Rooting for the Cubs in the Anthropocene

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

So Bart Giamatti opens “The Green Fields of the Mind,” a classic paean to our national pastime. Quotes from the essay made the rounds in social media and sports writing this week, as they always do this time of year, as reliable a cycle as the turning of the leaves. And so the essay was on my mind the night that the Chicago Cubs broke from the sport’s most enduring tradition and won a World Series. Yet Giamatti’s pastoral idyll was more discordant than apt as I walked home from my friend’s living room where I had watched the game, suddenly besieged by a hot and humid Midwestern thunderstorm in November. Here we are, a month after October 2, and while baseball is gone, summer shows few signs of abating.

Of course, “The Green Fields of the Mind” likely strikes most of us as outdated for more obvious reasons than its obliviousness to climate change. Journalistic reminders that baseball is no longer our national pastime have become as reliable a seasonal cycle as the invocation of Giamatti’s sentimentality itself. The game has become culturally irrelevant, so this line of thinking goes, even as it exists in an economic bubble sustained by a system of cozy relationships between greedy top-heavy management and cable service monopolies. But the bubble must burst, as bubbles always do, because the fanbase is simply too old, too white, too middle-class for the sport to have a sustainable future.

Certainly it’s true that nostalgia like Giamatti’s is currently sustained by this Boomer fanbase, which associates the venerable traditions of the American beautiful game with the season of its youth and all the ideological baggage that comes with such revisionist memory: baseball is an artifact of our global relevance, when our country wasn’t so divided by bitter partisanship, our moral certainty was more expansive, and Americans didn’t have to know there were other beautiful games in other countries. It falls by the wayside that the halcyon days of baseball were also the years of World Wars, Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and the nation’s violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. To form an analogy with the current iteration of another American institution cyclically ending every November, the purveyors of this Edenic vision of a former national pastime want to Make America Great Again.

Which is why the climate change parallel strikes me as so appropriate. Giamatti concludes his essay like so:

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

There is something unwittingly profound in his faux-profound irony, which implies that it’s those “who can live without illusion” who should really be pitied by the large majority of ordinary humans blessed enough to be content with delusions of their own immortality. The thinking here is as old as the ancient Greeks who invented pastoral literature—by embracing fleeting cycles of life and death we in fact find a greater sense of permanence and take comfort in the long view that history holds a static pattern. We grow old and die, but our children have grandchildren and our lineage continues. Our team lost this season, but “there’s always next year.” Pesky upstarts may occasionally bring a New Deal or War on Poverty or ACA into national policy, but the empire will always strike back to preserve white supremacy and wealth inequality.

The unwitting profundity here lies in how the metaphor of eternal youth unconsciously recognizes the childishness of the vision. The seasonal cycles that Bart Giamatti and Theocritus took for granted are in fact an innovation of the Holocene epoch, the geological interval of relatively temperate weather that began with the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, during which all known human history has occurred. The Greek word holos means “whole or entire,” appropriately enough for a time whose stable environmental features encompass everything we know about human civilization. But the second half of the root, kainos, means “new,” and so the Holocene is in fact “the entirely new”—the duration in which stable seasonal cycles that we take for granted as eternal in fact emerged for the first time, mere seconds ago in a cosmological time scale. And with 2016 being the year that atmospheric carbon has reached 400 parts per million for the foreseeable future, they are a cyclical pattern that is now at an end. If history in fact has one static pattern, it’s that everything ends and all illusions are eventually stripped away.

Thus we have the Cubs, who came back from a 3-1 deficit to win their first World Series in 108 years, helped in part by a freak summer thunderstorm in November that delayed the game for 17 minutes and ruined Cleveland’s momentum. I’m a Cardinals fan. My sense of how to feel about the Cubs was conflicted for much of the series, and it remained so as I walked home in a separate freak summer storm in St. Louis. Shouldn’t I set aside regional rivalries and pull for the tying up of baseball’s longest-running narrative? No, I would tell myself, that’s Boomer mythology talking, pushing me to give up personal interest in favor of pieties about the greater good of baseball, and hence the nation. They are our rivals, aren’t they, and you don’t root for them? Except I love the city of Chicago and my friends who love the Cubs, and, I would tell myself, uncritical “us versus them” thinking is the true legacy of pastoral baseball’s Cold War baggage.

Before Game 7 started, I had settled on rooting for the Cubs for a less ennobled and more petty (which is to say, more honest) reason. For as long as I, or my parents, or even my now-passed grandparents had lived, the Cubs have played up an identity as the “loveable losers.” Destined never to win and to always keep trying in face of the seemingly metaphysical certainty that they’d lose, the true faithful Cubs fan was a perfect emblem for pastoral baseball’s self-mythologizing—it doesn’t matter if you lose, because there’s always next year, and true fans understand that love of the game isn’t about winning or losing anyway, but rather about the latent assurance that the blossoming buds of eternally returning spring promise that baseball, and thus America, will live forever.

A World Series victory for the Cubs, then, means an end to mythology and a world without illusion. A world where, as others have pointed out, a top market team owned by a Trump-supporting investment banker in one of the world’s great metropoles finally did after a century-and-change what many more disadvantaged teams manage to do at least once every twenty or thirty years. No longer would a patina of sanctimony shield from criticism a wealthy team achieving mediocrity in spite of every structural advantage. Let us have an end to mass movements that claim history is rigged against them as a cover for suffering the consequences of their own incompetence, and that cast victory as a restorative talisman that will bring us back to a paradisal past that never existed.

