Thursday, September 29, 2005

the bank of nostalgia

astute 1060west contributor john dooley, commenting on the cubs recent slide into irrelevance and the reaction of the fans in attendance at wrigley field, noted the lack of disgust evident among them despite it all.

I think people are starting to seriously not care about this team.

i've thought for quite some time now that the tribune company could waltz a trained-bear act or the jesse white tumblers out there to the mound instead of the cubs -- and it wouldn't make the slightest difference to 80% of those in attendance. beer? sunshine? hardbodies and bikini tops? "who's in left today?" is the question, and "who cares?" becomes the answer for most.

now, every ballpark has some aspect of this devolution which insults the purist. that it's been more successful at wrigley than elsewhere is testament to the north side revivial of the last twenty years, and hard to complain about in the bigger picture.

but something more insidious has been at work on chicago baseball fans, which compounds the problem immensely and has perverted the franchise.

all the "cathedral of the game" propaganda that's been showered on chicagoland for decades now has infected and rotted the critical baseball mind of the average chicago cub fan -- to the point where the hallowed park itself has become a huge part of a now-97-year-old problem. and the cubs marketing campaign of the last twenty years or more is directly responsible.

the cubs have successfully made going to see the cubs all about ivy and bricks, harry and ronnie, hand-operated scoreboards and rooftops and a litany of archaistic nostalgia (as well as one or two overrated individual players, who will be unceremoniusly scrapped when their contract demands outweigh their value to the marketing machine) -- and nothing at all about the pennant except inasmuchas pretext to drop another sentimental reference to the good old days, when we were young, of 1969, 1945 and 1908. (remember the second world war? wasn't that just grand?)

this recasting of a baseball team as a vehicle to an idealized, innocent and incorruptable past is genius for the bottom line -- which is all the mother ship cares about or can care about, being a soulless profit-driven engine of shareholder equity. after all, the iconography of the ancient isn't subject to the vacillations of free agency and injury. so successful has it been in tapping into that vein of popular disillusionment with the postmodern age that the cubs' strategy has become a model for all of baseball, sparking the return to old-tyme ballparks nationwide.

but the entire process is anathema to the construction of quality ballclubs. with no real (read: fiscal) pain being felt in the tower, no economic signal (the only kind understood by the corporation) from the fan to compel them to field success over nostalgia, they toss some dough at the team every five years to get that "whiff of competition" and keep a faint aura of actual baseball around this infomediatainment enterprise. then they crank up the 50,000-watt blowtorch and the printing presses to hype it into another decade of profitability with the force of faux golden memories.

each and every time, it's calculated and measured to be just enough to dupe a new generation of actual baseball fans -- that dedicated other 20%, a reflective lot by trade, clinging to a fading 19th c sport of gentlemen amateurs -- holding out a promise of invested hope fulfilled long enough to grab a hold of their aimless melancholy hearts with the siren call of days gone by, using a love for the mechanisms of the game to pass the time until they return.

but as far as making the commitment to a real baseball organization, building over years under attentive and stable leadership, going out of the way to hire the best and most knowledgable people, assembling an institution of the game which nurtures talent and pilots change toward success over more superficial and less expensive forms of disposable marketability? hell no. from a corporate perspective, why would you bother? the value of the chicago cubs to the tribune corporation is not in winning -- it's in programming and advertising. they might even be worth less to the shareholder if they finally win, thereby upsetting the bank of emotional involvement which now holds the legacy of a century of hope, upon which they trade.

i don't think the future success of the cubs will be determined by the oblivious and carefree 80%. a significant fraction of them would disappear in a moment if the scene became a "downer" -- they follow the wind. the future will be determined the the 20% that have it within their power to fill wrigley with criticism and anger, driving off the ephemeral partiers if they so choose. and the cubs know that, which is why they bother to hunt their more difficult affections in the first place.

the potential of the future is jeopardized most, then, by an acquiescence among these dedicated few -- a misdirection of allegiance to the causes of technique, archaism and memory. when longtime and passionate fans become satiated simply with the rhythms of the game that should merely brook the tides, when they become more enamored with the lustrous illusion of a better past than a possible real future, when they refuse to forsake a malfeasant stability and risk the immense emotional capital they've sunk into this team for fear of being cheated out of it -- then, ultimately, they have cheated not only themselves but all those whom they might help by leading.

it is far past time for dedicated cub fans to break this bank of nostalgia and actively campaign not for rooftops and halls of fame and bleachers and good old days but for a striving franchise that can accomplish the goal that it has long merely feigned and masqueraded at.

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