July 05, 2007

10,000 Defeats* Random Eleven

Cold Cold Ground - JOHNSMITH
Tickets To The Fight - SODASTREAM
Calling God - JANN ARDEN
Buried in Teeth - MARIEE SIOUX
Planxtry Ellie Murphy - COLCANNON
Clove Cigarette - STEPHEN ASHBROOK
1/2 a Million Miles From Home - DIANE CLUCK
Bridges And Balloons - JOANNA NEWSOME

* Nearly meaningless milestones are fascinating because in such markers we can find volumes of hidden significance. The rest of the story, so to speak.

The Philadelphia Phillies baseball team are about to garner their 10,000th loss as a major league team. This is significant in that there is not a single team in any sport in the entire world at this volume of losses.

As losers go, they're the best.

Better yet, they're not even lovable losers, which is why we don't know about this spectacular streak of theirs. Every year we see stories of the undyingly faithful fans of the Cubs and the Red Sox, willing to wait generations for their teams to one day win the big one. Faithful to the end for their lovable losers. But Philadelphia is brutal. Brutal to visiting teams, brutal to their own.

So now we know why. I read that Philadelphia as a city has gone the longest of any city with teams in all four major sports, without any championship. If it wasn't for that whole "birthplace of America" thing I'm not sure there would be a reason for keeping the town around.

But let's look at this 10,000th loss in another way.

In 1990 I read a book by Luke Salisbury called "The Answer Is Baseball", and I consider it a primer on how to illuminate the fine but ubiquitous network of strands connecting our cultural artifacts and the forces moving our society hither and yon. Baseball is not just baseball. Our relationship with entertainment and leisure is as significant a force in our lives as our jobs and our families. Why? There is a cultural meaning embedded in that connection. It's a relationship. It's a dance or an art form which allows us to reconcile, or at least, tinker with, the complexities of what we see as right and wrong with our lives and the world. You think I'm being dramatic? Just ask a baseball fan about their biggest disappointment and you will see somebody brought nearly to tears over a single curveball thrown decades ago.

Salisbury's book uses baseball trivia to open essays that journey into deeper valleys of significance hidden in the nooks and crannies of statistical tables. Well, it's fun, too.

For instance, what could it matter that there were two different major league pitchers who each threw home run balls to both Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron at some points in their careers? Well, understand, Ruth ended his career in 1935 and Aaron began his in 1954. Who pitches in the major leagues for twenty years!? Great pitchers, that's who.

[23 JULY 2007 UPDATE] I might have this stat all flubbled with another. A serendipitous post by Tom McMahon over at his blog says that pitchers Lefty Grove and Ted Lyons did something similar to what I was describing. They each gave up home runs to Babe Ruth during his 60 Home Run season in 1927, and gave up hits to Joe DiMaggio during his 56 Game Hitting Streak in 1941. This might just be the story I recall. My point is the same, of course. Great pitchers, long careers. And don't ask me why I capitalize Significant Baseball Moments; I just do.]

In such simple stats can be found a deeper story. Sometimes that story speaks volumes about the society in which we live. The first Native American to play major league baseball preceded the first black major leaguer by nearly 50 years. And the story of this one man's rise and fall illustrates the tragedy that is the story of the American Indian in 19th century America.

But not only do statistics and stories from baseball's past reveal details of our society at large, they connect our own personal stories to our present. Everyone has an "I was there" story, a "What I was doing when JFK was shot" story. And everyone can recount an anecdote about the TV star or ballplayer who grew up in their neighborhood.

Hank Aaron once hit a home run in St. Louis which, because he stepped out of the batter's box to hit the ball, was disqualified as a home run and he was ruled out instead. His record 755 home runs, of course, don't reflect this small detail from the afternoon of August 18, 1965. But it happened. And it's a story for at least one fan that connects back to his childhood playing pickup ball with the kids in his neighborhood. One of those kids was the son of the man who gave up that ghost home run to Hank Aaron that August day and got an out instead. This man, in fact, was himself ending a long career that began with the disappointment of not pitching in the 1950 World Series because his unit was called up for Korean War Service.

Such is the endless social and cultural tapestry woven with the trivial details of a child's game.

So to the Phillies and their 10,000 defeats. Who loses 10,000 games? Well, a team that has remained in the same city in the same league for over 100 years. They are the only team in any sport in America who has accomplished that. A team that has played in front of nearly six generations of baseball fans. Six generations of Philadelphia children and adults who, abuse their teams as they may, won't ever give up on them, and whose life stories are intricately tied to the many defeats AND victories fought one day at a time, one inning at a time. One pitch.

Tug McGraw threw the final pitch that sealed the Phillies only world championship, near the end of his career, and as a boy I used to read the comic strip Scroogie which he ghosted through a writer and illustrator and published in newspapers throughout the U.S.

It was about a lovable loser baseball team.

In one strip, Scroogie explains the game-of-inches adage to his skipper during a mound conference. The skipper says, "Inches? That ball went 793 feet!"

Scroogie's reply: "Yeah, 9,516 inches."

A game of inches, a game of defeats, a game of life.

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