“I’ll play with him any day.” Andre Dawson, spring, 1988 when asked about pitcher Greg Maddux’s prospects with the Major League ball club the Chicago Cubs.
“Only a wind that keeps turning, turning
Around an abandoned ball park.
That blows and blows, forever blowing
Away: always away from home.”
–“The Swede was a Hard Guy”, Nelson Algren
I A feeling on the el sometimes
Late March, there is rain, in Chicago
the wind is still cold like January
though the sun warms with promises,
and then, Greg Maddux is gone.
Sometimes, loud el ride,
this is the final straw. This is the push
over the proverbial edge, people thinking
about other people, staring at brownstones
and into windows of the buildings
along the track and then,
Maddux is in Atlanta.
II Everyone tells stories
Baseball in Chicago is like everything
in Chicago, or perhaps, it is the other way
around. There is dirt mixed
with faith and love—there are ballplayers
from 1919 we still long
to claim and clean and make
beautiful as they were, before
broken conspiracies opened up
like the Lake at the end of all
these brick buildings. Chicago longs
to open up like the ploughed fields
that created it, longs to leave
on the railroads that made it.
Telling stories of itself through
the night, an epic sprawled out
and spelled strewn on the corpses
in garages, in alleys, in courtrooms
all built on this ancient swamp.
In Chicago everything is examined,
everything becomes part of the narrative
and you can bet that criminals on first
examination, are saints on the fifth.
Maddux, his first 20 win season dangling,
let it go, defending a teammate
in the fifth inning of a 9-0 game.
Maddux, those of us who watched will never
tire of saying, was more beautiful than Koufax,
more dominating than Johnson.
Maddux destroyed the batters’ belief,
made them the yokels
from New York, from L.A.
From cities that tried to take the railroads from us
a century ago. He looked effortless,
he was clawing at you.
If Maddux fell apart in the play-offs,
was it not because he had thrown so much,
held together so much an entire season?
In Chicago, baseball is an effort for tragic heroes,
for illiterate Hamlets and joyful Romeos
who would play baseball as if seduced,
as if the game was destined, through
annual heartbreak to find, sometime,
a rapture. We have been snake-bit,
sunburned, sold into purgatory for the sins
of the chafed and the chafing:
There were lords to defy,
there were subjects to keep in place.
Conspiracy is Chicago’s wine,
time again it leads to a truth
so great, that Chicago, in its writhing,
is great. Our players are beautiful,
we misplace them like so many toy soldiers.
We wait the winter for them.
It began, in late summer, with a cat.
Soon it was Seaver, and not Jenkins,
soon order asserted itself. We were left
with beer-stained memories, memories
of bleacherites discussing Santo’s quick hands,
much the way, generations earlier,
bleacherites discussed Weaver’s
just to the South. What summer promised,
the fall so easily took away: this game is
an artist’s game, a skill of hands.
IV Fanatics are sad in October
In September the sun is warm, but the wind
promises the winter, it begins its process
of expiation early. All these beautiful leaves
that have fallen then: the ball fell through
Hap’s glove and he says it was an honest play.
It is Chicago, there is no doubt that this was
the honest play.
In 1984 the ball went through the Bull’s glove,
and this too, was an honest play:
this too, was a wound to the heart.
You will hear grown men, without irony,
describe where they were when that happened,
what they were drinking, what they said:
other lines to add to the corpses’ bodies.
There are ghosts in baseball: there is the ghost
of Eddie Cicotte aching to use his arm in Game One.
He felt his good stuff but he had given away his arm.
It was classic Chicago, how the deception
turned on the deceptor, revealed the saint within
at the moment of sin.
There is Hartnett, the ivy gone, the sun down,
the knees weary with summer in this now awesome
September streak and if we did not hear
the bat groan from our seats in the grandstand,
could we even see the ball slip the sky
for the bleachers? If there were no miracles
left for fall, was there not that moment,
when like wine from water, day was taken
from night? Baseball was released:
it was the revelation of drama.
It was the festival for harvests,
beginning with the planting,
ending with the gathering.
Maddux is in Atlanta now,
there he is in that new ballpark,
that ballpark that doesn’t even remember Aaron.
In Chicago the graves are kept for the bodies
but not the ghosts,
it was here that Ruth called
or did not call the homerun,
where Hornsby snarled and a collection
of our 4-Fs lost to some 4-Fs from Detroit
after the War had ended.
Maddux is in Atlanta moving the ball in
on hitters so that they hit it off their feet,
so they roll it to the second basemen,
so Maddux can chase this perfection in peace,
without the echoes of this demon-town
with its beautiful ghosts.