Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Maniacs Blew It Up

 There is a point that I get to any time I play the baroque soccer management game “Football Manager” in the dregs of semi-professional leagues where I have to decide whether to sell off the contract of my club talisman and star who may or may not be any good at the next level or sign him to a potentially ruinous contract that will destroy the wage budget and every time that has happened I have just stopped playing the game.  These are not real people but digitally-created blips that I can sort of watch pretend to play soccer for me over a spreadsheet that have been given ludicrous computer generated names like “Paolo Pasta” but I have gotten so attached to these digital athletes heroically dragging my sorry-ass team from a league where you have a van to one where you have a slightly bigger van that I can’t possibly let go of them. I get so anxious about making the wrong decision that it completely drains the fun of playing anymore; the experience transforms from being in a rollicking overseas soccer adventure to a middle management layoff simulator, at which point I just stop playing and turn to other ways to waste time like writing long, ponderous blog posts for 45 people.  It should come as no surprise that this is a post about the Chicago Cubs.

For more than a year, Cubs ownership and management have been signalling that the team was unwilling to sign any of its star players and World Series heroes to large, lucrative extensions, and fans have been bracing themselves to see them get shipped out of town in an attempt to salvage some sort of trade value for them before they left in free agency.  Nevertheless, the ending came shockingly quickly, almost (apologies for using this word to describe a series of baseball transactions) violently.  On a Thursday and Friday in late July, the Cubs shipped off the remaining players that fans had followed since they were in the minor leagues while the big league placeholders oafishly ran into each other and struck out by spinning around so quickly that they levitated several feet over the air-- these were the prospects representing the hope of a team that could somehow win a World Series victory.  Somehow, against everything I had grown up believing about the Chicago Cubs, they actually managed to do it.  Then they were gone suddenly, like the Cubs were a crooked nineteenth century circus leaving exactly one hour before someone realizes that the bear is actually a guy in a costume or if they were the fucking Pittsburgh Pirates.
The season was already doomed when they traded Yu Darvish in a pure salary dump and replaced him with a variety of castoffs and sixteen-inch softball pitchers and despite that the Cubs briefly managed to fight into first place based on an MVP-calber performance from Bryant and a shockingly good bullpen, most of which has also been sold off for scraps.  The players seemed like they were trying to spite the front office and stay together for one last season, but like so many seasons since 2016 they came up short.  I made my first and likely only appearance at Wrigley in nearly two years on a steamy Tuesday night to see the remnants of the World Series team one last time in a desultory loss to the Reds.  The previous night’s game, where Baez hit a walkoff single in a display of rollicking shittalkery, would be his final appearance as a Cub and the team’s last home win for nearly a month.

The Cubs faced a management conundrum based on how teams operate in 2021.  That means that the central question has changed from whether a baseball player is good to whether or not the club has extracted the maximum value possible for him and will continue to do so.  And in those terms, Hoyer had a genuine quandary.  Is it prudent to give a large amount of money to a unique player like Baez who must make up for frequently striking out on swings that can only be described as cartoonish by clobbering enough pitches over the fence and making plays on the field and basepaths that seem so reckless and ill-considered that they somehow work out like he is a charming Southern state senator who keeps getting reelected despite getting caught up in extortion schemes involving alligators?  Is Rizzo’s status as the most beloved Cub since Sammy Sosa worth paying for if he ends up as a declining power bat with back problems?  Should the Cubs pay Kris Bryant the enormous amount of money he will command as a free agent if they suspect that he is no longer the perennial MVP candidate and franchise savior he looked in the 2015-17 seasons but merely a very good baseball player who suffers at least one power-sapping injury a season?  \In each case, Hoyer clearly said no, and chose to restock the farm with a bunch of mysterious 19 year-olds who are so far from the majors that it is impossible to tell what they will become without letting any of the beloved World Series Cubs turn into albatross contracts like Jason Heyward.  Under these conditions, Hoyer may have acted wisely-- it is certainly possible that all three do not live up to the WAR per dollar calculations that baseball players can be abstracted to.    

Watching these guys fade away like Marty McFly's family 
On the other hand it is also possible to say that those are stupid, self-imposed conditions.  Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap.  The Ricketts family could pay any or all of these players and run up an astonishing payroll and then use their unfathomable wealth and the enormous amounts of cash available from their garbage television network and real estate ventures to buy their way out of mistakes, even if their short-term profits are in the red from the pandemic.  I don’t care if the Cubs are “financially responsible” with their payroll if it means I get to watch Javy Baez strike out and hit moonshots and somehow bamboozle an unfortunate Pittsburgh Pirate so badly on the basepaths that he goes to play in Korea; giving a large amount of money to any of those guys even if they end up mediocre or playing poorly is probably the least objectionable thing the Ricketts family can do with their money.   

