By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I'm thinking the summer of '58 or '59, but it's a little hazy. A guess puts it between seventh and eighth grade. I'm laid up and will spend the hot months on the couch, something about a toe (don't ask). I set goals:
1.) Read "War and Peace," which Hemingway has called the greatest war novel ever written.
2.) Learn to type.
3.) Write five short stories.
You know how this one ends: Summer 3, Hunter 0.
What happened, of course, was baseball. Not baseball as sport or baseball as challenge or baseball as ordeal. No: baseball as narrative, baseball as drama, baseball as a stage for character.
The baseball story, in one-game increments, a fable of folly and effort and frustration bitter as the Devil's spit and with only occasional moments of grace, was brought to me, nearly every afternoon, courtesy of a wonderful guy named Jack Brickhouse. He was built, it could be said, like a brick Brickhouse. He was WGN's TV announcer for the pathetic entity, so far from its iconic designation as "America's wonderful losers," known as the Chicago Cubs, or "North Siders," in the lexicon of '50s sportese.
The Cubs weren't cute or nostalgic, and nobody ever called them the "Cubbies." They just stunk, always had and always would. Wrigley Field, the park in which they played, wasn't a cathedral, an arbor, a hall of memories, a vine-laced nest of hopes; it was just a bleak, crumbly industrial application in a crummy part of town where some of the men who won World War II gathered every afternoon to drink seven beers or so and smoke four packs of cigarettes and curse like the sailors or soldiers they'd been, then go home and yell at their wives.
I'm thinking of one moment in particular. The Cubs had a sometime right fielder named Lee Walls. You could look it up, and I will, but I'd say six years in the big leagues, lifetime average around .245. He was a typical Cub, a nondescript journeyman who worked cheap and knew which base to throw to and didn't spit at people.
Anyway: A hot, dreary, low-skyed Chicago summer day, the Wrigleys almost certainly losing, the game is nearly over, and a ball is hit by the opposing team that looks like it'll be a home run, or at least a triple bouncing crazily off the right field bricks. My memory shows me these images had to be in the black-and-white of television transmission before the days of the peacock, so what I saw then now arrives from the memory in those shades. The ball would have been a grainy white streak as it descended toward the bleachers, which were largely dark (no automatic sellouts in those days) and at a certain point the computer in everybody's brain solved the equation and announced to the sentient audience and all 4,567 of us couch-bound losers watching on TV and even to Jack Brickhouse that the ball would not quite leave the park but would instead clatter off the wall about eight feet above the grass and, we assumed, rebound away for extra bases.
Enter, stage right, Lee Walls.
Call it guts, call it a death wish, call it what you will, but at a certain moment the fleet Walls launched. He was airborne. He was for one split second the dream athlete, long of limb, a fount of power and concentration, his glove probing the air for its target, and he intercepted the downward streaking pill just inches from the wall. Then he detonated against the brick himself. Houston, we have a problem. Mr. Wall, say hello to Mr. Walls. Wall, Walls. Walls, wall. "Oh, Brother!" as Jack Brickhouse probably said. A movable object meets an unmovable force. Flesh meets stone. Guts meet nature's utter indifference. Speed meets stolidity.
Walls literally pancaked. He seemed for one second to lose two dimensions. He actually went splat. He was a frozen cartoon character splayed out and sustained by the illusion that his body hadn't noticed gravity yet. Then his seemingly boneless flesh (his skeleton was surely pulverized by the blow) drooled down the wall and he collected in a little puddle at the ground.
Wall 1, Walls 0.
The center fielder reached him first, and reached into the puddle of too, too sullied flesh and pulled out -- Eureka! -- the ball. Lee Walls had held on, though knocked unconscious. I'm no expert, but you can have your Willie Mays running away from home plate, grabbing the Wertz boomer and whirling and throwing and all those other great snatches that seem to defy probability. I'll take lanky Lee Walls knocking himself unconscious in a meaningless game for a team that paid him peanuts. He was my first hero, and all these years and games later, I remember.
But the point of this is metaphorical. I didn't realize it at the time, but what I was watching was in microcosm the reality of baseball. You watch, you love, you identify, you marvel, you believe, then SPLAT the guy hits the wall (of reality? of probability? of the limits of talent and strength?) and it all collapses on the ground. That is the pain of baseball. It almost always smashes you up. I love the Bart Giamatti quote, which seems to me to be the only true expression of this reality: "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."
