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weak in review

Kyle Schwarber, And The Large Adult Sons Of October: David Roth's Weak In Review

Baseball lives in its history like no other sport. In this World Series, that history is more present than ever.

by David Roth
Oct 28 2016, 10:35pm

Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

"He has to throw a strike," Kyle Schwarber told the assembled media after Game 2 of the World Series, in response to a question about the run-scoring single he delivered off Trevor Bauer on a 3-0 count. "So I thought if he just threw it over the plate and I put a good swing on it, a good thing will happen."

Now, this is all true. Schwarber had an advantage that far ahead in the count, just as any hitter would; just as any hitter would, he adjusted his approach to reflect that. It is also true that putting a good swing on a pitch gives Schwarber a better chance of making a good thing happen as a result, although again that is also true of any hitter on any pitch. This is something everyone knows, and there is no way that Schwarber, when asked, would or even could have given anything but this sort of blameless, rote answer to the sort of flat, rote question. It's the sort of question that baseball writers have to ask after games in order to fill in spaces in their stories, and it's part of Kyle Schwarber's job—just as it has been for generations of similarly rectangular baseball-mushing Schwarbers and crypto-Schwarbers gone by—to fill that space.

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Baseball's fixation on its own long and complicated history has always been a big part of how it sells itself in the present, and there are good reasons for this. A World Series between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs is interesting enough in a vacuum, because the teams are both good and uniquely well-matched. But out here in the actual world, where there is history and partisan bias and weather and pancake-flat midwestern vowels and Joe Buck, it's a blockbuster—the first World Series in a while that seems to have captured the public imagination on the scale that, say, the AFC Conference Championship Game somehow does every year. This, with all due respect to Buck and those blunt vowels, is down to the tragicomic, generation-spanning history of both franchises. Those histories are distinct, but parallel, each of them a sprawling geological map of futility an epoch or two in the making—long expanses of arid salt flats on which nothing can grow; hopeful master-planned developments long ago given over to the mosquitos and snakes, now sinking into inky brackish swamp; the turbulent Straits of Zambrano and the flat expanse of Lake Candiotti, not a drop of potable water in either one.

Where the Red Sox and their fans made the long story of their suffering into a sort of smug municipal folktale, even before the team finally ended it, the Cubs and Indians simply live in the longstanding fact of their denial. This isn't to say that they don't take it seriously; both teams spent a generation or so effectively out of contention fairly recently, but they have both been close enough of late to suffer. It's just that there is something both more grounded and less whimsical about it. The story of the Red Sox's years without is of course made up of a million and more component stories, like all stories of that size, but it was told in the media like a long and self-satisfied chapter of Ken Burns' Baseball series, by a parade of wistful smiling people in well-appointed studies, none of whom seemed all that hungry. If there's less self-mythologizing at work in the two fan communities watching this series most intently, there is also a different type of hunger, or thirst. There is a reason that Cubs fans have been drinking like the world was ending since before sunrise on the eve of Game 3, and it isn't just force of habit.

He's a big boy though. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The relationship between the broader sports discourse and a given game's history generally doesn't go much beyond facile These Teams Don't Like Each Other Very Much assessments, but complaining about this is like complaining that Schwarber didn't offer a PowerPoint presentation elucidating the current thinking on spin rate in response to a voice in a gaggle saying "talk about the hit that you got off Bauer." History, as we understand it in moments like this, is more about feeling than facts; it informs the present mostly by adding a sort of sheen of unreality to it. At some point, soon enough, either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians will have won a World Series, for the first time in either 107 or 67 years, respectively. That last bit, the blank historical fact of those generations gone without, is the only reason why this seems so strange. It doesn't just raise stakes, it steepens everything, in the sense that we will soon see something happen that very few living people have seen.

Thanks to Schwarber, we are already seeing this. Before Schwarber broke up what was an otherwise otherworldly pitching performance from Corey Kluber in Game 1 with a double to right-center field, no player had gotten his first hit of the season in a World Series game. This is a small thing in the long history of baseball, and an oddity without much in the way of independent import; he got injured in April and was healthy enough to hit, if not quite play the field, by the end of October. It's a thing that has not happened before, but it's also just a thing that happened when taken on its own. No one is taking it that way, thankfully, and no one should. It is not necessarily significant on its own, but nothing in this series is happening on its own.

To read history as a bunch of little oddities and phenomena happening in isolation is a great way to tell simple stories—think of the tidy and childish causality of a conspiracy theory, here, one incident leading cleanly to another, just as it was laid out on some unseen script—and a lousy way to do history. It is easy and tempting to look for the script in October, and to then try to tell the story backward from some presumed ending; Buck, in his worst moments, tends to do this, and this tendency to try to voice-over the recap in real time doesn't serve anyone well. But one of the best things about what has so far been a very good World Series is the way that the heavy presence of history in each moment serves both to keep things in context and make them feel as valuable as they actually are.

Pitchers have thrown the way that Andrew Miller is throwing before, but also it might be a generation or so before we see another one do it in October. Schwarber is in a long line of beefy rowdies with home run power, but also purebred galoots of this brilliance do not come along very often. Baseball is old enough and well-remembered enough that we can file players by type and taxonomy, and cross-reference them against many lifetimes of accumulated predecessors and precedent. That's dry work, on its own, but that's not what we're doing, now. All the history in this series, the accumulated miseries and the battered hopefulness on each side, is present around the edge of every incident, a reminder not just of how long we have waited for whatever moment is coming next, but of how precious—how rare and how fleeting and how strange—it will be whenever it finally gets here.

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