Friday, October 13, 2017

The Narrative

James Franklin has finally done it.  After losing to Northwestern at Vanderbilt, canceling a game against the Wildcats by ordering a specially designed goblet that said "home and home series against Northwestern," and smashing it against the walls of his palatial Coaching Mansion and then mailing the shards to Northwestern's athletic department, and then moving to Penn State to build them up specifically, one presumes, to defeat Northwestern, Franklin stood triumphant on Ryan Field under a darkening sky with a cloud of crows and ravens and other species ordered off the Foreboding Birds catalog released to terrorize Evanston, and he departed victorious, with nothing left to play for.

Sportswriting exists to invent narratives for events that involve a lot of luck and happenstance. Wisconsin, for example, had failed to win a game at Ryan Field from 1999-2016; this streak comprised of four whole football games, each with its own discrete improbable insanities that had nothing to do with one another but became perfect for inventing a narrative of the Badgers unable to win at this lakeside doom fortress in front of a hostile crowd of nearly 40% Northwestern fans.  I have absolutely no idea if James Franklin cares at all about Northwestern or about his epic three-game losing streak dating back to Vanderbilt, but I also know that in my brain he spends most of his time skyping with Tim Beckman about his cadence in late-night fireplace-lit pacing as he composes angry couplets about Pat Fitzgerald and the yowling Wildcat noise on the PA system and Air Willie, which I am pretty sure has not existed during Franklin's entire Big Ten tenure but is something he could have read about on the internet.

James Franklin, as he always does, pondering how to beat Northwestern, 
a real rivalry that I know for a fact has consumed him

Another misleading narrative would be to look at the final score and assume that a febrile Northwestern squad flailed against a top-five Penn State team.  Northwestern's defense bottled up Penn State's fearsome attack for the first half, and Saquon Barkley, that terrifying running back who trains by leaping canyons and stiff-arming university buildings marked for demolition, could do nothing at all.  The Wildcats' offense, though, bungled a few early opportunities to take the lead, including a sequence of penalties near the goal line where they were called for holding, false starting, conspiracy to false start, and mail fraud and then turned it over.  The defense in the second half, often called upon to stop the Nittany Lions from within Northwestern territory, eventually faltered, Barkley finally unleashed his most terrifying move by psychically moving a referee into the way of a helplessly diving Wildcat, and Penn State romped through the rest of the game.  This is the second time Northwestern has played a top-tier opponent tough through a half of football, which may not count in the standings but does count in the extensive glossy literature that will be sent for the consideration of the people at the Bleedgrowl Bear Trap and Bear Trap Accessories Bowl should the Wildcats successfully win Big Ten games.


Maryland has been in the Big Ten since 2014, but has been hiding in the conference's weakling East Division the entire time, safe from the Northwestern Wildcats and their onslaught of occasional bowl-caliber football competence.  No longer!  The Terrapins will now face a desperate Northwestern team coming off consecutive losses to two of the Big Ten's best teams while Maryland hopes to build on the momentum of a season featuring wins against the crumbling rot of late Ottoman Empire-era Texas and P.J. Fleck's Order of Rowboatsmanship, both on the road.

What does Maryland look like this season?  This is a blogspot website that is all about integrity, and I will not insult you by pretending to know anything about Maryland football.  I remain in shameful ignorance; the only Maryland football I can recall watching was the end of last year's Quick Lane Bowl, a tedious Goal Line Fumbles Exhibition in front of 47 people, the apotheosis of the Quick Lane Bowl experience, and one I desperately want for the Northwestern Wildcats.  From what I can tell through extensive minutes of research, a runaway combine harvester has mown down all of the Terrapins' quarterbacks, and they hope that third-stringer Max Bortenschlager, who sounds like the video game boss second form of Blake Bortles, will be healthy.

These projections predict the emergence of a third Bort Quarterback by 2025

The narrative here is confusing: either Northwestern has valiantly struggled against two top teams to open Big Ten play or they are bad and the only thing to do is to go on the internet and call for the citizen's arrest of all of the coaches for the crime of calling ill-advised speed options.  Last year, the Wildcats found themselves in a similar place before rallying against the middle of the Big Ten. This game, against a team outside the AP top ten, will let us know which narrative to pursue: a miserable decline that depends on only on holding onto the Hat, or another triumphant march towards bowl eligibility.


Sports narratives are part of the atmosphere of the baseball playoffs; they roll in like a ghostly fog carrying the ominous spirits of every baseball fuckup that has ever happened to a team stretching back generations.  Baseball playoffs are the province of snake-bitten managers, dominant pitchers forever labeled as postseason chokers, of grudges and of curses because the events of a baseball playoff game are almost completely random and defy rational explanation.

Last night, the Cubs and Nationals played an operatic 75-hour baseball game, a tortuously long time for anything that is supposed to be entertainment, but especially baseball because playoff baseball is an exercise of prolonged dread.