It seemed a perfect end, then, as I walked home in the rain. They won, the world keeps spinning (even if the climate reflects that differently than it once did), and baseball will continue next year neither exactly the same, nor much different, than it was this year.

Until I wondered to myself whether the end of baseball’s longest running myth might not be the end of baseball, full stop. Game 7 was the most watched baseball game in 25 years, but what if this was a final apex for a sport whose catastrophic future is already determined? If the game exists by the grace of a corrupt economic structure fueled only by the burning nostalgia of Boomers wrapped up in the game’s Traditions, then might not an exhilaratingly epic ending to a century-long unclosed narrative finally provide America the wherewithal to pull the plug on the life support to an outmoded avatar of cultural nationalism? That night, it seemed fitting that we passed 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon, saw the Cubs win a World Series, and watched Trump close in the polls all in the same month—the American pastime, the American experiment, and the global economic system that America leads all find the beginning of their ends together. Dark thoughts while you’re rain-soaked and sweating from the heat at 1 AM in a season that used to be early winter.

But are ends such bad things? In Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, the cultural journalist and Iraq War veteran brilliantly synthesizes science journalism, war memoir, and philosophy in order to grapple with the realization that the world has entered the Anthropocene epoch. The Anthropocene is an increasingly accepted term to refer to the probability that humanity’s interference in the planet’s natural carbon cycles now means that our aggregate presence has left an indelible mark in the geological record, effectively ending the Holocene. The difficulty in grasping the sheer magnitude of what we have wrought rests, for Scranton, in the fact that we have only now recognized the significance of a process of rapid global warming against which we needed to intervene around the last time the Cubs won a World Series.

Given that irreversible damage has already occurred, the problem that confronts us is not how to stop a catastrophe, but rather how to adapt to a catastrophe that has already happened. The only solution, according to Scranton, is to learn how to die. As a veteran, he claims that soldiers must daily meditate on their own deaths in order to embrace their own mortality; only by embracing one’s mortality can one begin to do what matters most—live for others. Realized at the level of a civilization, learning to die thus means recognizing that global capitalism is a system requiring infinite growth in a world of finite resources, and that accepting a certain level of austere finitude is the only way for us to do what matters most—ensure our continued survival.

Giamatti’s pastoral baseball, then, is exactly the sort of indulgent fantasy that Scranton would have us put to rest. In that mythology’s portrait of an eternal American youth always imbued with wide-eyed innocent potential, we find traces of manifest destiny, of the blind faith that there are always years to come, full of new horizons and imperial ventures. No more, he says. All of us, and America, and baseball, must learn how to grow old and die. But it is crucial to understand that this view is not fatalistic. Learning to die is the only sustainable life practice; only through embracing our individual deaths may we continue to live as a group.

Let’s celebrate the death of baseball’s most enduring mythology, then, for only in this way can baseball live. As it turns out, apocalyptic obituaries to the game’s cultural irrelevance are themselves a bit of an enduring mythology. As Craig Calcaterra has pointed out, hand-wringing over the sport’s collapse is almost as old as its nationalistic hagiography. They are interrelated phenomena. As the graybeards lament that the game symbolizes the lost nation of their youth, the current youth lament that the game has failed to capture contemporary reality.

If the philosopher kings of sports writing rue, often through coded racism, that today’s players no longer play by the chivalric codes of an earlier generation, this does not change the fact that the game belongs to the younger players and they will play how they want. If the financial model of televised baseball is not sustainable, this speaks more to the obsolescence of traditional broadcast media than it does a sport that retains popularity through streaming services and in-person attendance. Baseball is changing, but it was never a static entity, any more than seasonal cycles. If history in fact has two static patterns, the second is that all ends imply beginnings.

If the pastoral impulse finds permanence in cyclical return, let us instead embrace permanent change. The Cubs have won a World Series, and so maybe we can reject the mythologies of what made baseball great before, and embrace its new possibilities as a multicultural and multinational sport existing in a saturated media market as a majority minority. And if we can take pride in our regional fandoms while acknowledging their diminishing significance in an international media marketplace, then perhaps there’s hope for Trump’s America to embrace a country in which they have a voice but in whose mythology they are not sole author— if they can’t, well, the world belongs to the young and Trump’s America is not young. And if we can thus learn to live with each other in our own communities, then perhaps America can release its self-appointed role as arbiter of global progress, and learn to live with diminishing significance in a world where, if we are all to keep living, our nations must stop trying to expand their spheres of influence.

And so let us put an end to mythology and shine the stadium lights on the world as it is, and live in a world without illusion. The Cubs are no longer losers nor lovable, if they ever had been. And baseball is no longer a national dream of endless summer and infinite expansion keeping us warm through interminable winters—if it ever had been—in part because baseball is no longer a national dream, but more importantly because winter is a diminishing resource, soon to be the dream we hold through interminable summer. We must all learn to live with less in the terrible warm and wet world to come, and if the end of a century-long playoff drought might help us retire a national mythology of eternal progress in order to see the finite and diminishing reality that our teams, our communities, and our nation inhabit—then players, play on.


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