Start at a field. The grass is sparse and burning yellow. The afternoon sun is low in the sky. Leaves crunch underneath. It is autumn. Children are playing. They are not playing baseball; you don’t see children play baseball as much these days. Soccer is the thing. Let’s face it, the kids are not really playing soccer either, but they are trying. The basics are here. Soccer goals on either side. A soccer ball bounces and skids erratically. The children are at different levels. Some still forget that they’re not supposed to pick up the ball. One boy knows how to punt the ball high in the air, sending the others scattering for cover. Another fears getting too close to the ball, so he always revolves around the ball from a safe distance, like Mercury rotating the sun. One girl has learned a slick move where she can stop quickly with the ball and start again, and this will sometimes send defenders crumbling to the ground. Another approaches the ball tentatively, the way she might a large dog.
And then there’s another girl, and she is everywhere. Everyone notices her. She is impossible to miss, though she’s small. She has short blonde hair, and this gap-tooth smile, and her pink socks are pulled above her knees. She chases after the ball exuberantly. That’s the big thing. Wherever the ball goes, she goes full of spirit and hope. The ball bounces this way, she runs this way, it’s kicked back, she quickly turns and runs back. This happens again and again, this constant shift of direction, but she never seems to tire, and she never seems to get frustrated. She is so small that at one point the coach simply picks her up to put her in a different defensive spot. She is pure energy and pure joy, and people in the small crowd find themselves cheering for her and calling her name.
Many Bruce Springsteen fans — and I’m talking about some of his biggest fans, the ones who can tell you the difference between his version of Sherry Darling at the Stone Pony and the version he performed in Gothenburg, Sweden — are not too thrilled that “Land of Hopes and Dreams” has become the anthem for this year’s baseball playoffs.
You can’t blame them, really. Postseason baseball can be a land-mine for people trying to get out a message. Has Frank Caliendo recovered from his postseason flood of commercials? How about Dane Cook? The stuff at playoff time just gets repeated over and over and over and over … be honest, are you more or less likely to watch Conan after being bludgeoned by those “Only Conan is Conan on top of Conan with a Conan over Conan near a Conan adrift in a sea of Conan” commercials? Are you more or less likely to buy Samsung after watching those guys touch phones so many times they undoubtedly have a litter of little Samsung Galaxies running around band practice.
Caryn Rose, brilliant baseball blogger and fanatical Spingsteen fan, sums it up well here:
“My thoughts initially were, crabbily: ‘Great, one of Bruce’s best songs in the last 20 years is now a commercial for the Yankees, and get that MLB logo off of Roy’s piano.’ But mostly I was both happy and sad that they chopped up the song beyond recognition and just removed everything that is beautiful and expansive and aspirational from the song. Because it’s not the words that do it, it’s the music, it’s the way E Street works together, it’s that sax solo from Clarence that still makes me misty thinking about it. Happy that they chopped it up so the song didn’t get ruined, sad that people wouldn’t get to experience what an amazing song it is.
“But my house is officially at the point where we have to hit mute now in the commercial breaks because we just can’t listen to it any more in that form.
“At this point I am kind of resigned to artists giving their music to commercials. I just never thought Bruce would do it.”
There are many who feel that way … and there are some others who don’t. Legendary rock critic and Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh:
“I had one or two people skeptical on the radio about whether it represented a shift in his ‘no commercial endorsement’ posture, but I don’t feel that way. As a baseball fan I like it, and the way they’re using it right now, with new footage from the most recent previous games every night, it feels like one long rolling video. I hope someone at MLB (or TBS, which might be who does it) has stockpiled a reel of each of them. It’ll be treasure to some of us.”
And then there’s this from my buddy Pop Warner, a music executive: “I take it as a rare search result for music supervision at the network, where you have ‘field” ‘of’ ‘dreams’ in the same clip.”*
*”Big wheels roll through FIELDs where sunlight streams. Meet me in the Land OF hope and DREAMS.”
