Saturday, September 11, 2021

Who Knows

Many people attempting to tune into Northwestern football last Saturday had the experience of watching Mack Brown make the exact face of an alderman who has returned home to see that the FBI is ransacking his office for documents and then within seconds the broadcast switched to show Northwestern lining up to block an extra point already down 6-0 after 13 seconds, and the game never really improved over that. 
This is how I believe many Chicago Alderman have looked when the FBI 
discovered several clearly marked folders saying "Meat Crimes"
With the exception of last year's unexpected and inspired buttkicking of a pandemic-discombobulated Maryland team, it is not uncommon for Northwestern to stumble around the opening portion of its season, at some point desperately fending for life while down to a school that has just started playing a football again after some tough-looking guys showed up on campus one day in a van.  This is a suspect tactic in most years; in a year when the Wildcats had to start against a mysterious Michigan State team full of dynamic new players, it was disastrous.  By the fourth quarter, virtually no hope for a victory remained and with I continued to watch only because Northwestern football is on television and because I needed to do some important scouting of Northwestern's quarterback even though my knowledge of quarterback technique involves using up to three passing plays in the version of the NCAA football game with Larry Fitzgerald on the cover.  All that was left was to grimly wait for the most brutal consequence of a loss to the Spartans: Magic Johnson enthusiastically tweeting out the exact number of yards that Kenny Walker had run against the Wildcats.
One way to react to the loss is to panic.  Mike Hankwitz, the wizened defensive coordinator, has retired and been replaced by Jim O'Neil fresh from helming fairly bad NFL defenses, and if you really wanted to savor and lean into a narrative of collapse and ruin you could say that Hankwitz had been propping up the program while Fitzgerald served as the enormous figurehead and now Northwestern is going to go back into the days where they lost every game 49-3 and the students will have to purchase earth-moving equipment to throw the goalposts into the lake in the rare event that they eke out a win against Western Illinois and on top of all that several smart-alecks on the internet may go so low as point out that Northwestern is no longer geographically in the Northwestern portion of the country.
On the other hand, it is possible to take comfort in the fact that Northwestern remains a confounding and impossible program capable of the highest highs and lowest lows in the same season.  Maybe the defensive performance will remain at the wretched level we saw Saturday or maybe it will improve; maybe the offense will figure out how to get an effective running game going or maybe they will be forced to operate in the Tecmo Super Bowl offense when the computer decides to start cheating by making its players several times faster than yours and the only play that works in the playoffs is trying to eke out a few lumbering yards on Mike Tomczak scrambles except for the few times he is maybe able to dink it over to the tight end before he is instantly tackled. 
To be honest I have a hard time writing about reacting to these wins and losses because frankly I am not football person, I am not grinding tape or crunching numbers or speaking to anyone even tangentially associated with Northwestern football and so when I analyze Northwestern football on my Northwestern football blog week after week it appears the best I can come up with is fuck if I know.  What we are trying to do here (using the royal we here because imagine that this blog was actually a functioning organization and there were people here scurrying around a busy press room to get me a poorly photoshopped picture of Pat Fitzgerald turning into a werewolf that can be hastily crammed with a caption that is comically small while I'm barking on my phone to get quotes about a swashbucklingly corrupt nineteenth-century Chicago aldermen who died because his mustache got caught in an industrial apparatus) is not to try to figure out why or how Northwestern can win a game to determine how funny each result is and also to make fun of P.J. Fleck's Coaching Acronyms.
Northwestern's next game is against Indiana State, which will serve as an important test case to see if Northwestern can beat Indiana State.  Anyone looking to panic will find what they are looking for in this game; there is no amount of points that Northwestern can score against the Sycamores that can convince the skeptics that the Michigan State game is a fluke and anything less than a completely dominant performance can effectively augur doom and gloom.  Games against FCS opponents offer little more than a cheap win or the very amusing and satisfying upset for everyone else if a power conference team loses at home and then has to cut a large novelty check to the opponent and one can imagine a loss here would finally force Fitzgerald to tearfully admit that he is a "Rece Davis."
It is difficult to get too high or low for Northwestern.  While many of the people reading this have been lucky enough to support the Wildcats in their Golden Age of Decency and the years of crushing futility are now decades past, they still, I believe, maintain a hold on the program.  And leaving the 1970s and 1980s behind, the expectations for Northwestern football are still fairly modest: have a winning season, go to a bowl, and irritate the hell out of the Big Ten West.  While losing individual games can be a bummer, it is still kind of funny imagining a fuming a Northwestern fan storming out of the room after watching a desultory loss to, say, Minnesota and then angrily explaining to someone who doesn't watch football that "they're going to the Music City Bowl" when "I wanted them to go to the Outback Bowl." 
I am not really a pro wrestling guy-- even though I enjoy the concept of wrestlers getting unexpectedly betrayed then bonked on the noggin or how a wrestler will startle an opponent by appearing with the full fanfare of a theme song while everyone in the ring just stands there in a slack-jawed summerstock reverie while the music finishes up or even how much fun it is to imagine a professional wrestler who is just podcast personality Marc Maron who says things like "oh we're hitting each other with chairs now? really?" I don't really follow it or know who anyone is who is not a withered hot dog man who fought against Mr. T. or a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears.  But I did enjoy the video of the wrestler walking into the United Center and having people lose their shit for several minutes because I appreciate that a spectacle of athletic violence where people leap off of cages and occasionally slice their own faces open for dramatic effect is at heart a sentimental business.
This weekend Kris Bryant returned to Wrigley Field.  He is the first of the World Series players traded at the deadline to return to the park (Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber returned earlier this year after being let go last offseason).  A tearful Bryant got a rapturous ovation, a sentimental video, a piece of the scoreboard, a 2016 banner, and a photo with the team owner who ostensibly is the reason Bryant is no longer on the team.  The fact that Bryant is not a creaky retiring player but is in fact in his prime and an impending free agent that the Cubs traded only because they do not want to pay him what he and his agent think he is worth made this whole thing a little confusing.  The only more cynical tribute I can think of is the Bulls welcoming Luol Deng with a warm video after nearly killing him with an unnecessary spinal tap.

