Sometime in mid-February, after the long winter, baseball fans are delighted to read, usually over a two-paragraph-long story buried beneath the fold in the sports pages, the tag line Pitchers and Catchers Report. They are reporting, of course, to spring training two or three weeks ahead of the rest of their teams, and the announcement bodes the first news of the lengthy and leisurely baseball season ahead. Pitchers and Catchers Report is a happy herald, what a large trout leaping out of the water might be to a fisherman getting out his gear, or the wafting smell of garlic to a glutton entering an all-you-can-eat restaurant.
As a baseball fan in Chicago, this past spring I was looking forward to a fine season. My allegiance is split between the city’s two teams, though in recent years I have been following the White Sox more ardently than the hopeless Cubs—now, as a well-worn local quip has it, well into the second century of their rebuilding program. My temperament, never given to boundless optimism, hasn’t allowed me to become a zealous, or die-hard, Cubs fan. The team’s record, as the politicians say, speaks for itself. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and not been in another since 1945. Going into September in 1969 the team had an insurmountable 10-game lead over the New York Mets, which of course the Mets surmounted. In fairly recent appearances in playoffs, they have found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The White Sox have been another kettle of crayfish. That the White Sox play in the weak American League Central division gave the team the look of a serious contender. But things, as things will, quickly fell apart. In April, the promising rookie Avisail Garcia fell diving for a low line drive in right field and was said to be out for the season with a shoulder injury. (He returned in late August, when, in effect, he was no longer needed.) In May, the team’s pitching ace Chris Sale had arm trouble and was on the disabled list for roughly a month. Other injuries took key players out of the lineup. Those still playing fell into deep hitting slumps.
A few bright spots emerged. The White Sox acquired a third-baseman named Conor Gillaspie from the San Francisco Giants, where a local sports columnist compared his fielding and throwing to “Johnny Damon wearing boxing gloves.” Playing for the White Sox, Gillaspie fielded his position respectably and hit around .300 much of the season. The brightest news was José Abreu, a 27-year-old first-baseman from Cuba, who figures to be rookie of the year.
Yet not even Gillaspie and Abreu and Chris Sale (after his return) could take the gloom off an irretrievably dismal season. By June the White Sox were slipping out of contention; by July the hope was that they could compile a win-loss record above .500; by August even that minimal goal had to be abandoned. In September watching the team felt like serving detention.
Clutch hitting for the White Sox was almost entirely absent all summer long. If the team fell behind, you could be certain that there was little chance of its ever coming back to win the game. To derive the number of men the team left on base would require the calculator of an astronomer, for it was stratospheric. All summer the bullpen was a problem. Under the tyranny of the new interest in pitch count, a manager now takes his starting pitcher out of a game once he has thrown more than a hundred or so pitches, no matter how well he is doing. The idea is to save the pitcher’s arm—save it, perhaps, for the junior prom. For the too Pale Hose, as I came to think of the White Sox, this meant throwing the outcome of the game into the hands of its inept bullpen, an act comparable to hiring known arsonists to work for the fire department.
Traditionally, the readiest solution for so dreary a season is to fire the manager. The White Sox manager is Robin Ventura, in his playing days an All-Star third-baseman for the team. Ventura is handsome, even tempered, reasonable, and generally intelligent, but under his stewardship over the past three years the team has sunk deeper into torpor. Might it be that managing a team in the doldrums is a job not for Robin but for Batman, some bullying, slightly nutty, politically incorrect, less than fully intelligible uncouth fellow on the model of Ozzie Guillén, the team’s former manager, the mad Venezuelan who took it to a World Series nine years ago?
Preparing to watch another World Series without a Chicago team in it, I ask, What is to be done? The question was posed first by Chernyshevsky, then by Lenin, and now by me, a disheartened couch potato awaiting mid-February and the life-enhancing notice that once again Pitchers and Catchers Report.