shellings of their starting pitchers, and most of all let there be double plays, for nothing destroyeth the will like that!” But as the Lord said to Jeremiah, “I will not make a complete end of them.” I hear also in the echoes, “Let them want victory more than they want their salaries, their egos, and their very starting positions.”
In short, let these ballplayers reform their errant ways and for the sake of us all, and if they do, there is a path, however unlikely, to salvation.

You already know that the Cardinals were a single strike away from losing twice at the end of the sixth game of the World Series. You know that bit of trivia because even though you didn’t care who won, you watched–this time. You know that a kid from St. Louis, who had struggled with whether to stay in baseball, hit a triple to tie the game in the 9th inning, and a homerun to win it in the 11th. You know that the youngster was named series MVP, after having also been named MVP of the NLCS. You may not know that he gave the prize Corvette to his manager, in appreciation for the chance to play. It ain’t nuthin’ but a thang.

Tony LaRussa
PHOTO: Brian Bennett

Here on the ground, in home territory, I heard the yacking on sports radio of the faithless and the foolish, saying in September, “It is time for LaRussa to retire,” and on and on. But I know what you know, which is that this isn’t about who is washed up and who has a future. It isn’t about where St. Louis is, or the Metroplex surrounding the Rangers in Texas. It isn’t about deserving or earning anything at all. It is about finding an open and a stout heart when you have two strikes on you and you’re two runs down, and there are no more innings unless somehow, some way, you can hit it where they ain’t. There is no human being alive who doesn’t hope for that, excepting those silly enough to believe that the good and the bad of it all are within our slender powers.

I don’t mean to turn life into a game, let alone a competition. But it is impossible, I think, not to look seriously upon Bart Giamatti’s words about this matter in Take Time for Paradise:

A “win” is the actual realization of what is centrally an imaginative surge. . . . The spectator, seeing something he had only imagined, or, more astonishingly, had not yet or would never have imagined possible, because the precise random moments had never before come together in this form to challenge the players, is privy to the realized image and assents, is mastered, and in that instant bettered. “Winning” for player or spectator is not simply outscoring; it is a way of talking about betterment, about making oneself, one’s fellows, one’s city, one’s adherents, more noble because of a temporary engagement of a higher human plane.

If we did not experience this uplifting to the skies, the sense of bettering the north St. Louises of our souls, then perhaps we have not deserved the favor of the gods. But there were about forty men, men whose totem is a small but bright red songbird, who decided to pay attention on behalf of the rest of us, at least in the spring, summer, and fall of 2011. I grew up a fan of this particular group, but I realized when Game Six ended as it did, that it no longer mattered who won the Series, since both teams had given their utmost and had deserved the victory. From that point forward, it was about piety, grace, and salvation.

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