Yes, it does. Always, in some way or other, if you're one of the 28 teams that don't get the incredible run of breaks and calls and bounces and clutch jobs by no-names who couldn't get the hit or strike that guy out again in a thousand years, and end up in the World Series.
As Nats fans are now discovering, baseball pain is different than football pain, as of course baseball is different than football. Yes, I remember Mel Gray's phantom catch in the St. Louis end zone 30-odd years ago and how the ache of that lasted -- why, it must have lasted at least until the following Sunday! Because football is so spectacular and overwrought and explosive and so weekly, you get a few days of recovery and then you're suckered into the buildup for next Sunday. Baseball just goes on and on and on and on, grinding you to nothingness.
I didn't know it then, but Walls was preparing me for the years of disappointments that baseball would bring. There would never be a moment out of baseball like the second quarter of Doug Williams's great Super Bowl, where he filled the air with intercontinental footballs and each seemed to rainbow down perfectly onto its target in the hands of a Redskins receiver. Or Jermaine Lewis's kickoff runback that put an icicle into the Giants collective heart as the Gothams had just drawn a little too close to the Ravens, and we knew in both cases: This baby is done.
Baseball is just a toothache. It's a headache that won't dance to the music of Tylenol. It hurts and hurts and hurts. I am something of an expert on baseball hurt. I stayed with the feckless, cheap-o Cubs for years, though thank God I was in the Army and crawling through New Jersey marshes during the big collapse of '69. That would have killed me. I happened to get out of the Army on the first day of the 1970 World Series, and so I watched the Orioles do their thing and was in their thrall just in time -- perfect timing! -- for the big decline. Oh, there were spurts, none of them worth the pain. I remember the last game of the '79 World Series, when Pittsburgh came back from being down, three games to one, to dust off the Birds. I remember being stuck in traffic. I remember being so depressed I could hardly breathe or talk, and there was no big Sunday game to seduce me from the pain. I remember the '83 series, and wish I could say it was swell. As baseball, it was pretty awful: The Birds just wrapped Philly in a large wet blanket of great pitching and squashed them to nothingness in five games, without a single memorable play. Aghhh.
So now I speak to Nationals fans. What can I do to help you? How can you profit from everything I've been through? And there is an answer. There is one skill that, mastered, can relieve the anguish. You think I'm about to say patience? Nope. What about faith? Prayer? Am I wearing a collar? What about optimism? What am I, your insurance salesman? All those good things that so many people tell you to do to weather life's little storms. Positive attitude, self-belief, teamwork, inspiration.
Please, we're adults here. We all know: In the real world, that stuff never works.
No. Here's what will help: You must learn to hate.
Hate is way underrated. Many people seem to be against it. Okay, I grant you, it causes murder, violence, war, poverty, suicide bombings -- bad, bad, bad, I hear you. But let's look at the positive side of hate.
You hate so much it gives your life purpose. It gives you a mission. It makes you a more effective human being. Food tastes better, the air is sweeter. And somehow it liberates you from the pain that has been delivered unto you. Orwell knew. A feature of his fictional Oceana of the far-off year of "1984" was the daily "Two-Minute Hate," where the hopeless slave minions of the future-that-never-came got their juices going by chanting choral imprecations at the enemies of the state, including the monster Goldstein.
And we knew about that in Chicago, a city not unacquainted with hate. In the bleak days I evoked: We hated Philip K. Wrigley. He sat up there in his white chewing gum tower on Michigan Avenue, right across from the Tribune, he sat smug and cheap and silent and unmoved. He was like the Judge in "The Natural." God, we hated that guy. He would not light Wrigley, because it cost too much, and in not lighting it, he sentenced the team to an eternity in the second division. Why, you just have to look at all the World Series they've won since the team was finally sold (to the guys across the street, as it turned out; they could have negotiated over tin cans and strings stretched across Michigan!) and the new owners finally went to night ball . . . oh, well, never mind.
And in Baltimore! It started when Edward Bennett Williams, a cursed outsider from the degenerate Babylon 37 miles down the Parkway, bought the team. It was clear he regarded Baltimore as some kind of mucus infection on his shoe, and his diffidence, his arrogance, his ignorance, his condescension started the hatred toward ownership. Then there was some New York industrialist. He, too, saw Baltimore as a collection of odiferous mold spores and stayed away. He was hated for parsimony, greed and a capitalist's cold, rational heart. And then came the days of -- you know. Vain, powerful, infantile, a punisher, he spent millions to buy the city's love and got its collective hatred instead, certainly the worst bargain any man has ever made. Tiny but thick, mean but rude, unfunny but cruel. Man, that was good hating! That was the filet mignon of hating; looked good, tasted good and you went home with the smell of blood in your nostrils. What more could a fella want?
