Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Michael Butterworth sings with broken heart about the joy, verve and poetry that is, was, and might have been, the 2008 season for the Chicago Cubs.
I know very little about poetry, but I do know a great deal about baseball. When the two meet, as they often do, I am ready with two standard references. The first comes from the former literature professor, Yale University president, and baseball commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Of the seasonal metaphor commonly ascribed to the national pastime, Giamatti—himself a specialist in Renaissance poetry—wrote that baseball “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 the face the fall alone.” There is indeed poetry in Giamatti’s words. And truth. For as a devoted, and thus tortured, fan of the Chicago Cubs, this year's post-season has left me feeling quite alone.
The Cubs began 2008 with the hope that springs from every team’s pre-season training camp. And with a roster that showed early and often that it was the best in the National League, that initial hope eased into confidence in the full bloom of summer. But the coldest autumn winds are those for which you—despite the lines of so many poets—are least prepared. And all the assurances earned during a summer of dominance expired in three short gusts of a Shelleyian west wind from Los Angeles. Almost before they began, the playoffs were over for the Cubs and their long-suffering fans.
We have been here before, we Cubs fans. We know the cruelty of billy-goat curses, black cats, and Bartman. But this year was different. This year we expected to win. Yet the best team does not always win in baseball. Just two years ago, the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series championship; five years earlier, the record-setting Seattle Mariners were bounced from the American League playoffs in spite of their 116 regular season wins. Losing, then, is always possible. And it is even tolerable—so long as your team plays with poetry.
All of this brings me to the second of my standard references: Bull Durham. It is a movie full of wonderful metaphors, surely the most famous of which is the “church of baseball.” Through the character of Annie Savoy, baseball is more than a church however; it is what rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke would call “equipment for living.” Baseball, Annie insists, guides and inspires us, and its aesthetic disposition is essentially poetic. Mid-way through the film, in fact, Annie confirms this fact for us when she rejoices at the newfound spirit of her hometown team, declaring that “for one extraordinary June and July, the Durham Bulls began playing baseball with joy, and verve, and poetry.”
The trick, of course, is to capture this poetic essence in October. To their credit, the Los Angeles Dodgers did this masterfully. The Chicago Cubs, meanwhile, appeared to have lost their collective will and spirit. Consumed, it appears, by the weight of an epic 100-year drought, Cubs players looked withdrawn, apprehensive, and afraid to seize the day. As a consequence, their season came to an abrupt halt as the team across the diamond demonstrated the joy and verve that would have made Annie Savoy proud.
Poetry is no substitute for talent, mind you. The Dodgers also won because they possess stellar pitching and a reinvented lineup that now features one of the game’s all-time great right-handed hitters. But even the most casual of fans would acknowledge that the Cubs gave themselves little hope. At the end of the day, what does our success matter if we cannot run and laugh and scream a little along the way? What good are 97 wins if we cannot express, exalt, and emote? These things I know about baseball; this is what we talk about when we talk about baseball. And I suspect they give me a little knowledge of poetry, after all.
Michael Butterworth writes from Bowling Green University in Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication Studies and keeper of The Agon, a blog that takes on the "Rhetorical Contests of Sports, Politics, and Culture" at http://theagon.blogspot.com/.