I went for a drive a few weeks ago, on Saturday the second of October,
meaning to clear my head. Pulling out from my garage, I turned off the
radio and rolled down the window. My window is not automatically
powered, so there's something more significant about rolling it down:
you have to really mean it. Nearing seven o'clock, the last of daylight
was fading in the west, though I couldn't really tell since I was
driving southeast on Milwaukee Ave., over to the Kennedy and down to
Congress in order to make my way over to Lake Shore Drive. Lake Shore
was the point, right from the beginning.
Lake Shore Drive opens itself up in a way on fall nights that it doesn't
at any other time of the year, as far as I know. It's cold, but not
quite so cold that you can see your breath. (Still, with the windows
down and reaching 80 miles per hour I turned the heat on.) Maybe it's
just my ambitions at becoming a mystic, but I've always thought that
certain streets have their own personalities, and their vibe influences
yours. When you're walking, or driving, your pulse subtly changes to
match their tempo, sometimes, right at the instant you turn onto the
road, or walk up from the subway. I let Lake Shore carry me a while,
looking over Grant Park at the Congress Hotel, glowing red against the
blackening sky. Coming back down south from Hollywood Avenue, the
buildings sit to the west like fortresses against the coming winter,
glowing with lights for thousands inside, but nobody at all is milling
In the Spring, we explore, eager to try anything after Winter. In
Summer, every inch of the city is fair game to use as we please. But
in Fall, we retreat back home, and pedestrians are sparse, confining
ourselves to travelling from point A to B without detours. Jack Kerouac
wrote in On the Road that "everybody goes home in October." It's
true. Forces greater than ourselves prod us in this respect. In the
midwest, there's no use fighting the seasons.
The reason I needed to clear my head in the first place was the Cubs
loss that afternoon, finally eliminating them from contention for the
playoffs. It's particularly dreadful to lose a playoff spot by losing
games you could have won, and the Cubs had lost six of their last seven.
What can you say? Baseball has a way of evening things out, I believe,
and so there it is: if this is true, then this -- falling short -- is
what had to be. Whether or not you imagine free will in your own life,
in baseball things very rarely stray from reason -- curses, hexes,
jinxes and magical seasons aside, there's not much room for luck over a
But it didn't feel that way at the time. The sense I got from everyone
all season long was that we, as Cubs fans, were owed something --
a playoff spot, a world series, something to make up for the
disappointment of last season. We were waiting for our turn, our lucky
break to come. I never quite understood this, since it
was all in our heads, this sense that we needed to collect on fortune's
debt to us. I never understood the sentiment, but I also kept my mouth
shut about it, mostly. Fortune owes us nothing, and baseball is
baseball; the nature of the game is to be frought with disappointment --
especially if you frame your expectations such that anything short of a
world series is disappointing. Yet, when expectations exist, it's hard
to return them to hope. There's nothing quite as wearying as the burden
of ability, sometimes.
Last year, hope. This year, expectations.
Before I started driving I watched Bull Durham, because I wanted
to remind myself why I like this game, even more than I like the Cubs,
and especially more than I like this particular Cubs team. I've been
using Bull Durham as a spinning digital therapist since college.
My roommate had collected nearly a hundred DVDs, and one night when he
was in *ahem* a different state of mind -- susceptible to impulse -- I
convinced him that the particular DVD he should be buying on the
internet was Bull Durham. I wanted it for myself, though I doubt
he regrets the purchase. Since then we've graduated and I bought my own
copy and I've watched it at least 15 times, on days when the Cubs are
rained out, or in the offseason, or last year for example, right after
the Marlins won the world series.
There's as much wisdom in the Bull Durham character Crash Davis
as there is in the great characters in literature -- Holden Caulfield,
Sal Paradise, any of them. There's a line where Crash Davis answers his
protege, Nuke, a cocksure idiot with a 97mph fastball. The question
concerns why Crash doesn't like Nuke. The answer: "Because you don't
respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don't respect the
game, and that's my problem." That seems pretty apropos for this Cubs
team. I meant to save this thought for some other writing, but I'll use
it here: a reason we like baseball is that the qualities it takes to be
a good ballplayer are the same qualities it takes to live a good life.
That's not true for other sports in the same way it is for baseball.