Alas, he seems to have finally relented this year, and it shows on the field, where a more-or-less free-to-operate general manager has at last put together an interesting and almost competitive team of kids and sensibly priced veterans, and what's his name (I think I could remember it if the fear of a lawsuit didn't keep freezing up my memory) seems to have gone into a benign mood. As a consequence, the team is occasionally winning, occasionally hitting, occasionally coming from behind. It's fun again. I might even go one of these days, but probably not, as old hates die hard.
So what can you in Washington hate? I hesitate to name an owner or a manager or a general manager. After all, these are authentic human beings who try hard within their financial stipulations. They are not cruel, bitter, jealous, infantile, monstrous. Just guys.
So who or what? The dogs? They're okay; the koshers are the best. The beer, which demands a new mortgage or denies a child a year of college? But that's true at all parks. The house. Come on: It's better than that thing called FedEx, so you can't really do a number on it. FedEx looks like it was designed by the guy who did Mr. Cooke's toenails. It's what you call back-of-the-envelope architecture -- well, it's not architecture at all, it's engineering of the "it probably won't fall down" school.
But back to baseball: I suppose you could gin up some anger at the swells from K Street in the costly seats, working the phones and keeping their white collars (on blue or striped shirting) up, their manicures shining in the sun, their faces ruddy from too much sailing. In Baltimore, we really hated those guys in their suspenders, sipping Chablis and eating brie off an English water cracker with a pinkie crooked next to their cool blond wives who looked half-equine (but in a good way), and nobody talked about the truly embarrassing fact that by coming up the 37 miles to see the Birds, they probably saved the Birds for Baltimore. Maybe that's why we hate them so much: because we owe them so much. They were so decent and such faithful citizens and good customers, so the principle of the guilty punishing the good with hatred must be invoked. They're probably doing the same for the Nats, so maybe it's not such a good idea to get in the habit.
The parking, the peanuts (awful), the ball girls, the insignia grown into the grass, the cross-hatching by the mowers, the soundman, the people who shoot T-shirts into the crowd, the organist? All substandard, but . . . hate?
No, you need grand passion, simmering hostility, spleen, dilated nostrils, spluttering, dangerous blood pressure. Really, there can be but one thing.
The presidents' race. You know, those four big-headed dweebs in their 1892 vaudeville shtick of faww-down-go-boom before every game! They stumble in from the outfield and stagger to a clearly scripted finish near the Nats dugout. It's always the same, it's never funny, it's weirdly dismissive. I mean, if the city is known for anything, it's known for the seriousness with which the game of politics is played. It's a hard-knock, prisoners-will-be-shot milieu, so why is it dissed and turned into stooge's comedy? The race is just as certainly disrespectful to those great men, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, who gave and fought and risked. Now they're represented as spindly bodies without knee-joints sustaining gigantic alien heads that seem drawn not from history but from Japanese anime.
They are the worst attributes of modern marketing: cute, harmless, without mythology or morphology, charmless, awkward, silly, sexless and pointless. They belong on lunchboxes, and connect not with the grand parade of tragedy and triumph that is both America and baseball but with things like Alvin and the Chipmunks, bad CGI movies, gnomes and Beanie Babies. Cute is scarier than death. Watching them makes my teeth hurt, my head ache.
However, I do not advocate a coup. The tree of liberty need not be watered by the blood of giant, stupid muppets. Also, the four phys-ed majors, from whatever local educational entity, encased in those gigantic, absurd heads need not give up what will doubtless be the best jobs of their lives. Rather, hatred of the four big presidential icons is best to be nurtured. It is a garnish, not an entree. It gives piquancy and relish to what has become an otherwise rather dreary ballpark ritual of anticipating uninteresting ways to lose. They are useful; they give you a free-of-charge two-minute hate at each attendance and it clears the pipes, calms the bile, settles the choler of the day, purges the system. It's sort of like a good bleeding at the hands of a medieval barber. You just feel refreshed, and when the thunder-thumbed, balsa-batted heroes of the Nats lose yet again, you're all spent. You don't have to go home muttering and tied in knots and tense. It's okay.
(FYI, I did look it up: Underrated Lee Walls played 10 years and finished with a lifetime batting average of .262. In 1958, for the Cubs, he hit 24 home runs, batted .304 and made the All-Star team. Also: I never read "War and Peace," still don't type well and have not written five short stories.)