Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Annals of the Game

The "W" flag above the old Wrigley Field scoreboard this morning flapped proudly in the early fall north-easterly breeze, reminding those who passed it and cared, of the brilliant game played the night before by two teams who could possibly face each other in the World Series. On the other hand, depending on the whims of the baseball gods, last night's game could very well have been the final game played at Wrigley Field this year as the team who calls the ballpark home will be forced into a one game playoff, most likely against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Win that game and there will be October baseball in front of the ivy covered walls which will have begun to turn a lovely shade of bronze. Lose and it's the chill rains of fall and the familiar Chicago refrain of "wait 'till next year."

However, knowledge that the last baseball game in September on the north side of Chicago wasn't a meaningless exercise filled with the strains of Auld lang syne, could be considered a victory all on its own. The winds of change have come to that part of town and all the talk of futility for the past God knows how many years, may soon become irrelevant, relegated as former President Bush once said, to the "trash bin of history."

I may be putting the cart before the horse, as the Cubs haven't won anything yet, but their fans have a lot to be optimistic about. In 2011, the organization that runs the Cubs made a commitment to build a successful team by hiring Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer as director of operations and general manager respectively. The two men gutted the team of all marketable mid-career players, then resolved to start from the ground up, by developing skilled young players in their farm system. That's exactly how it's supposed to be done, at least the way it's been for the past hundred years or so. Back in the nineteen-teens, Branch Rickey came up with the idea of a major league team buying up minor league teams and filling them with young players who would feed into the big time clubs when the time was right. By doing so, Rickey turned the woebegone St. Louis Cardinals into one of the most successful franchises in baseball, as it remains to this day.

The Cubs were in the advantageous position of being able to afford fielding a sub standard team during the re-building process as they had had a reliable fan base whom I always believed would show up to their ballpark even if they put chimpanzees on the field. Sure enough, between 2011 and 2014, the Cubs fielded abysmal teams who finished in last or next to last place in their division. Wrigley Field attendance suffered to be sure but not enough to be a deal breaker. This year the optimistic pundits were predicting that finishing anywhere around rhe 500 mark would be a huge moral victory. Well at this writing the Cubs are 27 games over 500. They have the third best record in the majors and would be on top of every division except unfortunately, their own, hence the wild card playoff.

Frustrated Cubs fans have been claiming their team has been cursed in one way or other since the last time they were in the World Series in 1945, but the fact is that management never bothered to seriously commit to developing young players, until now.

And we're seeing the results. Boyer and Epstein planned for the future, and the future is now.

Speaking of young players, those chill rains came a little prematurely for another group of Cubs, a team of 13, 14 and 15 year olds who were on the verge of winning their league championship. They say the major league team for whom these Cubs are named has found many creative ways to lose over the years, but they'd be hard pressed to find a more frustrating way to end to their season than the ending of my son's Little League team's 2015 season.

I said chill rains but this year it was warm summer rain, lots and lots of it that dampened the season and the hearts of the adults who administered their league.

If you've ever been a little league coach you know how frustrating it can be to organize enough kids to make up a starting nine, especially in the summer with vacations, camps and other family obligations. Fortunately for us, we only had to forfeit one game for lack of enough players, despite having eight games postponed in June alone because of the weather. All those cancellations and rescheduled games frayed the nerves of our head coach and the league commissioner who had to juggle the schedules of sixteen different teams in order to get all the games in. Somehow we got through until the bitter end when we found ourselves in the best of three championship series. In game one we had our way with our opponents who had to call up a few replacement players and perhaps a little overconfidence. Without either the following day they brought their A game and held us to one run in four innings, while we kept them scoreless. Then in the top of the fifth with the help of a couple of uncharacteristic errors from our better players, they scored two. It was a hell of a battle with both teams playing their hearts out. In the bottom of the fifth our lead off batter drew a walk and then the clouds opened. As the infield turned to quicksand, the umpire called the game.

And that is how our season ended. It's a little complicated and convoluted to explain in detail but in a nutshell what happened was this: first of all, the two teams couldn't agree on a makeup date to finish the series as players who also played on travel teams were committed to tournaments. Then the commissioner expressed frustration with our head coach regarding some of his tactics in re-scheduling our games making sure we had a full compliment of players. Finally, certain issues were brought up involving our team and rules violations. On that I'll just say this: one of the issues was petty, the other was somewhat legitimate, and both were entirely honest mistakes on the part of our team. The commissioner decreed that there would be no championship this year, no trophy, no nothin'. If the two teams in the finals wanted to make up the game(s) on their own, they would not be sanctioned by the league. We did try to get the other team to make up the games but we couldn't agree on terms.

Remember this is Little League baseball we're talking about, with absolutely nothing at stake except a ten dollar trophy, bragging rights for the kids, and the damaged egos of some of the parents. Perhaps in the end justice was served as we, the evil transgressors were punished. Never mind that it was the kids who got screwed while the adults did all the screwing up.

The experience was almost enough to disillusion me from the game and it's people. But something always brings me back within the fold. It could have been the great game between the LA Dodgers and SF Giants a few weeks ago. The Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw was coasting along until the bottom of the ninth inning.where he gave up a hit and a couple of walks. Then manager Don Mattingly came out and everyone at the ballpark, everyone watching on TV, and even the great Vin Scully who was calling the game knew, as conventional wisdom dictates, that the skip was going to pull Kershaw who by that time had thrown around 130 pitches. Very un-conventionally, after a few words with his pitcher, Mattingly went back to the dugout with Kershaw still standing on top of the mound, left to his own devices to finish the game, which he did.

This brought to mind the thing I liked the most about our Junior Cubs head coach, who insisted that all his players play every position possible, even the most difficult position, pitcher. It didn't matter if you could throw an 80 mph fastball or could barely throw hard enough to make it to the plate, everyone on our team got the chance to pitch. That strategy paid off as the confidence he instilled in our younger, less experienced players resulted in fabulous results; our bottom of the order players more often than not picked up the top of the order guys when they screwed up. That I'm convinced is what made us successful this season, if only...

As for the big boy Cubs, well, I think everybody agrees that anything positive they do from here to the end of their season, whenever that may be, will be gravy as they've exceeded expectations a hundredfold. The down side is that will definitely NOT be the case next year as anything less than a championship will be seen as a major letdown. That's the overriding feeling in Pittsburgh right now as their team has been rebuilding longer than the Cubs. It's kind of a shame the two good teams' destinies will be decided by only one game where anything can happen.

But that's baseball for you, the game designed to break your heart, not all at once, but one little piece at a time.

Being a White Sox fan, I know all about those little deaths.

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