There's individual reliance and resourcefulness, but in the context of
contributing to a structure, in balance unique to baseball. The
character of Crash Davis is rightfully famous for his speeches -- Annie
Savoy even points it out in the movie -- but his wisdom isn't found in
the speeches. It's found in his approach to the game, and in turn his
approach to life, coming to terms with his limits, and learning how he
might use them to just keep going to the ballyard and playing to win.
This Cubs team certainly had its limits. All season long, it was two
steps forward, but two steps back. Over 162 games, just like over
decades, all things being equal, in baseball things do even themselves
out. (By this measure, perhaps the Cubs are due for back to back
championships in 2108.) If you had asked me in 2002 whether I would
take 88 & 89 wins the next two seasons, I'd have been ecstatic when I
answered 'Yes!' But success shifts, relative to an ever narrowing
standard in modern sports. It's never enough to simply have a good
season. Who cares whether you finish over .500 anymore, even though
that used to be a decent benchmark? It's a shame, because I think that
we're missing a point: frame a season in the big picture -- enjoy the
moment of a big win, but don't get stuck on the movements. A good win
is a good win whether you're ten games over or ten games under .500.
There are times when you have to let things be what they are, and say
"good enough." But we never say that. Even when Maddux got
300. Or when Zambrano almost threw a no-hitter. (I was at
Wrigley that night.) If we can't get to where we enjoy these
things for what they are, how will we ever truly enjoy the BIG
moment when it comes? IF it finally comes?
At least part of the cause of this shift concerning 'success' has to do
with frustration from the same teams vying for the championship each
season, in my mind. I can imagine a time -- whether it actually existed
or not -- when teams brought up their own players, and with prospects
came hope, and hope wasn't tied to finances, at least not as much. But
the hope surrounding this Cubs team was resting on a lineup full of
transplants. Only Corey Patterson in centerfield was brought up in the
Cubs system, other than the pitchers. That being the case, there's no
room for "good enough." Players came in on terms of either big
contracts or trades for the Cubs' best prospects, and sometimes both.
Playing for the sake of playing the game as best you can while being in
the moment is a bit of a lost concept in this context. Contracts like
these bring expectations. There aren't too many players in the majors
like Crash Davis, who head off to a tiny contract because they have
their own integrity, pride & goals to contend with, all of which aren't
tied to money. Maybe it was never a real concept to begin with, or
maybe the deck is just too stacked, but either way it's too bad because
there's a narrative structure to the baseball season that loses a lot if
you can only see 161 games as prelude to what can happen starting after
the 162nd. If all you can focus on is greatness and you get sour about
the rest, especially if there isn't a game 163. If you think that only
October is when you can get your money's worth. Of course, the Cubs
story this year wasn't a good one at all, but it wasn't just the last
week when the story was written.
Sometimes, the signs are there from the beginning although you don't
notice them until much later. In high school I briefly dated Jenny when
I was a senior. She was a sophomore. She went to a different high
school, and I met her when my friend Pat set up a date to meet one of
her friends at the Texan. Of course she brought friends, and Pat
brought me. Pat & I met a lot of girls in those days. My friends in
Saginaw understand the Texan without explaining: it's a 24-hour
restaurant chain, the kind of grease joint where on any given night at
1am you'll inevitably see someone you know at the breakfast buffet
because it's just the place everyone goes. I liked Jenny from the
start, and I could tell she was interested. Turns out that Pat liked
her too, inevitable since she was the best looking of the group, but he
was there to meet her friend in the first place so I didn't feel bad
calling dibs on her and making a move. Of course, I never actually
called dibs -- Girls are not Possessions -- but in dating it
doesn't do for two friends to like one girl so I just got her number and
Pat got the hint.
The strange thing was that she asked for my number also. I gave it, but
maybe I shouldn't have. Now I'm suspicious of girls that ask for my
number when I ask for theirs, although Jenny isn't entirely to blame.
There were exactly three times that I got a girl's number in high school
when she asked for mine at the same time, and the other two definitely
turned out strangely. First was Kristen, my junior year, who lived all
the way down south in Dearborn, and who stalked me for about 5 weeks.
