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October Surprise; or, How to Follow a Perfect Season

October 2, 2012 | by

My grandfather died in St. Louis last year on October eighth. The following night, Chris Carpenter pitched a three-hitter against the Phillies, lifting the Cardinals into the NLCS and alerting the nation that rather than just a squad of plucky underdogs, the Cardinals might be a team touched by something phenomenologically greater than a hot streak. For certain members of my family, my grandfather’s mid-playoff death offered a locus for the sense of destiny awakening around the Cardinals; in the weeks to come, as the team mounted increasingly improbable victories, more than one relative offered comments in the vein of, “Wally had something to do with this!” or “Wally was watching over the Cardinals last night!” Being a skeptical and ragged Catholic, I responded to these remarks with quiet derision, as I do to all suggestions that the Almighty would choose to meddle in the outcomes of our mortal diversions.

But as the weather here in St. Louis finally cools after a boiling, interminable summer—a summer that saw the maddening Cardinals muddle their way to a fragile hold on one of the devalued wild-card spots—I find it difficult not to look back on last fall’s championship run and see a team touched by divinity, or magic, or fate—a moment when a higher realm reached through the portal of sport and touched this mortal plane. The Cardinals may well make the playoffs this year, but I have to confess that I’m finding it hard to care. Whatever illumed last season, it’s gone, and here in St. Louis, we’re learning to live in its aftermath.

“Baseball,” as Michael Chabon observed in McSweeney’s no. 36, is “a game that somehow seems to offer more room, a greater scope than other sports, for the consciousness of failure and defeat—has always been associated, in its own history and my own, with a sense of loss, the idea of the lost arcadia, the last patch of green folded into a pocket of the world of brick and asphalt.” The sport is a dissonant blend of nostalgia and modernity. On the one hand, as Chabon says, it is a sport stubbornly resistant to change. The unhurried pace, the managers in uniform, the persistence of Fenway and Wrigley, the timeless sound of vendors calling out over the chatter of multitudes—these are all dogged holdouts, boulders in the stream of capital-P Progress, a refuge of familiarity in a world that often feels bent upon making itself unfamiliar from one day to the next. As George Carlin once put it, the objective of baseball is to go home.

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