Regardless of the circumstances, I always eat up these videos and tributes to players coming back because I am a sentimental idiot.  It is always heartening to see players return to where circumstances-- usually a draft that consigned a player to years toiling for a crappy team-- allowed them to flourish and grow up and connect to fans.  Bryant and the other traded Cubs will eventually form bonds with other fanbases but right now they are just hired guns here to help get a team over the hump.  No one has felt this more acutely than Javy Báez, who has found that Mets fans are less accommodating of his tendency to swing at pitches that are currently being thrown at Yankee Stadium and reckless attempts at derring do on the basepaths because he did not help them win their team's first World Series in 108 years.  Báez and his teammates got involved in one of baseball's funniest controversies this season when he admitted that he was making a thumbs down gestures at the fans to boo them because he could not go to their places of business and heckle them, causing them so much distress that they run out of work and lose their pinky toe to a street cleaning machine.

The Mets immediately issued a press release claiming that 
Javy had been "very unfair to Mets fans with the thumbs" and that 
they are "looking into it very strongly."
It was impossible to imagine that the Cubs could do anything after the trades this season other than roll around and die in an undignified manner, but they somehow have been staggering through because of the improbable play of three 30-year-olds who have never had meaningful playing time in the majors and now are guys that Cubs fans may remember in ten years.  Patrick Wisdom has been bashing home runs since he came up in May and Rafael Ortega has delivered dramatic, game-winning hits.  But no Cub has more quickly endeared himself to fans than Frank Schwindel.  Schwindel, called up as part of the baffling array of players conjured seemingly from thin air on July 31, has been hitting the ball at an impossible, Roy Hobbsian pace.  
Schwindel has the unassuming look of a guy in suspenders knocking down cans of corn from the top shelf with a wooden pole.  He doesn't sound like a real ballplayer in 2021, but Frank Schwindel sounds like a name you would use if you were writing a lightly fictionalized version of the 1919 Black Sox and needed a name for a minor character who wasn't on the take and keeps trying to rally the team with dopey motivational speeches after they continue to lose World Series games with a series of spectacular errors. Schwindel was selected in the 18th round of the 2013 draft by Kansas City.  After five years in the minors, he managed to cling onto the major league roster for a few weeks before getting sent down and bouncing through a couple more organizations.  He played a bit for Oakland this year before they released him.  The Cubs did not so much promote Schwindel as unleash him.  He has hit .361/.414/.684 as a Cub with ten home runs in only 145 plate appearances and after hitting a home run is often found in the dugout soaking it up and making endearingly goofy facial expressions to the camera.
The central question when it comes to a player like Schwindel is whether this is sustainable.  Of course it is not.  It is unlikely that a 29-year-old journeyman minor leaguer is all of a sudden a version of Miguel Cabrera you would get if a video game did not have the rights to his likeness.  Every year, guys we have never heard of go on tears for a month or two at a time before coming back down to Earth; we've even seen almost the exact version of this in Chicago this year with Yermin Mercedes who terrorized opposing pitchers as The Yerminator before getting into a profoundly stupid controversy with Tony LaRussa  over Baseball Decency and then watching his OPS lower itself into a vat of molten steel.  
But the question I have is who cares?  I'm not the general manager of the Chicago Cubs so I don't have to worry about who their first baseman will be next year.  I'm not popping into a ballgame with the green visor of baseball statistics to mutter something about small sample size and regression to the mean with a set of numbers developed to help people win fantasy baseball leagues and general managers avoid spending too much money on free agents. I am not concerned if Schwindel follows the path of Cubs All-Star Brian LaHair and ends up playing overseas next year.  Every single one of his at-bats has counted.  He had a stretch where he single-handedly won a bunch of games with home runs, grand slams, and the first time I have ever seen a slide into first base work.  He is a former minor leaguer on a team that has given up as profoundly as any team has in the twenty-first century and he is going out there and exuding magic so that the Cubs can make an otherwise depressing series against a Pirates team that seems like it is actively trying to lose to blatantly that it requires an investigation fun, and he has made himself from a player toiling fruitlessly in the minors for years into a household name in Chicago however briefly.  I have seen multiple people wearing Frank Schwindel replica jerseys.  I am very sorry that I referred to him when he first came up as "Frank Schalmiel."
The central condition about baseball is that there is so much of it.  It is almost absurd how much baseball there is.  They play nearly twice as many games as the next major pro sport in this country and they are on every day and anyone who just casually flips on a game every now and then immediately gets to know the players whether they are formerly anonymous journeymen or superstars.  It is unlikely that Schwindel or Wisdom or Ortega get the type of ovation we just saw for Bryant at Wrigley Field.  But they play an important role even if their job is ostensibly just being there and not costing the owners a lot of money as they try to unearth the next Bryants and Rizzos and Báezes.  I am not sure how much I will remember this brief late Summer of Schwindel, but there he is every day, for real.

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