Baseball Without Myths


Unlike the fabulist Kevin Costner, who posited in the movie Field of Dreams that a baseball diamond would sprout in the cornfields of Iowa, I do not expect that ballpark to materialize. Baseball is a world of concrete stadiums, where hardworking young men play a brutal schedule of 162 games and spend endless hours in planes, buses, and lonely hotel rooms. It’s a job.

I also don’t believe that baseball teams are “cursed”–a subject much in the news lately. Fred Wilpon, owner of the injury-depleted and cash-depleted New York Mets, recently explained the team’s plight to a New Yorker writer: “We’re snakebitten, baby.” Fred, baby, your troubles have nothing to do with snakes. The problem is with the higher vertebrates in the front office.

Wilpon finds himself $150 million short of operating capital because he invested that amount with his close friend, the prestidigitator Bernard Madoff, and never saw it again. Similar shortages of judgment have infected the hiring of players and staff personnel. Long-battered Mets fans know every inch of scar tissue on Carlos Beltran’s expensive knees, just as we know that the clubhouse manager Charlie Samuels was recently convicted of stealing $2.3 million worth of Mets memorabilia. That’s not snakebite, Fred; that’s someone having a long nap in the accounting department.

Curses famously entered baseball lore with the “curse of the Bambino,” visited on the Boston Red Sox in 1920 for unwisely selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, after which they didn’t win a World Series until 2004. That leaves only the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, still in the hex business, their fans continuing to ascribe the long drought to supernatural events, most memorably the “Billy goat curse” of 1945, when a fan named Billy Sianis arrived at Wrigley Field with his pet goat. Man and goat were hardly settled in their seats when they got ejected by the management. Leaving the stadium, Sianis shouted the wrathful words “You ain’t gonna win no more!”

And they didn’t. Half a century later, on October 14, 2003, leading the Florida Marlins by 3-0 in a playoff game, the Cubs were within five outs of reaching the World Series when a fan named Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball that might have been caught by the Cubs’ left fielder Moises Alou. Hexed once again, the Cubs blew their lead as well as the next day’s final playoff game. For his failure to calculate all the arithmetic variables in the split second of the ball’s descent, Steve Bartman became an instant pariah, so vilified by fans that he had to be given police protection. Today in Chicago his name is still spoken with loathing.

I’ve often wondered how baseball managers contend with so many seemingly unfair losses during the long summer, and I once put the question to Jim Leyland. Now the manager of the Detroit Tigers and one of the game’s wise elders, he was a first-time manager when I met him in 1988, charged with rebuilding the rock-bottom Pittsburgh Pirates after a drug scandal so destructive that the club was almost moved out of Pittsburgh.

I had gone to Bradenton, Florida, to write a book called Spring Training, choosing the Pirates as my lab specimen because they were starting fresh–a team of unknowns, including the manager. But it didn’t take me long to figure out who was in charge. Jim Leyland was a wiry man with a lean and hungry face, a deep voice, a sheriff’s moustache, and a get-there-and-get-it-taken-care-of walk. Like many major-league managers who never made it as a player, he climbed the alternate ladder of managing minor league teams in nowhere towns, starting at age 26 with Bristol in the Appalachian League.

Over the next decade the towns got bigger and Leyland’s teams kept winning championships. He then spent four years as third-base coach of the Chicago White Sox and in 1986 was plucked to resurrect the disgraced Pirates. Dismayed cries of “Jim who?” greeted his appointment, and in his first season the team lost 90 games. But by 1990 the Pirates were the best team in the National League East, finishing at the top in 1990, 1991, and 1992.

First, however, they had to endure the nightmare year of 1989. Crippled by injuries to four of their best players in the opening weeks of the season, they lost 88 games, many by one run, many in the bottom of the ninth inning. Reading about those games, I wondered what Leyland had learned from all that adversity, and near the end of the season, when the Pirates came to New York to play the Mets, I asked if he would meet me and talk about it. I knew he would take my request seriously. He was a man whose values I greatly admired: hardworking, solid, realistic.

“I had an unbelievably rough summer,” Leyland told me. “My father died, and everything else fell apart. When we had all those injuries at the start of the season, where three weeks earlier we had this tremendous feeling that we might win it all, now there was chaos. And what only the manager and the coaches knew was that we didn’t have the depth to compensate for those losses. So we were playing people who some day may be capable but who at that time were not capable.”

“When so many things go wrong,” Leyland said, “do you want to fix it in a hurry–maybe pick up a player from some other team–or do you stay consistent with your plan? My process was to take some verbal whippings, take some whippings on the field, but don’t lose sight of your goals.”

“I don’t believe in ‘if-only,’” Leyland told me. “In the end there’s only one issue for me. I don’t want my players to be led astray in any way. I wouldn’t want anything I said to give them a false sense of security. That often happens in the heat of a ninth-inning rally where you get beat by one run and everybody thinks, ‘My God! We had it! We should have won!’ But to someone who looks at the whole picture, that’s why you got beat by one run–because you were short. When you’re short you come up short.”

He didn’t say anything about curses.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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