Sentiment is a tricky thing in sports.  A certain ruthlessness is baked into the entire enterprise, and there are no small number of websites and podcasts that have stacks of statistics and acronyms and salary arcana that can make the case for cold-bloodedly jettisoning players no matter their importance to the team.  At the same time, baseball in particular runs on sentiment; I have come to believe that if you are ever on the East Coast you run considerable risk of being buttonholed by a sweater-wearing notable author who insists on waxing poetic on the Boston Red Sox or a fictional player invented in 1989 by Ken Burns, Bob Costas, and Billy Crystal named “Mickey Mantle” as part of a CIA psy-op on the Baby Boomer generation.  The biggest baseball event this season was a syrupy tribute to a 30-year-old movie about dead baseball players and the only time something supernatural emerging from a remote cornfield in a film has ever not eaten two or three supporting characters.  Owners want fans to feel sentimental when they ask for taxpayer-funded stadiums or cable carriage fees.  The tension between that sentiment and a process where teams are now full of fungible athletes like the transient relief pitchers who essentially live in a boxcar that is constantly shuttling them between AAA and the bigs every other week has always been a part of baseball but seems magnified now more than ever.

Being a sports fan involves knowing that, at root, you are a sucker.  Fans know that they exist in the sports ecosystem like they do in all aspects of society as breathing wallets that companies can extract money from.  But most sports fans accept this because rooting for teams is fun, gaining access to a broad, shared human experience is fun, watching spherical guys hit a ball 450 feet at a person who is about to make the goofiest face a human being can make before inadvertently showering everyone around them with beer or nacho shrapnel is fantastic.  Still, to see a team so quickly cast off any guise of sentiment, to strip a supposed “big market” team to its rivets so easily simply because the people who own it have nakedly said that signing a paycheck for a player is less important to them than saving an amount of money that to them is immeasurably insignificant is one of those moments that makes it impossible to surrender to the spectacle.  I know that as a sports fan I’m a sucker but don’t make me feel like a schmuck.


If you have not seen the ridiculous 1984 Walter Hill rock and roll action movie Streets of Fire, here is how it begins: there’s a packed auditorium of fans watching a band styled like they could be backing up Jerry Lee Lewis impersonators before Diane Lane bounds onto the stage dressed like a discarded X-Man and belts out a gloriously 80s song by the maestro of goth showtunes Jim Steinman while a 1950s biker gang menacingly approaches the venue and enters shrouded in shadow before it reveals the leader is a pale, leering, vampiric Willem DaFoe whose haircut causes him to look in silhouette like a man with a perfectly square head.  It is my favorite movie scene that I have seen in some time.
The Diane Lane character gets kidnapped by William DaFoe and it is up to her ex-boyfried with the delightfully idiotic name “Tom Cody” to rescue her alongside a tough former soldier sidekick played by Amy Madigan and a slimy music manager played by Rick Moranis who is somehow named “Billy Fish.” The plot is all incidental to the appeal of the movie, which is the world of steaming neons and roaring engines that it inhabits at the fictional nexus of 1950s fashions and cars and 1980s music in a city that consists entirely of a single street that looks exactly like the portion of Wells Street under the L tracks.  The particular fusion of 1950s kitsch into an 80s setting was not uncommon; here I am thinking of how the town of Twin Peaks has a biker gang that exists to rumble with the football team over girlfriends but keeps getting getting sucked into a vast interdimensional cosmology involving formless primordial evil and dangerous French Canadians.

I do not want anyone reading this to think Streets of Fire is a particularly good movie.  Hill said he wrote it as something a 13-year-old would come up with, and it works exactly at that level.  There are bad guys and good guys and everyone acts like they are action figures being maneuvered around a damp, neon-lit basement.  The movie’s major problem is that Tom Cody is supposed to be a laconic icon of American cool but is instead played by Michael Paré as a wooden doofus.  It is not his fault that he bears a slight resemblance to Jay Cutler and the entire time he seemed like he was attempting an impossible rescue mission with the disgusted resignation of Cutler relaying a Mike Martz play that would require J’Marcus Webb to block his man for like four and a half seconds before anyone was open.  
Tell Billy Fish I said "fuck you"
The best scenes in the movie are the music scenes that crackle with energy, more so than the action scenes with are mostly Tom Cody sullenly blowing up vehicles with his rifle.  The Steinman songs are completely over the top and I am convinced the only person in 1984 who could effectively write songs for this movie is a guy who mastered the art of vaguely supernatural teenage torch songs sung by a large, sweaty man in his 30s whose music videos convey the concept of turning into a werewolf.  The other best scenes are the brief times Willem DaFoe is allowed to do anything from strutting around in an explosion while wearing leather overalls to coming up with the loonily operatic way he would like to face Cody in a final showdown. 
Streets of Fire bombed in theaters.  It appears that the American moviegoing public lacked an appetite for movies about motorcycle gangs, synthesizers, and old-timey police cars that probably have one of those "woo woo" sirens in 1984 or preferred movies that offered more than cardboard cutouts.  But that sort of diorama quality is the best part of this film-- a movie that exists entirely as someone putting something in a movie precisely because it would look cool in a movie and do nothing else.


Daniel O'Neil said...

I am eminently proud to be one of the mighty forty-five, sir

TC said...

Consider me 2/45, then.

BYCTOM said...

Thanks, fellas.

Matt said...

The Cubs section articulated my feelings so well and in a way I didn't think was possible. Not even sure that makes sense, but alas. Thank you for the constantly excellent writing.