When I was twelve years old, I played my third and last year of little league. The previous years, the Yankees finished in first and moved on to whatever nebulous world of playoffs lay beyond the little league regular season. It was a well known fact that the Yankees had won every single year forever. Forever in twelve year old terms means at least seven years since that’s how long the oldest kids could have possibly been in the league. Every year, a group of long time coaches rigged the draft so that all the good players were on the Yankees, so that they’d have a better shot in the playoffs. This was in San Jose, California, so if you were going to rig such things, you could at least make the team the Giants or A’s. But of course, the type of person who rigs little league drafts is exactly the sort of person who also roots for the Yankees against their home town teams.
A funny thing happened though. In my last year, I was on the Expos (there were only eight teams in the league, what fucking bastard made a bunch of Californian pre-adolescents wear Expos uniforms?). A week into practice, a new kid showed up named Jeff. He looked to be at least sixteen and had a furious temper that led to other kids making sure the baseball bats were stacked well away from him. No one could play catch with him because he threw so hard it hurt your hand even if you were wearing a catcher’s mitt. He’d stand at batting practice and hit pitch after pitch over the outfielders’ heads. He was possibly insane, in that he only came to about every other practice because he insisted that he had to go to ballet practice the other days. He was the first non-adult I ever knew who smoked. And he had just moved to the area so he missed tryouts and thus randomly got assigned to our team after the fact.
We were the first team in the living memory of that league’s children to beat the Yankees. And instead of ending the season undefeated as always, with a string of mercy rule 20-0 scores, the Yankees finished with two losses, both to us, and in a tie for first place. We met on a gray clouded Saturday for the obligatory one game playoff.
And we lost 3-2.
I was on deck when Jeff struck out with a man on to end the game. There was this moment of utter pressure in which the only faith twelve year olds know seemed to die. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was not the way the story was supposed to end. I think that’s when Jeff threw his bat at the pitcher.
The point though is that no matter what happened in that game, it was going to be the thing that was remembered. If we’d won, we’d have lost in the next week to a bunch of “twelve year olds” who had been shaving for three years from the next suburb over. But that game, win or lose, was the critical point.
There are two movies I watch before every baseball season: Field of Dreams and Major League. You gotta cry and you gotta laugh. Bull Durham is for when you want to do both, but mostly for when you want to drink.
At its face, Major League is exactly the same as every other sports comedy. It’s just Bad News Bears with major leaguers instead of little leaguers. But it’s also something else, it’s the way that we wish the major leagues actually were.
Major League is what we actually want the underdogs to be. Every year some team comes along with about $14 of payroll, a mixture of twenty year old dreamers, forty year old schemers. They stumble into the playoffs with a wildcard, a few games above .500 and then the magic happens. A team that the good teams beat two games out of three all summer is suddenly winning 1-0 nail biters against $10 million pitchers with more Cy Youngs than losses. We root for that illusion, never admitting that in the back of our minds we know that the minimum salary is $400,000 for a major league player, that those rookies already have more money than most of us will make for the next decade and those washed up veterans have burned through cash like fans burn through sunflower seeds. If we thought about it for more than a second, we’d know that Willy, Ricky and Pedro would be playing for the Yankees in another two years anyway and Jake would have a gig on ESPN.
Hell, the movie cuts after they win the one-game playoff, it doesn’t even bother with the playoffs and series. Because that’s the after effect. What do we remember when it’s all over? Wild Thing. The strike out. Calling his shot, the runner straining around the third, the glove missing the slide by a whisker, “The Indians win it! The Indians win it! Oh my god the Indians win it!” If you think about it, if there’s story after the story (and don’t mention the sequels, they never happened) then you know that the Indians probably got swept the next week in the first round of the playoffs. But that’s why we end the story there, because twenty years later we’ll remember the dramatic finish whether it was for us or against us. Everybody remembers Fisk waving the winning shot fair. And even though they know the Red Sox lost the next day, it’s not what they remember.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.