Like They Used To

The nostalgia trap, the Springsteen conundrum, and why we need baseball as much in this chaotic time as we've needed it in every other.
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I listen to Bruce Springsteen, even as I know that listening to Springsteen is a trap. He makes you feel younger and hungrier -- this is his gift, above all the others -- even while proving to the rest of the world that you’re getting old. In quiet, sober moments I know that there’s no way to impart the meat and juice of the Boss’s music to the non-initiate. Maybe you know this. Maybe you’ve tried anyway. “Forget the unfortunate synths,” you might say, “and listen to the heart of (say) ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ the real essence of it.” You need only to hear this sentence aloud to know how futile it is, but this is a thing you could say.

And even when you can’t convince the youngsters, you continue to believe, and you climb into your sedan and kill an evening driving the exurban roads near your home, out where there’s an actual darkness on the edge of town, playing the albums and maybe also howling along, marinating in the truth, man, the great bloody truth of those songs. And I know -- I’m speaking my own truth here -- that you think you look like Martin Sheen in Badlands when you do this, but you actually look like Martin Sheen in "The West Wing," which is fine, but I think we can agree there’s a great gulf between those two poles.

What I mean to tell you is that we don’t stay young forever, or even for very long.

The same principle holds where a nostalgic yearning for the baseball played in decades past is concerned. This is on my mind because the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series, of course, where they haven’t been since 1985. If the Springsteen overture did not date this enough: yes, I remember 1985, both the Series and what the Royals did to my Blue Jays in the ALCS. And without loading value judgments into the hopper, let me say as unemotionally as possible: it was different then.

Which: see? There’s no way to say such a thing without coming off as a paternal blowhard.

Life conditions us to hold moments from our youth in the sweetest quadrants of our hearts; our brains naturally remember this sort of thing better than anything else. We’re wet clay when we’re young, and we harden and crack as we age. And this is me, fissured and drying: I appreciate Mike Moustakas, James Shields, and Lorenzo Cain, but they just don’t feel as perfect to me as George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, and Willie Wilson. And while Kauffman Stadium still has the fountains and the pleasing curved lines, I also remember it as Royals Stadium, when it had Astroturf, and when you could see, over the big scoreboard and the fountains, the parade of traffic on I-70, and then green hills beyond.

And as for these Giants, they seem, perhaps by dint of the hyperreality of HDTV, to be somehow less real to me than the ‘89 Giants, a team for which a paunchy and ageless Rick Reuschel won 17 games, and for which Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell combined for 70 homers and 236 RBI. Those Giants beat the Cubs -- Maddux, Grace, Sandberg, all at various distances from their towering primes -- to win the pennant, then met Oakland in the Series. Game 3 was upended by a shaking that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. I remember the chair I was sitting in when Al Michaels said, “We’re having an earth--” before the signal was lost. My father must have been away on business -- he was still in the Navy, then, and it happened a lot -- but I was watching with my mother. That all that was a quarter century ago is a fist to the sternum. But it did, and I remember it. I remember it fondly. I remember it, at least in part, because I do not wish to forget it.

***

Memory functions like this, when it functions. Rotary dial phones, Betamax machines, old TV shows, the 1985 Kansas City Royals: the past can be comforting because it doesn’t change, because it is so resolutely the past. Our own pasts are like this, so interesting to us and only us. They smell to us like the still atmosphere of an attic, or the rich, damp, earthy scent of earth long undisturbed, while to others they’re the unfamiliar air of somebody else’s weird old house: musty carpet underpadding, urine of cats long dead, mothballs in dresser drawers. Our own nostalgia is luxurious; someone else’s is someone else’s, and something else.

When I say that games from twenty-five or twenty-nine years ago seem somehow better to me -- simpler, or cleaner, or more exciting, or whatever -- I am, in effect, listening to Springsteen. I’m conjuring a moment Before The Fall, a time predating life’s hinge, the point where The Past drops off into The Present and things cease making sense, or exist in stubbornly unresolved form. They are yet changeable, and mutability can make difficult a lazy comfort of the sort offered by nostalgia. That’s why the best heroes are dead ones.

