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“This is town full of losers and, baby, I was born to win.”?
— “Thunder Road”, by Bruce Springsteen
Mrs Thatcher was fond of saying, “Any man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.” A loser, in other words. Since I spent most of my 30 years in London hopping on and off red Routemaster buses, and also count myself a rabid Chicago Cubs baseball team fan, and, when in England, root for Premier League worst-ever West Ham and Notts County, I fit Mrs Thatcher’s idea of what US high school kids ridicule as a no-hoper.
Who can blame the snotty high schoolers? After all, the Cubs seem almost theologically hexed. I love them, but they’ve not won a so-called World Series in 102 years ? the longest drought in American sports history.
I come truly alive only in the 162-game baseball season, from February spring training to the lovely days of autumn in October. That’s when hope and misery so intermingle as to be almost the same stupid emotion. I start my morning with the box scores on the sports pages, and if the Cubs have lost, which is almost always, I go through the rest of the day in a kind of masochistic depression verging on grim satisfaction that the baseball gods indeed continue to reign in hell.
Baseball as “America’s game”, though still vastly profitable via TV franchises, ticket scalping and concessions, has long been supplanted by the more concussive (in all senses) pro football and hoop basketball. Increasingly, fans prefer smash-and-grab blood on the gridiron and floorboards to the balletic longueurs of baseball ? to judge by declining attendances. The “endless game of repeated summers”, in the words of poet Donald Hall, is seen as fusty and uncool.
I’m hip to baseball’s dark and seamy side, the surliness of many players, the cheating and intentional “headhunting” by pitchers, signal-stealing by managers and steroid-pumping by ageing players, idiotic free agency trades and sliding into catchers and second basemen spikes high in the manner of the sadistic Ty Cobb. I’ve read my Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud and confessional memoirs by Jason Giambi and Jim Bouton. Baseball reality is no “Field of Dreams”. So what? Thus it has always been, since rounders in Tudor times and the first American baseball in the 1840s. Nobody’s perfect in this perfect game on a perfect turf-and-grass diamond ? especially when played in an older stadium like Chicago’s Wrigley Field with its walls ivy-covered like an Oxford college. Is there anything as beautiful, outside an art gallery, of a perfectly executed double play: Starlin Castro to Blake DeWitt to Carlos Pe?a?
Baseball owners have traditionally been mean bastards. But compared to yesteryear’s carnival showman Bill Veeck (Cleveland Indians), the tyrannical Charlie Comiskey (Chicago White Sox) and civic saboteurs like Walter O’Malley (Brooklyn and LA Dodgers), today’s owners are amoral Godzillas in the same rogues’ gallery as the geniuses at Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Countrywide Finance who crashed our economic system ? capitalism run amok. The owners’ looting of the public treasury to build privately-owned, skybox-littered, ugly stadiums, their names sold to corporate sponsors (BankOne, Minute Maid, Enron!), tells the whole story.
Since relocating to Los Angeles, I’ve tried hard to transfer my allegiance to the Dodgers, if only because, back in Brooklyn, they were the first pro team to break the color bar by hiring the sensational Jackie Robinson. But I didn’t really take to Dodger Blue ? until recently, when Frank and Jamie McCourt, the now-divorcing, raging-at-each-other, husband-and-wife, criminally extravagant co-owners hired Vladimir Schpunt, a 71-year-old, Boston-based Russian seer, at a six-figure annual salary, to beam UFO-like mental vibrations 3,000 miles across the country to the bad luck team. And they say musical comedy is dead.
Now that the once-great Dodgers are at the bottom of the National League table, and they must pay female-hormone-ingesting slugger Manny Ramirez $21m for not playing baseball, and the bankrupt owners can’t meet their payroll ? except that Jamie McCourt still pays her hair stylist $10,000 a month (no misprint) ? they’re touching my heart almost as deeply as the luckless and losing Cubs.
I’m not sure when “you’re a loser” became part of our vocabulary. It’s basically an adolescent trope (see TV’s Glee, Gossip Girl, Freaks and Geeks, etc) although I have run into professional women in their twenties and thirties ? graduate students of mine ? who candidly admitted they hack into a potential date’s credit rating before going out with him. “You don’t want to waste time with a loser,” is how they put it.
“Losing” was unheard of during the Great Depression because, in a tsunami of mass unemployment and real starvation, everyone outside Park Avenue was a loser. People did turn on each other in families and marriages, blaming whoever for losing their job or pissing away the rent money. (My unemployed father’s outlet was cards.) But back then, the losers fought back, in riots, strikes, protest songs, sitdowns and, above all, mass organisation. Today, with union cards exchanged for credit cards, and unemployment back on a staggering scale, and a liberal Obama administration on the side of the $15,000 skybox suites rather than the $19 bleacher seats, fightback is scattered and unfocused.
It’s ridiculous for a grown person to put so much heart into a losing ? or, for that matter, any ? sports team. There’s so much sentimentality and nostalgia involved. But it’s a way back into childhood, of staying in touch with the self one left behind in the race to keep up with the winners.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com