By stalking I mean: calling all the time, writing me letters explaining
her strange behavior (ironically, I thought the letters were the
strange behavior), and saying that she could be a much better kisser if
I gave her another chance. (I never actually thought she was a bad
kisser; this was in her head.) The third girl to get my number
immediately was Tara, from Frankenmuth, who called me the very same day
I met her, completely freaking me out. But these are long stories,
digressions, stories for another day since this story is about
The next weekend, I went out to a Swan Valley underclass party, an
invitation to party with Jenny's high school crew. It sucked. She knew
it sucked, too, and apologized all night. I left pretty early and wrote
it off as one of those nights, getting ready to write her off in the
process. But she called me that week, and said that she was going to
her friend's house that Friday night, and that it was just going to be
her and her friend, and so Would I like to come over later on to hang
out? She was plenty good looking... like I'd say no.
I drove out there around 11:30pm. The three of us watched a movie,
though I can't remember what it was, which bothers me now because I used
to be able to tell the story including the movie. Somewhere along the
way Jenny & I started holding hands. Some of you know that I joke and
use 'holding hands' to refer to all sorts of things, but in this case I
mean just that. After the movie, her friend went to her bedroom to
leave the two of us alone, and not two seconds after her friend left the
room Jenny grabbed me to start making out. Her friend caught us a few
minutes later, coming back through the room for a glass of water or who
knows what, but when you're making out and you're in high school, this
is just the sort of thing that happens before you learn how to create
privacy. Although, Jenny was pretty embarassed. She was an aggressive
kisser -- sloppy, but aggressive. You might know the type. Things
progressed a little bit, to the point that I have my hand on her chest,
and after a while I go under the shirt. Mind you, I'm a senior in high
school and I've dated a lot of girls by now, so I'm on auto-pilot.
Jenny freaked out, though. Over the shirt, OK, but under, No Deal.
Honestly, I wasn't even interested in going any much further. It was
just making out. But after she shut me down she asked me to leave, so I
left, mostly confused and a bit resigned.
That was Friday. Jenny called me on Sunday, acting like nothing
happened. I called her back later that week to tell her that Pat
was having a bonfire on Friday. We had a lot of bonfires that season.
Sometimes I'd take girls, sometimes I'd try to pick up girls that I
hadn't met, and sometimes I went there to sit around all night and
think, and like Crash Davis, "Just be." They were great parties, Pat's
bonfires. There were very few fights -- not one that I can recall in
fact, and not one police visit. In those days a 6-pack was more than
enough to drink. Jenny already knew about this bonfire, since I guess
Pat was keeping in touch on AIM with the girl he went to meet in the
first place, her friend. (Pat was an AIM allstar long before it swept
college dorms across the country.) I didn't offer to take Jenny to the
party myself, but I told her it was cool if she wanted to come. I
didn't think she would, but she did.
Not only that, but she was all of a sudden a different person. She was
affectionate towards me in front of everyone, and there were probably at
least 35 people at the bonfire. Before she had seemed shy, and she was
embarassed when her close friend saw us making out, you'll recall.
Jenny was pretty short, so she stood on one of about fifteen stumps
circling the fire, and I remember one kiss in particular. I stood in
front of her, facing the fire, so that leaning back my head came to just
below her neck. I looked back up over my head and she kissed me from
standing above. She took me back to her car later, and practically
assaulted me on the passenger side. It was a complete reversal.
Over the course of a lot of trial and error with dating, I've since sort
of figured out what was going on. I guess that's what dating is, trial
and error. Not exactly a newsflash, right? I take it Jenny liked me,
and she was trying to be what she thought I would want her to be. Girls
do that, sometimes. It might have worked, too, if I had been interested
in dating at all seriously, but that wasn't my thing. She was
attractive and smart, and maybe it would have been fun. Still, I told
her that I thought it would be brief right from the beginning, and I
don't have any regrets in that respect. We all go through periods where
we drift along with our assumptions about how we should be, rather than
reflect or challenge them. We do this, sometimes for years.
