This train

Some baseball fans were scratching their heads over Major League Baseball’s choice of Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” as the theme song of the 2012 Postseason telecasts and ad campaigns. And some Springsteen fans were unhappy that the Boss allegedly sold out to MLB for commercial gain.

To the former, I say, Don’t judge the song by the weird edit used in the ads that cuts out most of the lyrics except “This train”;  go listen to the song on Wrecking Ball or Live in New York City for context and you’ll find a song that, while not written about baseball, perfectly articulates what the baseball postseason is about. And to the latter:  Look, this is baseball, not beer or cars. I’d be pissed off if he sold a song to, say, Budweiser or Cadillac. But I can’t get worked up over a Bruce Springsteen song being intimately associated with Major League Baseball. Baseball is America’s pastime, Bruce is America’s poet, and “Land of Hope and Dreams” is one of Bruce’s greatest poems about America, therefore, “Land of Hope and Dreams” is one of Bruce’s greatest poems about baseball. Let me illustrate. I’ll be using my beloved San Francisco Giants, who just won the National League Pennant World Series [!]  for the second time in three years, as an example, but no disrespect meant to all the other teams and fans who know what it’s like to ride this train of faith, determination and eternal optimism known as baseball.

“Grab your ticket and your suitcase/ Thunder’s rollin’ down this track/ Well, you don’t know where you’re going/ But you know you won’t be back”.

Spring training. Hope springs eternal. Your team has a fresh slate and anything is possible, and where you are in the standings in April may not portend where you will end up in the postseason. The thunder refers to the train, which, in the non-baseball-context of the song, is at once America itself and the communal spirit of individuals coming together with a common dream. You know who else has a common dream?  A baseball team. See how this works?

“Well, darlin’, if you’re weary/Lay your head upon my chest/We’ll take what we can carry/ And we’ll leave the rest”.

Leave your negativity and your steroid-cheating left fielder behind. In the postseason, everyone gets a blank stat sheet and every player has the potential to live up to, and in some cases, beyond his potential.

“Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams/ Meet me in a land of hope and dreams”.

Fields, dreams, field of dreams . . . baseball!  Again!

“Well I will provide you/ And I’ll stand by your side/ You’ll need a good companion/ For this part of the ride” …

… said Giants’ right fielder Hunter Pence to his teammates in a spontaneous and impassioned sermon after they went down 2-0 in their five-game National League Division Championship series with the Cincinnati Reds. The Giants came back to win three elimination games in a row and move on to the National League Championship series, with Pence sermonizing before every game, telling his teammates to look into each others’ eyes, play for the guy behind you, win every pitch, win every moment.

“Leave behind your sorrows/ Let this day be the last/ Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ And all this darkness past”.

The Giants go down 3-1 in their best-of-seven National League Championship series against the St. Louis Cardinals. In Game 5 in St. Louis, the Giants’ starting pitcher is Barry Zito, a former Cy Young Award winner and All Star in seven seasons with the Oakland A’s. Since signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants in 2007, Zito has never lived up to his potential. Location, mechanics, confidence all spiraled downward. In 2010, he was left off the Giants’ postseason roster;  in 2011, some sportswriters and most fans had written him off as a lost cause. After slowly regaining composure and consistency in 2012, Zito takes the mound in St. Louis with the Giants once again facing elimination and pitches 7 innings of shutout ball. The Giants win the game, come home to win two more elimination games, and the series. Zito walks in sunshine again.

“This train … Carries saints and sinners …”

Catcher/MVP candidate Buster Posey, Perfect Game-tosser Matt Cain and Pence are all saints, manager Bruce Bochy has the patience of a saint and center fielder Angel Pagan looks like the prototype for Hunky Latin Jesus. On the flip side, we have reliever Guillermo Mota, who served a suspension for partaking of a banned substance, and Pablo Sandoval, the poster boy for the sin of gluttony. But every MLB team has its own mix of saints and sinners. And the baseball gods sometimes give the sinners a chance for redemption.

“This train … Carries losers and winners …”

Self-explanatory.

“This train … Carries whores and gamblers …”

And they know who they are.

“This train … Carries lost souls …”

And every lost soul deserves the chance to find himself once again, Tim Lincecum.

“I said this train … Dreams will not be thwarted …”

Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong’s long journey began in 2000 when he made his major league debut with the Giants. He then was traded to the Pirates for a five-year stint that included Tommy John surgery and demotion to the bullpen. By 2007, he was out of Major League Baseball and playing in Japan. He attempted minor league comebacks with the Phillies and Angels, then signed a minor league contract with the Giants in 2011, replacing the injured Zito in the rotation. By July, he was an integral part of the Giants staff, and an NL All Star;  by 2012, he was an ace. In Game 6 of the NLCS, with the Giants again facing elimination by the Cardinals, Vogelsong delivered a dominant performance as the Giants rolled on to Game 7.

“This train … Faith will be rewarded …”

When the Giants made their 2010 World Series run, I had to watch it all from the couch, having been laid up for most of the year by surgery and pain. In 2012, I made it to AT&T Park for Game 7 of the NLCS and stood in the pouring rain watching 36-year-old journeyman second baseman Marco Scutaro make the final out on a pop fly hit by Matt Holliday, the same player who bowled him over in a very-iffy and very hard slide earlier in the series. And with that final, karmic out, a Giants team that was dead and buried twice rewarded the faith their fans placed in them, and the faith they placed in each other when Pence first rallied them with his vision of a land of hope and dreams.

“This train … Hear the steel wheels singin’/ This train … Bells of freedom ringin’ “.

While my faith may have been rewarded, I’m sure the Cardinals’ [and Tigers’] faithful don’t feel so great today. But the beauty of the game is that it all starts again, when the thunder rolls down that track next spring. People get ready, there’s a train a-coming.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012

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