Every agonizing moment of playoff baseball, of watching the manager turn his roulette wheel to another shaky relief pitcher with guys in scoring position, of grimacing through errors, of knowing the guy coming up with two outs and men on base is the guy who is going to chase balls out of the strike zone every time why would you swing at that it's in the goddamn dirt, of Jon Lester staring at a man who is sitting down cross-legged between first and second, and the human mind is incredible at knitting those anxieties into prophesies of doom.

The Washington Nationals are cursed.  Not in the supernatural vengeful spirit in disguise who is not at all happy about getting sprayed by that chariot sense, but in the sense of the narrative overwhelming the rational, of the ridiculous baseball catastrophes congealing into a palpable wad in the pit of every fan's stomach, and the desperate search for a connection between every misfortune into a larger explanation of why the team cannot win.  

The Washington Nationals are cursed because it is almost impossible to believe the following things happened in the same baseball game: an ace pitcher comes out of the bullpen as a reliever (a tremendous playoff baseball wrinkle*), gets two quick outs, and then the following sequence of events happen: a infield single, bloop hit and RBI double, a controversial dropped third strike involving an arcane baseball rule about hitting the catcher with the follow through that I've literally never heard of, a catcher's interference, a hit batsman, an egregious error, a valiant comeback against a Cubs bullpen that appeared to be throwing the weighted baseballs that pitchers grab to make Pete Townsend windmills motions as they warm up, the ending of an inning against a beleaguered, laboring Wade Davis on a pickoff play where the officials determined that numerous Lobaton Molecules had strayed from the bag for several microseconds as measured by the New York Office's electron microscope.

Javy Baez's controversial and possibly illegal backswing against Matt 
Wieters gives him his A.J. Perizynski Moment. You know that this was 
a rule because if it was not, A.J. Pierzynski probably would have spent 
his career walloping catchers on follow-throughs or kicking them in the 
facemask before loping over to first while already pointing to the section 
in his rulebook that he has taken from his pocket that has numerous 
post-its pointing to where it doesn't say you can't do that

The Washington Nationals are cursed because they are managed by a man who has been engulfed by the narrative.  Dusty Baker has made numerous mistakes in this series, but so does every manager; in a league overtaken by the tenets of La Russism where a manager is expected to use at least a dozen pitchers in every game, where the most radical thing a baseball manager can do at this point is to identify his nine best players and ask them to play an entire game of baseball, there are an infinite number of decisions that will look dumb in retrospect.  Baker's most controversial decision, the bizarre public waffling on the Many Ailments of Stephen Strasburg eventually revealed with the subtlety of Chairman Kaga unleashing the asparagus, worked out when Strasburg heroically struck out 12 Cubs and even allowed the Nationals to survive long enough to invite this debacle.  But Baker has overseen too many catastrophes to avoid having the narrative swallow him, where Baker's various baseball management mistakes have been compounded by the inexplicable and the unholy.

Dusty Baker signals for a relief pitcher and an explanation of why this 
keeps happening

Sports curses exist because we need to make sense of things, because the truth that every single baseball game is its own discrete event and that sometimes fatal flaws intersect with weird luck more than once and sometimes that happens to an entire city's worth of sports teams in the playoffs for decades is cold comfort.  It is because we need stories and explanations beyond sometimes shit happens, in baseball.  It is because people naturally find it much easier to believe that something that has happened before will happen again than to believe that something that has not happened will; the Cubs choked and imploded in every playoff series my entire life and therefore it was easy to believe that they would never win, that there was some bizarre, inexplicable force preventing them from winning anything ever instead of individual events like Lou Piniella deciding to save Carlos Zambrano for a game that will never come one year or the Cubs' bad defensive infield biting them another year or having most reliable bullpen arm be a person named "Joe Borowski" in another.

For the first time, the Cubs are not only the team without the narrative, they appear to have been getting all of the breaks.  They head into the NLCS with a strained, exhausted pitching staff against the best team in baseball.  Their only fresh pitcher is aged prospector John Lackey who seems capable of only giving up home runs and bellowing the word fuck; Lackey has hinted at retirement after this season and there is nothing more terrifying than a Lackey with nothing to lose, a Lackey who could even come in from the bullpen and rip his jersey off to show he has the word FUUCCKKK tattooed on his belly, which he is exposing to the entire world while also bellowing.  

The Cubs this year are not the best team in baseball in a desperate fight against the narrative.  They are a good team going against a better team in a playoff format where being better matters only slightly and where chance and ill-fortune swirl intersect with every move.  I have no idea how to watch baseball without desperately groping for doom, I have no idea how to react when the other team has imploded and are blaming obscure rules infractions and mystic forces beyond our control, but I have to say it's not bad.

* MCCARVER (bursting through the studio show set in an MRAP and handcuffing himself to Alex Rodriguez before dramatically swallowing the key) Not a lot of people know this, Joe, but in the movie Major League, Ricky Vaughn was the starter coming out of the bullpen. He was not the closer, Joe. He was clearly a starter coming out of the pen in a Game 163 situation.  Tell them, Joe.  Tell my family not to forget me and also not a lot of people know this but a lot of managers don't like to use their starters in these situations because (he cannot be heard over the grinding sound of from the sawblade cutting through his handcuffs).

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