BEFORE THE FALLS // Its a shame

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September 22, 2011
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
An elegy for a baseball team that didn’t win

Baseball season ended early this year in Minnesota, which is unfortunate because September is a month made for the game. This sentiment will probably rankle Vikings fans, for whom the crispness of autumn begets crockpots of chili and fits of feverish anticipation every Sunday. But sorry, no. The song of autumn is composed of the crunch of leaves and the crack of bats, the squeals of Pee-Wee teams and the mad screams of Major League playoff hunts. The grunts of linemen and the groans of concussed wide receivers can wait till winter. Fall belongs to baseball.

Is that greedy? Maybe. Baseball’s season lasts more than half the year, after all. Ball players clock in during spring training, evolve into the “Boys of Summer” and, with a little luck, wind up with nicknames like “Mr. November.” That leaves precious little calendar for other sports. But sorry. No. The horsehide, the ash, the velvety sward — the game’s key components, as listed by the baseball writer Red Smith — these are autumnal things. Particularly in their smells, as autumn is the most fragrant of seasons, and therefore the most memorable. Perhaps that’s why my favorite baseball memories are all set in September.

Then again, that autumnal fragrance is really the natural world shrugging off its mortal coil and slouching toward death and decay, which is perhaps a more apt metaphor for this forgettable 2011 Twins season. It was, at every level, an epic catastrophe. We fervent fans have yet to decide whether it was a tragedy or a comedy, but the events of this week alone suggest something close to a Three Stooges routine: Our star player, having struggled all year with viral infections, bone bruises and “leg weakness,” was just done in for the season by a bout of pneumonia. Even more accursed is another former MVP who returned from 10 months of concussion recovery only to see his symptoms return; meanwhile he’s undergone unrelated neck, ankle, and knee surgeries. One veteran outfielder was doing well until a foot injury ended his season; our new Japanese shortstop broke a leg early on and strained an oblique muscle late (although he’d played so poorly in between that the second injury may be an excuse just to keep him off the field); our second baseman has spent the last two months too hurt to play, as has our best pitcher; and our lone All-Star, Michael Cuddyer, took a late-season pitch off the wrist and hasn’t been the same since. The leftovers that have taken the field amidst this devastation are an unqualified jumble of rookies and journeymen, none of whose names you’ll find on any fan’s jersey. One of whom was carted off to HCMC this weekend after taking a fastball to the head.

So it’s been a poor year to be a Twins fan. But it’s been a great year to prove yourself a Twins fan, as the team has never been less lovable than they are now. Never has the team needed Minnesotans to disprove their reputation a bandwagon sports fans more than it does today. Some have answered the call, drawn still by the moth-lights of Target Field. Others have flipped the channel. And a few of us have found other baseball teams to cheer on.

My other favorite team to root-root-root for: The Northeast Skeeters, of the Twin Cities Men’s Adult Baseball League, a fairly rag-tag assemblage of men whose big league dreams ended somewhere in high school and continue to play for a love of the game, as cheesy as that sounds. Through the course of five seasons, the Skeeters have gelled into one of the league’s finest teams against even their own modest expectations. I know this to be true because their third baseman is none other than your humble correspondent, who cherishes the persistent scab on his left knee — the result of myriad ugly slides and unacrobatic dives to his right —more than any other summer souvenir.

Our season ended early too. Despite dealing the dreaded Cubs their first defeat in two years during the regular season, we fell to that very team in the second round of the playoffs, failing for the third straight year to advance to the league finals. That’s a shame — not because we deserved to win the championship, but because now I’ll have to wait nine months to play another baseball game, and will likely be counting the weeks. Baseball can be agonizing to play — long stretches of boredom punctuated by unannounced spasms of action, especially over there at third base — but it’s worse to be unable to play, and to spend an entire off-season dreaming of the plays you didn’t make, and the ones you did, and the ones you might next year.

The young author Chad Harbach sums up the game better than I ever could in his new novel, “The Art of Fielding:” “[It’s] an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition…. being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

So here’s to next season. May it be lively and beautiful.

Chuck Terhark writes about life in Northeast for The Journal.