One complaint about sportswriting today is that we SJWs won’t stop talking about politics, race, and gender. What the complainers omit is that this strain of sportswriting is a reaction to an earlier form of the trade — one, in the words of Robert Lipsyte, that turned sports into an emotional Disneyland for adults. If you ever wondered what that prelapsarian form of sportswriting was like, you’re in luck. I keep reading that the Chicago Cubs are going to save us from Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the brutalities of the 2016 campaign.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd went to Chicago and reported back in a column that was published Tuesday. “I had covered a year and a half of a presidential campaign that was so dyspeptic and vulgar and ugly,” she wrote, “that I had lost the sense of what it was like to be surrounded by a sea of people who were rooting for something rather than against.”
Now, after covering a campaign, it must be nice to take in a game at Wrigley — even if the central conceit here is dead wrong. Every Cubs fan wants Corey Kluber to fail and fail badly Wednesday night. But watch Dowd pogo from that small idea to a larger one. One of her friends tells her:
What does that mean? That Trump, who must (halfheartedly) figure out solutions to a nation’s problems, should be more like Maddon, who must figure out how to use his bullpen? There’s not even half a useful metaphor there. Moreover, it’s not news that watching baseball is more fun than watching the messy business of politics.
This is the kind of sloppiness that creeps in when you think of sports not just as a refuge from the real world but as an example the real world should follow. Dowd and the observers she quoted don’t note that the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman, who threw 1 1/3 innings Tuesday night, was, like Trump, accused of predations against women. (Chapman fired a gun in a garage after an altercation during which, his girlfriend alleged, he choked her; no charges were filed, but he was suspended for 30 games.) In Game 2 of the World Series, an Indians fan was spotted in the stands at Progressive Field wearing a headdress and red and blackface. Also, the World Series games have been incredibly long. You could look at that evidence and think … baseball sounds a lot like a Trump rally.
In Dowd’s column, Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, called the Cubs’ run “a great reprieve.” Dowd noted that he compared their success with “the coarseness and anger of our politics.” In May, a poll found that 62 percent of Chicagoans disapproved of Emanuel’s job performance. Seventy percent of African Americans disapproved. These are near-Trumpian levels of unpopularity — it isn’t pamphleteering to say Emanuel has divided Chicago along racial lines. If the World Series has been a reprieve for him, it’s because people may have temporarily forgotten that Emanuel is the mayor.
Dowd found more heartening news in the bleachers. “When I looked around, I saw loyal celebrity fans — Bill Murray, Vince Vaughn, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Garlin — and generations of Chicagoans sharing the moment.” As Darren Rovell reported, the median price for a secondary market ticket to Game 4 of the World Series, which Dowd attended, was $3,650. So there were nonfamous Chicagoans there, but they were probably rich ones.
Last week, The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell experienced a similar moment of peace:
Boswell has covered enough baseball to know that there are no political metaphors that can be mined from it. But he is resolute in seeing the World Series as an escape:
See, I have the opposite experience with sports fandom: Nothing makes me angrier, more uncivil, and is more likely to divide me from people whom I might otherwise get along with. In fact, sports offer an excuse to do these things. The idea that the World Series is a peaceful coming together of the populace is a conceit only of people who sit in press boxes, who have been trained to float above unruly passions — probably in a way they never could with politics.
Speaking of press boxes: Back in September, David Axelrod, the Chicago Tribune reporter turned politico, profiled Theo Epstein for the New Yorker’s website. He concluded that the Cubs were “baseball’s version of the Obama campaigns that I helped to lead — young, hungry, joyful, and bent on using new tools to challenge conventional theories about how to win.”
Axelrod might have added more adjectives: For instance, the Cubs are a lot richer than three-quarters of the league! In any case, it’s not a very useful metaphor. Axelrod is fastening on the giddiness around Obama’s election in 2008, on the promise of technocratic joys to come, while forgetting the eight years that followed. I wonder if Obama looks at the Cubs and is reminded of himself.
Are any of these pieces bad? No. They’re more like cautionary tales. Not every World Series gamer needs to include a riff on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But when you attempt to divorce sports from politics, you wind up making sports much sillier and more banal than it actually is. If you look at the Bleacher Bums and see unity and comity; if you look at Joe Maddon and see presidential timber; if the Cubs remind you of Yes, We Can — I’ve got some advice for you. Stick to politics.