The Doleful Season

The sun’s rising later and setting earlier. The weather’s changing. and leaves are beginning to turn color and fall. Autumn poignancy abounds. And the season is over for the two baseball teams I follow the most closely and care about, when I allow myself to care about baseball (which is less and less often; I recently found myself describing my “shriveled, bitter baseball soul” in a note to a friend, and while I like the turn of phrase, I’m disturbed to find it’s an accurate description).

The Cubs lost in Chicago, and the A’s lost in Oakland. The teams are quite different in most ways: The Cubs have a big payroll and feature a collection of guys in their lineup who have put up big offensive numbers over their careers, even if they aren’t great defensively; the A’s are well known as smart bargain shoppers who are carrying a couple big contracts but mostly have had to let their big stars move on to richer pastures.

But the teams are similar in one regard: Both had very good starting pitching and very poor (or at least worse than average, not having actually looked at numbers closely) bullpens. Saturday, when both teams were knocked out of the running for the also-ran (AKA “wild card:) playoff spots in their leagues, the bullpens were up to their usual tricks: manufacturing a heartwarming celebration of a come-from-behind victory for the other side.

Well, it’s doleful, but not tragic. The Cubs were not in a postseason game during my lieftime until I was 30 years old. Now I’m 50, and it seems like they’re just hanging all over the playoffs. Let’s see: 1984 (lost to Padres in disastrous series); 1989 (lost to the Giants, who were a better team); 1998 (Braves swept them after they beat the Giants for the also-ran spot — sweet!); and 2003 (lost in second round to the Marlins thanks to lousy clutch play and a fan who decided to show the world how clueless Cubs rooters really are).

And here in the East Bay, the A’s have been phenomenally successful despite lukewarm fan support and the fact they’re compelled to play in a soulless concrete sinkhole after it was remodeled at the whim of an NFL war criminal). But the success has gone only so far: As everyone who follows the sport knows, they’ve managed to lose first-round series four years in a row (not a problem this time around). Twice that was because they couldn’t close the deal after getting a better team on the ropes (the Yankees) and twice because they couldn’t close the deal after getting inferior teams on the ropes (the Twins two years ago, the Red Sox last year).

So, not tragic. But still doleful. As others have observed many times, either in print or at the end of an evening at the bar, the thing that makes a fruitless baseball season at least a little heart-rending is what it takes to get through the season: The teams, and the people who should know better who follow them, endure a marathon, 162 games, months and months and months. You go through all that, and it didn’t get you anywhere, really, except maybe to give you a few more statistics to chew on or to wise you up once and for all that, you know, you shouldn’t let these guys fool you into thinking they can make you happy, as a human being or even as a fan. Next year, you’ll remember.

The best expression I’ve seen of the real poignancy of the End of the Season was in a Cubs souvenir booklet put out after 1984. It featured a beautiful double-truck portrait of Wrigley Field’s sweeping brick wall in deep autumn, after the vines had shed most of their leaves, and lit by a late-afternoon, low-slanting sun. As a caption, it included a passage from a San Francisco Chronicle reporter immediately after the Cubs had gone up 2-0 in their series against the Padres. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he talked about the joy and frenzy of the fans in the ballpark, who knew the Cubs needed just one more win on their trip to the West Coast to get to the World Series.

Boy, sometimes that win can be a long time in coming.

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