Taking the World Series-ly

The World Series commences today, and folks around these parts are enthused because the locally beloved Kansas City Royals have ridden an improbable hot streak into the fall classic, and almost every sports fan outside the rooting area of the opposing San Francisco Giants seems favorably inclined toward the plucky under-paid underdogs from the relatively small midwestern market, but it’s not like the old days. Perhaps it’s just the difference in perspective of a wide-eyed youth and a wizened old man, but nothing in sports or aught else seems like the old days.
For a long period of time that began many decades before our birth and stretched into our childhood, the World Series was by far the most important event on the American sports calendar. One of the rare advantages of attending a mediocre elementary school in the ’60s was getting an autumn afternoon off to watch the daylight games on a fuzzy black-and-white television that had been wheeled into the classroom to placate the boys, whose boyish tendencies were still indulged by the country’s public education systems. An eerily similar example of the World Series’ former cultural significance can be found in Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which the denizens of a snake pit mental hospital were willing to endure all the drugged indignities of a cruel nurse but finally rebelled when she forbade them to watch the games. There was a time, you youngsters should know, when any man or boy who wasn’t enrapt by the World Series would have his red-blooded Americanness questioned.
Since then there have been labor strikes and steroids and assorted other scandals, and the salaries have skyrocketed and the ratings for the night games lasting well past a boy’s bedtime have plummeted, and the World Series is now just the biggest event of the week on a calendar that constantly offers up some heavily hyped sports event or another. The National Football League’s single-game Super Bowl is now the biggest deal of the year, to the point that even the gazillion dollar commercials are scrutinized to a greater extent than Democratic presidential nominees, and only the old-timers can recall when it was a little-watched exhibition game against an upstart league in the aftermath of the all important NFL championship game, and the half-time entertainment was a college marching band and a guy flying around the stadium in one of those James Bond jet packs. Even when the locally beloved Kansas City Chiefs won it all in one of the Super Bowls that was so early you could understand the Roman numerals the kids on our block all left at half-time to have our own contest in a nearby cow pasture.
Those neighborhood football games were rough and tumble affairs, conducted without pads or helmets or agents, and particularly rough on such undersized but game sorts as ourselves. The basketball games that took place on the driveway, whether one-on-one or two-on-two or three-on-three or the free-for-all variation we called “21,” were just as bruising and as likely to knock to the wind out of you. Baseball usually involved some adult supervision, but the gloriously free sandlot contests also involved a violent degree of contact. The most popular pastimes of our boyhoods would probably get an entire neighborhood of parents arrested for child endangerment these days, yet another reason for nostalgia, but even such exhilaratingly dangerous physicality would have never kept a neighborhood kid from watching the very best of the big kids duke it out in a World Series.
The constant saturation of sports on cable television and the networks and the social media and your local tavern and the average guy’s casual clothing have somehow diminished its significance, a development that some part of our culturally conservative nature welcomes, but we can’t help lamenting that in sports our aught else in our culture there’s no longer the same society-wide appreciation of how well the best of the big kids are playing the games. This year’s Kansas City Royals only won 89 games and snuck into the play-offs via that one-game system we have derided as sports socialism, which provided the nail-biting local interest in the last days of the season which the cynical ploy intended, but since then they’ve been playing with an undefeated and record-setting and Hollywood-scripted extra-innings excellence which commands respect in any human endeavor.
Our favorite baseball team is the Wichita Wingnuts, which has already wrapped up a double-A American Association championship after compiling a remarkable-at-any-level .730 winning percentage in the regular season, and our second favorite is the New York Yankees, which finished out of the socialistically expanded plays-offs despite its usual heavy payroll, but we’ve always had a certain fondness for the Royals. We’re old enough to remember that long ago time when George Brett and Frank White and Bret Saberhagen and Willie Willson and Hal McCrae and Dan Quisenberry gave our beloved Yankees heck in the reasonably two-tiered playoffs of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the town was kind enough to us during our stint as obituary writers for the Kansas City Star that we wish it well, so we’ll be tuned in and hoping for a Royals victory. They’re playing the 89-win but suddenly hot San Francisco Giants, too, so any sort of conservative’s choice should be clear.

— Bud Norman

A Chilling Wind and Childhood

Wednesday was wet and chilly and glum, at a time of year that is expected to be dry and hot and cheery in our prairie city, and we took a moment in our melancholy to feel sorry for the local children.
Even in our middle age we can well remember how very irksome it was to be homebound by the weather on any day of summer vacation. Those precious days of freedom were meant to be spent on a bicycle, on rides into town or out to the remotest countryside, and the rain that would sometimes fall on the just and the unjust alike was a hated imprisonment. The driveway basketball games could still go on in soaked t-shirts and shorts, except during lightning strikes or hail, but otherwise it meant being confined to the indoors. There were great old movies from the golden black-and-white era of Hollywood showing on the “Dialing for Dollars” afternoon show, and an ample supply of books the folks had stocked, and a chess set that a younger brother also knew how to use, but even these sublime indoors entertainments could not compare to the glorious Huckleberry Finn feeling of being out in the open air and away from adult supervision.
Much good and little harm came to us during those early boyhood forays into the world, or at least that prairie portion of it that could be reached by bicycle and returned from by dinnertime, and we fret that the urchins we encounter on our walks around the neighborhood will never know the same benefits or learn from the same slight scrapes. All of the kids scurrying around the nearby parks and playgrounds always look to be excessively supervised, not only by their omnipresent parents but also by the regulators who have welded the old metal spaceship shut and made all the other public playthings so boringly safe, and in our middle-class and well-educated neighborhood they don’t have much scurrying around time left in between the violin lessons and crafts classes and the rest of highly structured schedules that middle-class and well-educated parents insist on these days. The slightly swarthier kids from the nearby barrio predominate in the local parks, and we’re pleased to note they’re at least allowed to frolic in the modern art fountain near the old zoo on the sultry days, but they also have parents watching over them with a wariness that teaches a fear of even a dry and hot and happy day in a picturesque park on the prairie.
At Reason Magazine we read of a mother who was jailed for her letting her nine-year-old daughter play alone at a nearby park, and we think of the times we climbed three stories up a rusty steel ladder to the top of an abandoned cement factory miles from home at about the same age, and we wonder what’s become of a country that won’t allow reasonable latitude to its children. If it is truly so unsafe for a nine-year-old to wander a few blocks to a public park by herself that her mother should be charged with dereliction of parental duty, the community should insist on a higher standard of public safety. Those afternoon black-and-white movies always featured an “Our Gang” short that documented how kids would wander their worlds even in the dangerous days of the Great Depression, and that ample supply of books on our parents’ shelves included Twain and Dickens and other authors who testified about the unfettered childhoods of even earlier generations, so we conclude this is a modern complaint.
More wet and chilly and glum weather is forecast for today, but we’re hopeful that we’ll eventually some of that global warming that the alarmists have been terrorizing the kids about. When it comes we hope some of the local youngsters will sneak off and do something that hasn’t been scheduled for them. We’ll try to do the same, and will revel in the memory of America’s lost freedoms.

— Bud Norman