I don’t have the sort of Springsteen chops to keep up in this conversation. I get the disappointment of having a favorite song used to sell stuff (don’t get Caryn started on her feeling about The Who’s “Bargain” being used to sell cars), and I do understand why longtime Springsteen fans, who have admired both his artistry and they way he protected it, have lost a little connection with him after he played halftime of the Super Bowl, after debuting a song on “Monday Night Football,” after allowing a spiritual song like “Land of Hopes and Dreams” to be used to promote baseball.
Then again, I also realize that this will get more people to hear the song, which is what artists want, right?
Anyway, here the thing: I love that song. Still love it. I was worried that hearing it again and again — especially in that cut up version — would make me sick of it … but it hasn’t. In a weird way, it has made me love that song even more. The reason? I guess it’s the reason I love Bruce Springsteen in the first place.
* * *
This train carries whores and gamblers …
Jeremy Affeldt pitched for the Giants on Sunday, again on Monday in the Giants’ crushing victory over the Cardinals, and whenever I see him pitch I smile because he credits me for his career. Seriously. I, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with his success, but he credits me just the same. “Hi Mr. Posnanski,” he will say whenever we see each other, the only ballplayer who ever calls me mister (and also the only person). “I was just telling someone how I owe my career to you.”
Some years ago, I was in Bradenton, Fla., watching a spring training game, the Pirates and the Royals, and the scene was so dead that mosquitoes did not move. Spring training baseball always borders irrelevance, but sometimes it goes beyond that. Sometimes it invades irrelevance. Nobody’s watching, not even the people in the stands. Nobody cares, not even the players on the field. Nobody’s paying attention, not even the scouts paid to pay attention. The sound in Bradenton that day was not clapping or cheering or silence, but instead this conversational buzzing, a sign that everybody was talking about stuff other than baseball.
Then Affeldt took the mound. He was 22. He was not much of a prospect. The Royals had drafted him in the third round — between Cesar Crespo and John Grabow — and he had not pitched especially well in the minors. He was 5-15 with a 4.09 ERA in Class A Wilmington (that in a pitcher’s league) and an only slightly improved 3.90 ERA in Class AA. I was sitting next to Royals general manager Allard Baird, and we were having an interesting conversation about something else, and he said off-handedly (almost with a little bit of bored disappointment), “Let’s watch Jeremy pitch. He has a good arm.”
Wow. Understatement. That day, for two innings, Affeldt was Koufax. That’s all. I don’t really know how else to describe it. His fastball was in the mid-to-upper 90s. His curveball started about neck high and tumbled, roller coaster style, to the the shins. If you expected one, he threw the other. And even if you guessed right, it didn’t matter, not that afternoon. He was utterly, completely and thoroughly unhittable. In memory, he faced six batters, struck out five, and he forced the other to hit a foul pop-up. I may have seen a handful of others pitch as well. I have never seen anyone pitch better.
The most amazing part was seeing how people in the stadium — so lifeless just moments early — awakened. Scouts jolted to attention. Fans returned to their seats. I looked at Allard Baird, and his eyes were big as pancakes.
Well, of course I wrote about it. Jeremy thinks that caught people’s eye. He made the Royals (no one had really thought he would before spring training began). He struggled with blister problems in Kansas City. He was a starter and a reliever, with mixed success. I wrote about him quite often. He was traded to Colorado, he stopped briefly in Cincinnati, and finally he ended up in San Francisco, where he has been a key reliever for one of the best teams in the the National League. He still calls me Mister.
Affeldt’s credit, of course, is just an inside joke between old friends. But I do feel this touch of pride when I watch him pitch … not because I had anything to do with it but because something about Bradenton stays with me. When I was a kid, I had no idea that I wanted to be a sportswriter. I thought I wanted to replace Duane Kuiper as second baseman of the Cleveland Indians. I thought I wanted to blast passing shots past John McEnroe at Wimbledon. I thought I wanted to travel the country on my own double-decker bus (I never did quite figure out the “how to make a living” part of this dream).
