Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Homer and the Gloamin': Wrigley Field and the Literal Fog of Uncertainty

Summer is a tardy soul. While it will waste no time in departure come October, there are years where it is as if the warmer months have ceded their dominion to an eternal spring. While the vernal equinox is often considered a time of rebirth, this lingering air of wavering atmosphere can bring about meteorological phenomena that present a different symbolism. On June 10th, 2013, a dense fog covered the full breadth of Chicago, Illinois. A product of the stillness and late blooming warmth, the city on the lake fell prey to nature. With all of mankind's capability, he is still rendered a victim to the power of the unpredictable. Like many nights before and yet to come, the Chicago Cubs lost. Coincidentally, the very fog that nearly halted play became a clear representation of their quest back to contention.

They call it a 'no-doubter.' When a ball is hit so well, so square on the sweet spot of the bat, that its fate is sealed from the moment it is hit. The outfielders' appearance shifts only from a set position to a nondescript shoulder hang. With contact, the ball and bat summon a sonic quake worthy of place in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Brandon Phillips, second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, surely auditioned for the London Philharmonic with his grand slam home run in the third inning. Effectively putting the game out of reach, Phillips cut a banshee-heart, high line drive through the low lying clouds, landing temporarily in the left field bleachers. As is customary Wrigley Field bleacher practice, it was returned from whence it came. The runs still count, and given the lackluster and often inconsistent Cubs offense, the runs were enough.

Wrigley Field is in its ninety-ninth year. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds have all hit home runs beyond the brick and ivy confines. It is a ballpark so unwilling to give in to modern convention that only the last quarter of its centennial existence has seen games beneath something as simple as artificial light. It is the site of one of the most famous walk-off home runs- the "homer in the gloamin'" of 1938. Gabby Hartnett launched a Mace Brown pitch into the welcoming darkness that had fallen on Chicago. Without lights, the game was nearly called due to lack of visibility. As the night sky engulfed the baseball, an eager crowd stormed the field and celebrated with their victorious Cubs. This was in an era of great success for the North Siders. For a majority of the first half of the twentieth century, they were a National League powerhouse. Times have changed. Lights came in 1988. Many other modern amenities were added as well. Parallel to this in time was a half-century of constant defeat and sporadic victory. The ghosts of what the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field were, had gradually faded into the thick, full-bloom ivy of late summer.

The pitcher of record for the winning club, as fate would have it in a concealed June gloaming, was 27-year old David "Homer" Bailey. The Reds' right-hander, who had thrown a no-hitter less than eight months ago, was once again masterful in his dissection of the Cubs' lineup. Many times a damp evening can cause a pitcher to struggle. Through 120 pitches, Bailey struck out eight and only surrendered one run. With the victory, his season record leveled at four wins, four losses. The Cubs had seemingly forgotten how to hit. As the season drags, slumps are inevitable. But when the depression of batting averages is cumulative in a clubhouse, bad streaks will linger. Much like the land-bound clouds that sauntered through Wrigleyville, the hard times can be difficult to escape.

The plan for the Cubs is to rebuild a broken farm system. By developing talent in the team's minor league affiliates, the Cubs hope to build a foundation for perennial success at the Major League level. This plan has been executed by acquiring undervalued pitchers and swapping them to playoff contenders for unproven prospects at the trade deadline. While it is always a positive thing to have more talent, the reality of this process is that not all of the plans will pan out. And even if the team develops into a contender, the rest of the league will not simply bow before the almighty Chicago Cubs. Rebuilding is no guarantee of returning to the World Series, yet a fanbase so starved for a championship cannot help but anticipate a ticker-tape parade through downtown Chicago, much like their cross-town counterpart White Sox experienced in 2005.

The fog that loomed over the city on the lake was a literal metaphor. It was a symbol of the current state of the ballclub in a breathable, touchable form. There is no way to prevent or defeat such a phenomenon. It can only be free to do as it will, and those within must wait it out. So goes the rebuilding of the Chicago Cubs. Uncertainty is the only thing loitering in the waning daylight. There is no crystal ball or seance that can summon the fate of the franchise, but in the end, that is what makes the game so beautiful. There is no true method to winning in baseball. If there was, the best teams each season wouldn't lose 60 games. Perhaps this is because the fog of uncertainty is at the heart of the sport. No season, no game, no pitch can be predicted. It is the eternal hope of 'tomorrow' that brings us back, and nowhere is that unwavering faith in the emotional gamble of baseball more evident than within the ivy-covered confines of Wrigley Field.

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