Howard and I had a few minutes in the office. He asked how I was doing, and I reminded him that I’ve been reading and thinking about hope. Knowing of my interest in baseball, he laughingly suggested that Cub fans might be the epitome of hope. So it’s time to write of baseball hopes.
Right from the start, we need to admit that some people—otherwise sane, kind, faithful, good people—do not like baseball. As inexplicable as that may be, it’s true. I’ve heard non-baseball fans say, “Baseball is boring,” with apparent sincerity. Non-fans do not agonize over the failures of their favorite them. Non-fans think it strange that we fans spend significant parts of the summer agonizing over players who get hits 25% of the time while rejoicing enthusiastically over those who get hits 31% of the time. Non-fans think that a 0-0 game lacks “excitement” (even it it’s the eighth inning!). I do not offer an explanation for these facts; I merely acknowledge them.
If you, dear reader, are not a baseball fan, you should probably just move on to a different essay. This one won’t interest you. On the other hand, you may be interested in philosophy and moral theory. In particular, you may be interested in the virtue of hope. But if you hate baseball… well, you’ve had fair warning.
In earlier essays, I divided hopes into three kinds: mundane, extreme, and radical. Mundane hopes aim for ordinary goods of this world. Extreme hopes aim at goods (of this world or of another) which seem very unlikely. Radical hopes expect good things in the future, even when we don’t have thick concepts of what that good future would be. Illustrative examples will help:
Mundane hopes: a woman hopes for a promotion at work, a student hopes for a good grade, a city councilor hopes for strong tax revenues and no budget-busting emergencies. Extreme hopes: a injured man alone on a forest road hopes for help to come before he dies of exposure, a cancer patient hopes that the experimental drug will cure her, a lottery player acknowledges the extreme unlikelihood of winning the jackpot but hopes to win anyway. Radical hope: Chief Plenty Coups leads the Crow people to hope for a good future, a future in which they will still be distinctively Crow, even though he recognizes that their way of life is irrevocably changed. Some religious people have radical hope in regard to death, in that they acknowledge they have no concept of what an afterlife would be like, yet they hope that the universe, or karma, or God will cause a good future after death.
Now, how do these categories apply to baseball?
First, we must acknowledge that hope is crucial to baseball. In baseball, more often than not, hitters fail to hit. Fielders make errors (which are duly recorded like demerits). Pitchers give up runs; the higher the pitcher’s ERA, the worse he is. The best teams lose at least a third of their games. The season is so long that almost all players suffer injury; in many cases this means missing games on the disabled list.
Failure, injury and defeat: baseball players have to cultivate hope just to stay in the game. But enough about them. What about the fans?
Fans of some teams exemplify mundane hopes. They hope their beloved Cardinals, Giants, Phillies, Red Sox, Royals, or White Sox will win World Series or, failing that, to at least make the playoffs. In any particular year, the odds are against them, but these are reasonable hopes. All these teams have won the World Series since 2005 (the Giants three times). As of today, all these teams are doing fairly well, so their fans’ hopes for a 2016 championship are intact. (Phillies fans are, of course, deluded. Their players have over-performed stunningly. The Phillies will come back to earth. Any day now.)
Fans of other teams exemplify extreme hopes. By this stage in the season, late May, the Angels, As, Padres, Rockies, Reds, Marlins, and Brewers have fallen far enough behind the leaders that their fans’ hopes are on life-support. They hope that the latest rookie call-up will be like an experimental drug—a miracle cure.
Fans of the Braves and Twins aren’t hoping for miracles. Their teams are so bad and so far behind the leaders that they have shifted the focus of their hopes. Their hopes are radical hopes, that maybe the team has better young players down on the farm. Or that the team will choose brilliantly in the free agent draft this June and bring in great new talent. Or that the General Manager will somehow trade a relief pitcher to one of the contenders and receive a haul of young players in return. Or that the team will get sold to a new ownership group, and they will hire a whole new front office. Or… Radical hope sometimes clings to a belief in a good future even when it doesn’t know what that good future would be like.
In 1969 the Seattle Pilots joined the American League. They were terrible, but I was too young to realize this. In mid-summer I still hoped they could win the division. I nagged my father to promise we would go to a Pilots game if they made the playoffs. How should that ancient naïve hope be categorized? That next winter, the Pilots fled Seattle, to become the Milwaukee Brewers, and in 1982 the Brewers played in the World Series. This did nothing to console Pilot fans.
What about the Cubs? In the 108 years since they won the World Series, the Cubs have played in the post-season 16 times. They lost nine times in the Series, the last time in 1945, and they lost seven times in the playoffs, the first time in 1984 and the last time in 2015. Now, reaching the postseason 16 times in 108 years is not so bad; on average, once every seven years. But losing all 16 times? There is a special aroma to Cubs fans’ hope. But the Cubs are really good this year. They’re in first place. Maybe…
Hope spring eternal for baseball fans, even for Mariner fans. (The Mariners came into existence in 1977, partly as an inducement for the City of Seattle to drop its suit against the American League over the loss of the Pilots. Maybe that is an example of radical hope coming true.) My favorite team has never won the World Series, for good reason: it has never played in the World Series. In the 40 years of Mariner existence, they have reached the postseason just four times. (Once every ten years, so Cub fans have nothing to complain about.) The Mariners are pretty good this year, and they leading their division. Maybe…
There is one kind of baseball fan that totally escapes my categories. Yankee fans do not hope. They regard World Championships as a birthright. They are surprised only when they do not win.