But what I really wanted, I think, was to feel alive. When you’re a kid, you see how adults act. You watch in ways that you cannot even express. You see how teachers teach, how waiters serve, how neighbors walk out of their cars after a hard day’s work. You notice that many people simply go through the motions. I did not want to be drowned by boredom. I did not want to be numbed by the every day. I saw that in people all around me, up and down my little street in Cleveland, all around the apartment complex where we lived in Charlotte, I saw those people beaten down … and I feel sure I was scared. Boredom scared me thoroughly. Sometimes at school, I would be taking a math test, and I would be so bored by it all that I would just write down any answer that came to mind — 49 … 734 … 21 … 4,392 — just to be done with it, just to break on through to the other side. I’m sure a child psychologist would have had a field day with me.
But I had this unspoken fear, I think, that I would lose my sense of feeling, that good jokes would no longer make me laugh as hard, that brilliant moments would no longer elicit goosebumps, that great songs would not longer move me, that sports would not matter so much to me, that that I would find myself stuck in an everlasting math test, and all the awesome things in life would brush past, like strangers in an airport.
And so, when I see Jeremy Affeldt pitch, I think about how lucky I am. I became a sportswriter. And one day, I was sitting in a tired stadium in Florida, and I got to see a kid I had never heard of pitch as well as anyone who ever lived.
* * *
This train carries lost souls …
Sometimes, probably 25 times a year, I listen to Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” again just to see if I can still hear it. It comes right after Springsteen says, “Then we’ll walk in the sun …” Something happens to Bruce’s voice in that moment. It’s there on the original recoding, and it’s usually there on the many live recordings too. His voice lifts just a little.
“Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun …”
“Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”
BUT … TIL … THEN. That’s the part I’m waiting for. It’s the smallest thing, I can’t quite describe it … but if you’ve heard it, you’ve heard it. There’s something almost transcendent in those three words. I first noticed it when I was in high school and listened to the whole “Born to Run” album again and again. “Born to Run” had come out a decade earlier, but Springsteen music wasn’t in my purview. Styx … yes, Styx was in my purview. Blondie … that was in my purview. Hall and Oates … they were in my purview. I was an AM radio kid in an AM radio family in an AM radio neighborhood, and I’m pretty sure my first real awareness of Springsteen was when he pulled Courtney Cox on stage for the “Dancing in the Dark” video. Shortly after that, I “discovered” “Born to Run,” long after almost everyone else. It felt new to me.
And I don’t know if it was the first time I heard it or the fourth time or the 12th time. I just know that at some point I realized that a part of me leaped when Bruce yelled “BUT TIL THEN.” “Born to Run” is one of the great sing-along rock songs ever*.
*I think Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” ELOs “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout” (of course) are great rock sing-alongs. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” is an amazing sing-along, perhaps the best ever, but it’s not a rock song. This should probably be a poll question.
But it’s more than that. Springsteen, to so many of us, represents an almost boundless energy. He gets older but he doesn’t get old. He still rocks until past curfew. He still writes new songs and reaches for something great. He still sings “Born to Run” with passion and gusto though he’s done it thousands and thousands of times. Where does that come from? How do we get some? That’s the beauty.
Springsteen’s music is about many things. Some of it’s dark and some of it’s optimistic. The songs are about small ambitions and large aspirations and broken promises and deep disappointments and open highways and poets who write nothing at all. Even now, though, at the end of “Born To Run,” he will shout “BUT TIL THEN,” as if to say that, in the meantime, let’s live life with as much as we have.
Sometimes I still hear that sound. And, I must admit, sometimes I don’t.
* * *
I said this train, dreams will not be thwarted …
“Land of Hopes and Dreams,” I think, is kind of a longer version of the “BUT TIL THEN” theme. The song is not about arriving in that land of hopes and dreams. It’s about getting there. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine. And all this darkness past. That’s the hope. That’s the dream. But the song ends before the train arrives. The song is about how to get through today, now, while big wheels roll through field where sunlight steams. We do it by sticking together. We do it by moving leaving behind regrets and sadness, by taking in some of the sunshine. We do it by believing.
