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10.20.2005 

Baseball as story

I've become more and more convinced over the last year or so that the reason sports are so popular in our culture is that they provide the same kind of epic stories for us that literature once did. Though literature is still a powerful cultural force, there is rarely a single story or novel that has universal currency, and when there is, it's usually something of the Da Vinci Code/Left Behind/Harry Potter variety--that is, more entertainment than actually epic. But on the other hand, American sports have achieved an almost mythic quality--when I think of Michael Jordan or Albert Pujols, I don't really think of a person like me, but rather of a heroic character.

What provoked this post on sports and story was the ending of the St. Louis Cardinals' season last night--the narrative of their team in 2005 (a topic which deserves a seperate post when I can manage it) finally drawing to a close in a loss to the Houston Astros. As it became more and more clear that the game would likely end in a loss for St. Louis and signal the end of the season, I found myself turning down the volume of the TV and turning up the radio broadcast on KMOX. Though the action on the TV lagged about a half-second behind the description on the radio, I still found watching the game this way far more satisfying than listening to the national Fox announcers. I think the reason for this is that the radio is the primary way I follow the Cardinals during the year--since Ami and I don't have cable, I can only watch the games on the weekend, whereas most nights, I'll listen to at least part of the game on the radio. Because of this, my connection with the Cardinal narrative is not just with the Cardinals in and of themselves as they lose and win games in various ways, but it is with the narrative of the Cardinals as told by Mike Shannon. That is, I don't just love Cardinals as a thing to watch or "follow" in some kind of "objective" way, I love the story of the Cardinals as described by Mike Shannon--and there was no way I was going to allow the final chapter of the story to be told by Bob Brenly.

It's for this reason, I think, that I haven't really been sad the last two seasons even though the Cardinals narrowly missed winning the World Series both years--because it's not all about winning the ring, it's about the season being a good story, full of characters and plot and tension--everything that makes a good story a good story. This explains why people are such fervent fans of bad teams--teams like the Royals or Cubs that haven't won in generations--because they love the stories of their teams, and the potential of a new story every spring. And the best thing about baseball, as opposed to other sports, is that the story is so long, rich and deep. The baseball season lasts longer every year, and baseball history stretches far further into the past than any other American sport, meaning that the storylines developed every year have the oppertunity to expand and change, and every year's story is always held against the layered context of the story of the game itself.

great post Josh. I've made some similar observations. You remarks about the KMOX announcers and their relationship to the team really hits home.

I've been working on some thoughts on how games, and baseball in particular, relate to our lives. If I ever put something down I'll let you know.

Thanks again, I appreciate your articulation in such a sad time. I had a hard time of writing something that really conveyed my feelings in that moment. Still do. In fact, I haven't even read a sports related article or listened to any sports radio since the season ended.

Thanks for your comment, George. I'd be interested to see it if you ever wrote anything on the relationship of baseball and life. Don't know if you've ever read Roger Angell, but he's another great baseball storyteller. I never feel like a season is really over until I read his account in the New Yorker.

Here's how he told last year's story:
http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?041122fa_fact1

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