Still, the summer after my freshman year my friend Tim came down from
Bay City to hang out, and we just drove around in Pat's parents' Blazer
because it was the only car we had to ride 3 people in style. I
distinctly remember listening to the Freestylers CD, just cruising. We
stopped in at 7-11, and Jenny was there. I recognized her, though Pat
and Tim didn't. Inside she just said, "Joel?" I said, "Hey Jenny," and
smiled, and walked away. I didn't say anything to the other two until
after we left. Pat thought I should try to pick her up. What he really
meant was that I should pick her & her friends up, but I can't even
imagine what that conversation would have been like. It's strange, how
vivid some of these throwaway nights can be, when nothing even really
happens that affects anything else, but tangent worlds spiral away in
your head, playing out what-might-have-beens.
I feel about this last Cubs team the way that I felt about Jenny. When
things got good, they pushed us back, only to come back at us with a
fury, then go cold again. They were a sloppy team, without any real
chemistry to speak of, and plenty of immaturity and searching for
identity. The signs were there from the beginning that it wasn't going
to work out, but I'll still probably think about this year sometime and
wonder what could have been -- not if things had gone differently, but
if things had been different altogether. Still, it was what it
was, and if I could just forget for a moment the expectations I had (we
all had) for the season I might be able to recall the hopeful moments
themselves fondly, someday, and fit them in a bigger structure of
figuring out exactly what it takes to achieve something better, grander.
But there's a learning curve.
Over time you start to notice things, patterns really, things that tip
off what substance is beneath a personality. This is true for ball
clubs and for women. I've learned that there are questions you can ask
on a date to find out whether a girl might be worth dating, such as:
"What is your favorite Cheap Trick song?"
The best answer is 'Surrender.' 'Want You (to want me)' is
borderline. Bonus points for knowing that Letters to Cleo covered this
in Ten Things I Hate About You, which reminded me of when I
really had a crush on Kay Hanley. Not knowing a little bit about Cheap
Trick says a lot. It's not that they're even that great a band, or
influential, but it's a point of reference. We've all heard the songs a
million times, but most people just sing along and forget
"Where else do you want to live?"
Acceptable answers include just about anywhere, except maybe
Wisconsin, but a long pause and an 'I don't know' is a dud. Even worse
is 'I haven't ever thought about it.' At least give me something to
work with, like 'I love living here in Chicago.')
"Do you know how to drive a stick shift?"
By this point, I haven't even gotten into sports at all but I can
probably tell whether a girl is getting called back. Not necessarily,
but you know what I mean. The signs are usually there if you learn to
discern. The signs were there with this Cubs team too, and not just
signs from the gods in the form of injuries. There were these
questions, and the answers say a lot about a ballclub:
"What's your best, or at least most stable lineup?"
The Cubs shifted lineups like Baltimore heroin dealers switch street
corners. I only know about Baltimore drug dealers because I
watch The Wire on HBO.
"Who's your ace?"
In turn, this went from Wood to Zambrano to
Maddux to Prior, changing almost like clockwork each quarter of the
season. If the Cubs had made the playoffs, it would have
been completely up in the air.
"How many innings a game do you at least threaten to score?"
This was the most frustrating thing about the
"Who has a sense of humor on this team?"
No one on this team had a sense of humor. No more Doug Glanville.
No more crazy Alfonseca. Just a bunch of wooden players who all played
like they were tired of playing, definitely not playing it like a game.
In the end, what was missing was that blend of confidence & passion that
sets both baseball teams & women apart. Too many women I've dated don't
seem to be passionate about something in life -- something that drives
them, separate from any relationship to anyone (though hopefully
enhanced by whomever they love). Something that would make them an
interesting spinster (though of course I hope no woman ends up a
spinster unless she chooses. I just mean to illustrate a point.) This
Cubs team didn't have passion for baseball, at least not collectively,
as a team. They were tight, tense, and never just played the
game in sync. It was like that nearly all season long. So they're not
getting a call back.
Except, passion can come at a moment's notice. In an instant, you can
discover that you love writing, or you can discover cooking, or you can
discover that you love the plays of David Mamet, or maybe there's a
career out there that drives you. Or maybe you visit Tibet and the way
you imagine that the Tibetan people think makes you think that maybe
there's a different way to think, and before you know it you're at peace
and open to all sorts of new experiences that make you a person worth
having endless conversations with. But it has to come in a moment, and
the Cubs season of 2004 never had that moment, until it was too late and
there would never be a moment. Even if it was a pretty good
season, all things considered. So maybe that's encouragement. Maybe
next year. Forget the expectations. Let's try hope again.