In other words, the song has nothing whatsoever to do with baseball — certainly the words don’t. But I think Caryn is right, I don’t think it’s the words that make the song good. It’s the music. It’s the hopeful backbeat. It’s the choir singing. It’s the saxophone. I’m sure a lot of people at this point DESPISE the song. I understand that. But I love it. I hear baseball in it. Springsteen is a baseball fan. He played baseball in high school, he shows up at Yankees games pretty often, his friends say he talks baseball often. He’s written other songs that were more directly about baseball … well, one in particular. He wrote “Glory Days,” which features that friend who was a big baseball player
back in high school — though I’ve never particularly liked that song, not least for his use of the noun “speedball.”* He also wrote “The Angel,” where baseball cards poke through the spokes, but I’m not crazy about that song either.
*I will say I have had numerous Springsteen experts explain why speedball works better than fastball in that particular case. I don’t really remember the reasons, which probably gets at the heart of how I feel about that argument, but I do remember they were adamant.
I once heard the great director Martin Scorsese talk about how the key to using music in a scene is to make certain that words DO NOT match up to the scene. That is to say, you don’t want to want a song about dancing playing in a scene about dancing. You don’t want a song about killing playing when there’s killing going on. The connection between scene and song should be deep and ineffable. If you think about the best musical scenes in Scorsese movies, this really is true — think about how that scene in “Goodfellas” soars, the one where the piano part of of “Layla” plays and the camera follows the murderous wreckage after the Lufthansa heist. The two have nothing to do with each other. But now, when I hear Layla, I feel that chilling scene. Scorsese heard it in the music.
That’s how I feel about “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” I hear baseball in there. I can’t really be more specific than that, probably because it’s just what I WANT to hear. The thing I like about baseball is that it’s there all spring, all summer, into the fall, every day, sometimes awesome and sometimes boring, and there’s always tomorrow. Look at this postseason. We had those wild-card games, neither one particularly good, though the Cardinals Braves game gave us the infield fly rule to talk about and argue about. Then we had those four division series, and they were amazing, extraordinary, we had Oakland refusing to yield until Justin Verlander pushed them out, we had the heroic 40-year-old Raul Ibanez come off the bench like something out of the movies, we had the Cardinals come back from oblivion again, we had the Giants take three straight in Cincinnati to come back from the brink, it was thrilling and bumpy and wild.
Then, we just had two championship series that were generally awful. The Tigers beat-up a limping Yankees team that couldn’t score in four straight. And the Giants beat the Cardinals in seven games, but only one or two of the seven games were even competitive, and none of the games were great. It was kind of a dull and uninspiring week of baseball, unless you’re a Tigers and Giants fan.
Now we get a Giants-Tigers series … and there’s absolutely no way to know how they will match up, no way to guess if this series will be memorable and fantastic, or blurry and unsatisfying. But right now, I believe it’s going to be a great series. I am looking forward to something fantastic. I know that it might not be. But I’m hoping anyway.
And maybe that’s what I hear in “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” Is it a happy song? Is it a sad song? Is it a riveting song? It is an ironic song? Is it an inspirational song? Is it a doubting song? Do you dance to it? Do you close your eyes and just let it rush over you? Do you turn down the sound and complain about it to your friends? Well it’s all in what you hear.
* * *
This train, faith will be rewarded.
End at that field. That little girl. She runs around after the ball with such joy and such zeal. She’s sure she will get to the ball, kick it down the field, chase it again. And if she doesn’t get to it this time, she’s sure that that she will get to it next time. That kind of verve is easier when you’re young, maybe. And I wonder if in part that’s why people cheer her, because that enthusiasm is so irresistible … and they know how easy it is to lose it. So they shout, “Go Katie! Go Katie!” because they want her to keep going. I know that’s why I’m shouting. I want my daughter to keep going like that forever.