Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Future: All Future And No Past

The Baseball Project: All Future and No Past

Later today, my long-beleaguered Mets will be playing a decisive Game 5 in their division series. Win, and continue on to the league championship series against the even longer-beleaguered Cubs, and be one step from the World Series. Lose, and start booking tee times.

Back when baseball was the unquestioned National Pastime, its major league franchises were mostly clustered in the relatively cold cites of the northeast and Midwest. It wasn’t until the 1950s that baseball expanded to Southern California, and it took until 1966 for a major league team to play south of Washington, D.C. or St. Louis. It isn’t surprising, then, that the start of the baseball season, in the springtime, was often conflated with the return of warmer weather and rebirth. And because every team starts every spring tied with all the others and, theoretically at least with an equal chance to win the championship, the phrase “hope springs eternal,” is often used to refer to baseball. It appears that the phrase was first used by Alexander Pope, in his 1734 poem An Essay on Man. (Pope was well known for his translations of Homer, but he never got to see a homer, although he might have seen cricket or rounders. Nor would Pope have been aware that Ernest Thayer borrowed his line in the most famous baseball poem ever, Casey At The Bat).

Back in the spring, most commentators figured the Mets would be improved over the last season, but would finish behind the Washington Nationals, who were expected to run away with the pennant. In May, when I wrote about Matt Harvey, the starting and winning pitcher in Game 3 of the division series that I had the opportunity to attend (see above), things still looked positive for the Mets, before they swooned in mid-season. But strong pitching and good trades led them back to success, and the collapse of the amusingly dysfunctional Nationals, gave the Mets the National League Eastern Division crown, and at least a shot at moving on, pending tonight’s results.

The Baseball Project was a “supergroup” formed by members of R.E.M., The Young Fresh Fellows, The Dream Syndicate (among other bands) to write and perform songs about baseball. I made the mistake of referring to them as a “novelty act” on another site, which band member Mike Mills took issue with on Twitter. (As a big fan of R.E.M., it was actually pretty cool to have Mike Mills annoyed with me.) They’ve released a whole bunch of good music, covering baseball-related topics as diverse as racism, the mysterious death of Ed Delahanty in 1903, labor relations, wife-swapping, eccentrics, fans, the Hall of Fame, and keeping score.

For the 2010 season, the band recorded for a series of songs designed to be a real-time commentary on the season. One of them, “All Future and No Past,” took its title from a quote from Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau: “On opening day, the world is all future and no past.” Boudreau, who appears to have been quite a guy, was a rare player/manager (starting when he was 25), also played professional basketball, and while playing major league baseball actually obtained his bachelor’s degree in education and was an assistant basketball coach at the University of Illinois.

The song is, as expected, an optimistic look at the potential that a number of teams could have, if everything broke their way, when “everybody has a chance.” Of course, there is a melancholy undercurrent to the song, because we know that it is unlikely that every team’s future will be bright. We know baseball is a zero-sum game-- every game has a loser, few teams advance to the postseason, only two make the World Series, and one gets to be champion.

As a Mets fan, it is hard to divorce the past from the future. Historically, the Mets have been often terrible, sometimes epically so, and their periods of quality have been few and usually short-lived. To now, things have broken the Mets’ way, and if they can get by the Dodgers tonight, there’s no reason to believe that they can’t beat the Cubs. But I have to admit that the success of the team this season has been a surprise, and even if they lose, I will (eventually) recognize that it was a fun season, one that gave me way more pleasure than I expected on Opening Day.

And beyond that, with their cadre of hard throwing, talented young pitchers, the Mets have a chance at a great future. Of course, as the first Mets’ manager, Casey Stengel once said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

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