Reading The Natural and almost feeling hopeful about the Cubs | Bleader

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading The Natural and almost feeling hopeful about the Cubs

Posted By on 08.13.14 at 08:15 AM

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Cubs rookie Javier Baez has some of us daydreaming about--dare we say it?--winning baseball.
  • AP Photos
  • Cubs rookie Javier Baez has some of us daydreaming about—dare we say it?—winning baseball.
I received a text the other night from my friend and colleague Ben Joravsky, and strangely enough it wasn't about Rahm Emanuel.

"Baez hits 2 homers!" Ben wrote. "I'm ready to jump aboard the bandwagon!"

I knew exactly what he was saying. The Cubs had finally promoted their highly touted prospect Javier Baez, and he'd responded by hitting two long balls in just his third big-league game—two days after hitting a game-winning, 12th-inning home run in his debut.

I may be a little delusional, but not completely. I'm pretty sure I know a loser when I see one, because given my leanings in sports (and politics), I've seen plenty. I'm not sold on the hype that the Cubs are finally laying a path to consistent winning, let alone a trip to the Series; I'm skeptical of an ownership that pleads poverty despite filling Wrigley Field day after day and threatens to move to the suburbs if it doesn't get what it wants.

And after a week in the majors, Baez is striking out more than one of every three times he steps to the plate.

But what he figures it out and really does become a star? For that matter, what if Anthony Rizzo develops into a regular 40 homer, 100 RBI guy, and Starlin Castro stops swinging at everything and emerges as a consistent threat? What if some of the kids in the minors end up being half as good as touted—before the Cubs give up and trade them?

Most of this probably won't happen, but it could.

In the meantime, I swear the Cubs are getting better. At the very least, they're showing some fight—six of their last 14 games have gone into extra innings, and the Cubs have won half of them.

I'll admit that I've been doing my share of baseball daydreaming. I recently reread The Natural, and that had me mulling all kinds of possibilities.

I always enjoyed the movie version, starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, the aging rookie with a mysterious past whose talent and grace transforms a team from doomed to triumphant. The ending is magical: unlike Mighty Casey, Roy does not strike out, and we can all feel the glory with him.

But Bernard Malamud's novel is another story altogether. It's a fable about mysticism, courage, and redemption—and also about selfishness, greed, and weakness. This Roy Hobbs also possesses an athletic gift that's connected to the world of dreams and hope, but he squanders it—twice. He yearns to play ball, and maybe he loves the game, but his real desire is to be the best there ever was. As he tastes success he becomes gluttonous—he's been down so long that he's empty inside and he only knows how to fill himself with fast, ephemeral things.

Near the end, Roy realizes, "I never did learn anything out of my past life."

I first read The Natural the summer before I left home for college, well after I'd seen the movie. I was astounded—Hollywood had delivered what we wanted and expected, but the novel was spiritual and challenging and powerful. I was rooting for Roy Hobbs and wanted him to emerge as the hero once more.

Yet the fact that someone could write another story altogether was inspiring and liberating. It was evidence of the freedom to imagine and create something new.

I'll date myself by noting that was the summer of 1989, when the Cubs surprised everyone by winning 93 games and a division title—their second in five years. Then the San Francisco Giants ushered them out of the playoffs, four games to one, and my spirits sank. I understood this was not a team built to last. Andre Dawson and Rick Sutcliffe were getting older. Mike Bielecki would never win 18 games again. Ryne Sandberg couldn't do it all.

But the feeling passed. There would be another season and another story, and even if the odds seemed long, something interesting could always happen. At his lowest point, Roy Hobbs finally figured it out. Someday the Cubs might too.

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