Born and raised a Chicago Cubs fan was more a way-of-being-in-the-world than just liking a team. We knew what it was like to win and lose, and mostly what it was like to lose. We knew that there was life and there was baseball and that life wasn’t baseball and baseball wasn’t life. They never competed in my young world, they never had to; it was never an either/or and it wasn’t as simple as both/and.
We knew something that didn’t make sense to the people of Mudville; we knew it more, it seemed, than Ernest Thayer, author of Casey at the Bat (1888). Maybe there wasn’t much to life back in 1888 so baseball was all they had; who knows.
The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d pit up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
So Blake and Flynn batted before Casey, and no one expected them to get on base, let alone on second and third; two outs, two on and Casey was up.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
With swagger and his intimidating routine, Casey was recognized by everyone. With his bat ready, the pitcher threw and Casey watched as the umpire called a strike – strike one. The crowd yelled insults (blaming the umpire as Casey waited for his pitch). Casey readied for the next pitch and took another strike – strike two.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
We learned Casey at the Bat in school because the teachers thought we’d actually want to learn poetry if it was about baseball. Why? Because, as Ms. Martin said, “That’s all you boys do is play baseball.” But that wasn’t all we did, and baseball didn’t make us want to learn poetry. We learned poetry because we had to, because our teachers told us to, but we played baseball because we wanted to, like we were Cubs’ fans – because we wanted to be.
Some people didn’t get it, like Grantland Rice (the guy who said the line about it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game) who couldn’t stand losing so much that it bothered him that Mudville was joyless. So, he wrote Casey’s Revenge. Ms. Martin tried to get us to learn that one too, but we were so lost after Casey at the Bat that she gave up.
There were saddened hearts in Mudville for a week or even more;
There were muttered oaths and curses- every fan in town was sore.
’Just think,’ said one, ‘how soft it looked with Casey at the bat,
And then to think he’d go and spring a bush league trick like that!’
And it was too depressing, according to Grantland Rice, for Casey to stay struck-out, like it was too depressing for some Americans to see body bags coming home, soldiers dying in rice paddies, and the Vietnamese embarrassing us all on the CBS evening news. Rice said that it was wrong to leave Casey with the nickname ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ just like it would be wrong to most people for America to have the reputation that we lost the war in Vietnam. Instead he thought we needed a ‘wait-til-next-year’ revenge story.
All his past fame was forgotten- he was now a hopeless ‘shine.’
They called him ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ from the mayor down the line;
And as he came to bat each day his bosom heaved a sigh,
While a look of hopeless fury shone in mighty Casey’s eye.
This time a crowd of 10,000 (twice the number of Thayer’s crowd) gathered for redemption; the tragic loss, and Casey’s demise from last season were a year behind Mudville. Casey and Mudville would have their day.
All Mudville had assembled – ten thousand fans had come
To see the twirler who had put big Casey on the bum;
And when he stepped into the box, the multitude went wild;
He doffed his cap in proud disdain, but Casey only smiled.
But soon the game turned sour, and in the bottom of the ninth the hometown was losing four to one. The first batter hit a single, the second was hit, the third walked on four balls. Bases loaded, nobody out. But just as soon as hope visited Mudville, it left as the next two batters flew out.
But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day;
They hissed and groaned and hooted as they clamored: ‘Strike him out!’
But Casey gave no outward sign that he had heard this shout.
You know what happened next – one strike, then a second on Casey. Everyone expected Casey to duplicate his strike-out from last season; no hope of redemption from Mudville greeted Casey at the bat this year.
No roasting for the umpire now – his was an easy lot;
But here the pitcher whirled again- was that a rifle shot?
A whack, a crack, and out through the space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky, a speck against the blue.
And just that soon Casey hit a grand slam – the ball flew so far it was never found, and Mudville was saved – hats in the air, everyone cheered in disbelief.
O, somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun,
And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun!
And somewhere over blighted lives there hangs a heavy pall,
But Mudville hearts are happy now, for Casey hit the ball.
Casey is the hero in Grantland’s reversion, and instead of Mudville being dark and depressed, now the rest of the world may be joyless, somewhere, like in Vietnam, but not Mudville. It was more than a wait-til-next-year inspiration story – Grantland Rice just didn’t understand that it wasn’t about redemption, about winning, it was about the living and dying no matter what. It was about that… and baseball.