Thursday, October 02, 2014

I didn't know what to call this but it's about the playoffs. And nostalgia. And being a baseball fan.

The memories of coveted trips to Riverfront Stadium during the eighties grow fuzzier with each passing year, but the feeling of awe that I felt as a child when I was there is just as strong as ever. That stadium is long gone now, replaced by one of the more underrated of the new ballparks, and with Riverfront's destruction went a little piece of our identities. We grew up in that ballpark, us Cincinnatians and Daytonians and whatever you call people from Middletown. Even some Columbus...onians? called that ugly old cookie cutter their playground.

If you were a kid in Southwest Ohio in the eighties, you learned the mythology of the Big Red Machine. You were taught to be proud to be a Reds fan, that your team was steeped in tradition, that professional baseball started on the banks of the Ohio River back when our broken nation was trying to put itself together again. Cincinnati was a divided town during the Civil War, owing to its location on the line between tribes who clung to geographical estrangement and different definitions of racism and economics. I don't really know why George and Harry Wright chose to start pro ball in such a town; if they were in love with Cincinnati, they didn't show it, fleeing a mere two years after the founding of the Cincinnati Red Stockings for greener pastures in Boston. But the fact remains that it did happen in Cincinnati, and though it is merely a historical coincidence in our lives, as Reds fans we remain proud of that fact.

As for the Big Red Machine, well, who but the densest of fans can deny that Bob Howsam assembled two of the top teams in baseball of all time, teams that would have given the '27 Yankees a run for their money. I am of the opinion that the '76 Reds would have beaten that hallowed team of yesteryear, that Rose, Bench, Morgan, Perez, Concepcion, Foster, Griffey, and Geronimo would have sent Ruth, Gehrig, Collins, Lazzeri, Koenig, Dugan, Meusel, and Combs home for the winter with thoughts of what could have been. I have in my mind been prone to daydream of this matchup from time to time.

But I was a child of the eighties, not the seventies. I was born two months after the Big Red Machine had won their last World Series. I knew of Pete Rose, because who didn't know Pete Rose, but I was confused about his Phillies attire. Indeed, free agency and the strike of 1981 dawned an era of mediocrity for my beloved Reds, but, armed with the mythology of the Big Red Machine, they were still the greatest team in the world.

There were a lot of second place finishes that decade. The Phillies had stolen our team and won a World Series and then we got two of them back, battered, bruised, and aged. It didn't matter. They were ours, and they belonged in the Queen City. Of course, the end of that decade was disastrous, and Pete Rose the myth became Pete Rose the man. The whole world was in chaos; the Soviet Union collapsed, Germans with sledgehammers tore down a wall, the United States was embroiled in the first of its now regular campaigns in Iraq, and Osama Bin Laden was riding victorious after leading the Afghans against the Russians, all with US funding, of course. The destruction of a hometown hero was just par for the course.

Somehow, though Cincinnati baseball had been brought to its knees, we won. We won it all. We never even spent a day in second place in that first year of a new decade. We won with a team that lacked superstars, though one would become a Hall of Famer. We won and that was my childhood as a Reds fan. I entered high school the next year.

Once you taste that winning, once you see that golden trophy hoisted into the air, you know nothing will ever be the same again. I was 12 when it happened. Winning became expected for awhile. We had a couple bad seasons and Marge Schott's ordeal, a good middle of the decade run that included getting screwed again by a strike, and an end-of-decade 96 wins that just wasn't good enough for October. In those years without Reds baseball, I watched the post-season with excitement anyway, discovering an ability to detach myself from my beloved team, because I was a baseball fan. I loved the game, loved its history, loved its geometry and the proverbial poetry. I loved the ghosts at Yankee Stadium and the legend of Josh Gibson and the Curse of the Goat and the fan riots over burning disco records. I didn't cry in August 1994 because the Reds were getting screwed out of another post season. I cried because we were all getting screwed out of a post season. It still breaks my heart to think about, and it always will.

You'll find plenty of people these days who mock the romanticism of baseball, seemingly soulless creatures who look at the world as a spreadsheet or who view sentimentality with disdain, as if emotions weren't what make us human. You'll find others who are members of the history police, never failing to point out to those of us who embrace the nostalgia of the game that baseball was a segregated sport and who'll find racism in the statement "the way the game was meant to be played." The game was meant to be played as a game, to be enjoyed outdoors, to celebrate the warmth and light of summer, to savor the company of friends, and to relish the fruits of one's labor: October glory. That's what games are. That's why we call baseball a game before we call it a sport.

The other night, Kansas City played a game for the ages. Our hearts raced. We threw our hands in the air. We stayed up much too late. And, like we do time and time again, we fell in love with the game all over. Was it pretty baseball? No. Technically, there were many official and unofficial errors, missed opportunities, and terrible pitches. But it was beautiful baseball. The hero had been entirely clueless for much of the night. Yet, herein lies one of baseball's greatest marvels. It only takes one to change everything. One at bat. One pitch. One inch. One guy. The goat becomes the hero. We fundamentally knew why our hearts raced and our voices raised, even if we didn't consciously state it. That's life. We can screw up everything and our world may be falling apart, but this, too, shall pass. Ah, but it's just a game. A glorious game. Divine.

The goat becomes the hero. One guy. One hit. One team's 29 year drought ended by a monsoon of joy, real joy, the kind you find at births and weddings. That priceless shot of George Brett, aged hero, putting his hands on his head in happy disbelief. That woman who is getting a dog. The beaming faces of those youth in royal blue. Joy. October. Baseball.


733714 said...

Very good story and I always enjoy your work - even if you are a skirt.

Cathie Glover said...

Thanks...I think. ;)