In the second inning of Game 1 of this Series, Joe Buck informed viewers “First inning not good for James Shields,” and I began to worry that each generation gets the Buck it deserves. Then Tom Verducci reminded us that Shields’ nickname, “Big Game James,” was bestowed in honor of Lakers forward James Worthy, a childhood hero, and I was reassured: Nothing is new, and nothing is quite what the TV guys are telling us it is.

***

On Wednesday, my hometown of Ottawa -- the capital of my home country and about the sleepiest mid-sized city you can imagine -- was thrown into fear and confusion. A man with a gun shot a soldier and then stormed the Centre Block of Parliament before the Sergeant-at-Arms, who performs his duties wearing a ceremonial black robe and carrying a large mace over his right shoulder, shot and killed him. The city was locked down, security personnel combed the streets and buildings with their weapons drawn, and thousands of people, including friends of mine, were confined to their offices and told to stay away from windows.

It was horrific and frightening, of course. It was sad and surreal to see places I’ve known for so long as peaceful crawling with armed security forces. It’s difficult to live in a world in which this sort of bravery is sometimes required, and not only because it’s easy, and depressing, to assume that we don’t possess it. This bunkered circumstantial cowardice is, I think, what’s so hard about seeing such things play out on TV or Twitter.

But the point, as concerns this particular essay, is how easily these sorts of events can lead to thoughts of “What has the world become and where is it going?” That sort of hell-in-a-handbasket thinking depends on a favorable view of The Way Things Used to Be; belief in a simpler, somehow more authentic time before some epochal splintering, when innocence was in greater abundance. None of this is true, of course. All of it feels true, or anyway right.

The fact is that 25 years ago -- just months before the Giants would lose to the A’s in the Earthquake Series, in fact -- a man hijacked a Greyhound bus at gunpoint and drove it up onto Parliament Hill. A mere 29 years before that, tanks rolled through the streets of Ottawa and Canadians’ civil rights were temporarily revoked while authorities hunted for members of a terrorist organization that had kidnapped two men and killed one of them. Earlier still, in 1966, a man died outside a Centre Block washroom when the bomb he intended to set off in the House of Commons detonated early.

The world wasn’t safer before yesterday, and it wasn’t better. It only feels that way, and it only feels that way because that is a thing we’d like to feel about that world, and this one.

***

Baseball is all about its past. Recalls it, revels in it, profits from it. Compares players separated by many decades, touts its tradition and longevity. Its part of the charm, of course. A game with a sense of its own history. Something to connect us, to remind us, to ground us.

This is also a trap. Listening to Springsteen doesn’t make you younger, and naming the roster of the ‘85 Royals sure won’t, either. It also won’t help you enjoy this year’s Series more, because unless you can see Hosmer, Aoki, Infante, and Danny Duffy as something more than mere echoes of a team that played three decades ago, you’re going to miss your chance to appreciate this pitching-and-defense-first team doing the things that got them here. The baseball wasn’t better in 1985, or much worse; it was just baseball.

I know this temptation. I buy Roberto Clemente jerseys. I understand the appeal of loving a team for its historical exploits, of believing that, because you were [fill it in yourself] years old when the Royals were last here, or during that Bay Series, or you were not born at all, you’ll never again have a chance to see anything like that. And perhaps the heart only has so much room, so that once full it will never open another recess to admit a new, cherished moment.

But I don’t believe that, and I don’t know anyone hardened enough to truly believe it, either. I believe that if you spend all your time indexing what you’re watching against the webby fringes of memory all you’ll do is miss what’s happening in front of you. I believe that a steady diet of nothing but Springsteen will cause one to develop deficiencies. It will leave you both fat and hungry.

I believe that nostalgia is habit-forming and, when abused, harmful. I don’t know, maybe they don’t play baseball quite like they used to. But they do play it like they do now, and it’s pretty damn great. The Royals play the Giants on Friday night in Game 3 of the 2014 World Series, Jeremy Guthrie against Tim Hudson, and I don’t want to miss it. I’m hoping something crazy happens, something for which I can nostagically yearn in, say, thirty years’ time, safe and sound.


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