March 28, 1982
Where is Trotsky, now that we really need him?
I have been done great injury by a malefactor of great wealth, a capitalist pest called CC Assets Distribution Corporation. That is the clanking, officious name for what until recently was called, melodically, the Chicago National League Ball Club.
The Cubs, who have notoriously few athletic assets, invented trickle-down baseball. They acquired aging players (Dizzy Dean, Ralph Kiner) as their careers trickled down to a level suitable for the Cubs, a team forever trickling down in the standings. And now the Cubs' pestilential new management has engaged in a rapacious business practice that makes me think the Russian Revolution treated capitalists about right.
The brutes at the CC Assets Distribution Corporation inform me that they are exercising their right -- a right, mind you: Is this America or Poland? -- to buy back my one share of Cubs stock. Because these robber barons are conscienceless, and because the law is deaf to the voice of justice, I am no longer a baseball owner.
If this is the capitalist system Ronald Reagan wants to save, bring on Walter Mondale to destroy it, root and branch. Peremptory letters from faceless financiers; mere money given in exchange for a piece of one's soul -- hell must be very like this.
But on a spring day, when all of Nature seems to shout "Play ball!" even Cub fans can enjoy one exquisite baseball pleasure. They can read Thomas Boswell's nifty new book, How Life Imitates the World Series.
Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence. So do sports pages when graced by Boswell's byline. He is the thinking person's writer about the thinking person's sport. Like baseball itself, he is graceful, subtle, elegant, inexhaustibly interesting and fun.
Baseball is for all of us who feel as Pete Rose does: "I was raised, but I never did grow up." Boswell is for all who like fine writing. Baseball, like Pericles' Athens (or any other good society), is simultaneously democratic and aristocratic: Anyone can enjoy it, but the more you apply yourself, the more you enjoy it.
Boswell has applied himself. His father works at the Library of Congress and one day he smuggled his son into the closed stacks, to the sacred precincts of deck twenty-nine, and said: "Okay. Here is every book on baseball ever written. Don't go blind." Heaven must be very like that.
Bill Veeck, who, like me, is a former baseball owner, thinks it is to baseball's credit that when the times were out of joint, baseball was out of step: "The sixties was a time for grunts or screams....The sports that fitted the times were football, hockey and mugging." One of Boswell's (and my) pinups, Earl Weaver, the philosopher-king who manages the Baltimore Orioles, says: "This ain't a football game. We do this every day." An Orioles coach says: "In this game it's never going to be third-down-and-one. You don't hit off tackle in baseball, and you can't play the game with your teeth gritted. Muscles are fine. But this is a game of relaxation, conditioned reflex and mental alertness."
That is why Boswell says a good team depends on "the ability to achieve a blend of intensity and underlying serenity which, in daily life, we might call mental health....Baseball is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech -- a slightly elevated and concentrated form." Boswell, an English major from Amherst, says, "Each team's season is like a traditional nineteenth century novel, a heaping up of detail and incident about one large family."
Yes, but some teams' seasons call to mind Dickens' Great Expectations, an eventful progress toward a happy ending. The Cubs' seasons are Dostoyevskian -- Crime and Punishment and The House of the Dead -- full of angst and gnashing teeth. It is the Karamazov family at play.
But the CC Assets Distribution Corporation, a.k.a. the Cubs team, is about to erupt from the dugout for another crack at life without a safety net. Recently (since the days when fans drove to the park In Hudsons, Packards, Studebakers and Nashes -- since 1946) the Cubs have had two problems: They put too few runs on the scoreboard and the other guys put too many. So what has the new management announced that it is improving? The scoreboard.
Management recently chastised the players: "The Cubs have gained the reputation of being somewhat laissez-faire in their approach to work." Laissez-faire? At Wrigley Field, they handle words the way they handle ground balls.
Copyright © 1998 by George F. Will