Just off Clark Street, there’s an iconic red sign, brightly colored and illuminated to catch the fan’s eye from a distance. You’re near, the sign promises, you’re approaching a sacred point where a history intersects with a promising future. The Chicago Cubs play here. Come this way.
Yes, this is Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona, where the Cubs opened their spring training tour on February 24 with a 6-1 victory over the Rangers. Sloan, too, presides between streets called Clark, Waveland, and Sheffield. What can’t be shipped gets copied, and for a month of each year the Cubs simulate baseball in preparation for the real thing. Joy: spring training is here, and the season nears.
Spring training is nearly as old as the National League itself. President Albert Spalding and player-manager Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Cubs) were the first to conceive of pre-season destination workouts, and in 1886 they took the club to Hot Springs, Arkansas. That season, the White Stockings’ first-place finish and dominant 90-34 record convinced other teams to adopt the practice.
Today, the Cubs are again at the forefront of the institution of spring training. According to the the East Valley Tribune, the Cubs led all Cactus League teams in attendance last year, drawing 251,899 fans. The Giants were a distant second with 182,518. This is in no small part due to Sloan Park, the Cubs’ $116 million complex in Mesa, Arizona that went into development in 2010 and opened in 2014.
In the early stages, then-president Crane Kenney envisioned an entertainment district of Chicago-themed amusements like Lou Malnati’s. Instead, those brands have gone into neighboring Phoenix and Tempe, while around Sloan Park development stalls and deadlines pass by.
But there’s still a dream, there’s still a plan, there’s still the promise of the big red sign and the catchy name that Cubs officials sold to Mesa, Arizona in 2010: Wrigleyville West. The Sheraton in the neighborhood already bears that name, and any day now the rest of the theme park will sprout from the desert like a miracle. A simulation of Wrigleyville, to accompany spring training’s simulation of baseball. A franchise, an ambiguous copy, a reproduction in the fashion of Euro Disney.
French writer Jean Baudrillard had a particular fascination with Disneyland. It was a key example in his discussion of American culture and the global spread of hypermodern capitalism. In his 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation he considered how Disneyland related to the rest of the country, and how the obvious falseness of one makes the other more real. It’s a dynamic reproduced throughout American life, including in Sloan Park: where the falseness of spring training and Wrigleyville West jolt the Real Things alive.
Let’s start in October 1984. The Cubs are NL East champions, gearing up for a five-game series against the San Diego Padres. Should the Cubs advance to the World Series, threatens commissioner Bowie Kuhn, they’ll lose their home field advantage, because all World Series games are played at night.
The next year, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth announces that the Cubs will be playing all their postseason games somewhere else–maybe, worst of all, St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. The lack of lights makes postseason baseball in Wrigleyville untenable. Baseball can still be played in daylight, of course, but it can’t be televised in darkness. Economically and materially, MLB, ownership, and the world begin to privilege television over tradition, global over local, and–crucially–image over reality: the photography, duplication, and distribution of an event over the event itself.
Over the protests of the Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine, the lights came on at Wrigley in 1988. The landscape began to transform from a residential neighborhood featuring a ballpark into an idea compressed and distributed for consumption.
Now 2018, the transition is long since complete. The fight is over. Nobody is really clamoring for the abolition of postmodern Wrigleyville, for a return to quiet residence and pre-electric baseball, and such a project would be impossible anyway. What is Wrigleyville now? A stretch of themed amusements, restaurants, and bars. An eternal carnival, costumed, carousing, and drunk. A nexus of consumption whose primary reference point is not a location, but a brand.
In short: Disneyland.
Baudrillard defined simulation as a process of feigning to have what one hasn’t. But he goes further, describing how simulation generates “real” symptoms and consequences in the absence of an actual truth; for example, the icons and images of a religion bestow the priests with actual power, disconnected from the nature or existence of God.
He then takes a close look at Disneyland and how it informs our behavior and imagination.
To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks.
That is, it is not the pirates, the frontier, or the future-world that draws people to Disneyland—it is not that these amusements are especially valuable or good. What draws tourists to Disneyland is the promise of an authentic experience of America: the variety of life, the variety of amusement, the great flows of people magnetized between attractions.
None of the individual attractions of Disneyland purports itself to be real. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride doesn’t “fool” anyone—nobody expects to see (or become) real pirates because the point is to consume the images for amusement. The same applies to Main Street, USA: it’s an image that promises nothing more than an image. There’s no subterfuge at work, no threat to the idea of reality, no crisis.
When it’s over, those visitors are ejected back out into the real America, a real place, where there exist real work, real threats, real values and ideas in contrast with Disney’s brightly-colored imaginary fuguescape. But beyond the exit gate, says Baudrillard, the true function of Disneyland is revealed:
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.
The reproduction of Disneyland and its images—Disney World, Euro Disney and so on—reproduce that very effect. If the false can be referenced and regenerated in this way, its conspicuous falseness is made clearer. The more false it is, the more the real the “real” world can appear by contrast. There are six Disney theme parks and a cruise line, reproducing globally the fiction that the “outside” world is real.
Spring training is not real baseball. Nobody cares who wins the games, and the season’s-end standings are entirely meaningless. It’s an elaborate, extended warm-up exercise. It gets players and coaches game-ready, gives prospects a chance to face big-league competition, and provides a low-key carnival for fans local and worldwide, all in preparation for Opening Day and real baseball.
Yes, that’s conventional wisdom. A few researchers have tried going further, to see if the records and standings might actually have some hidden predictive value. Results are mixed, but overall it seems like the conventional wisdom holds true: none of it really matters. Spring training doesn’t predict a World Series winner, self-evidently because they don’t award the Commissioner’s Trophy for topping the spring training standings. They designed it that way. The conspicuous falseness of the simulation is supposed to emphasize the reality of the rest.
Or, as Baudrillard might put it: February baseball is imaginary, to make us believe that October baseball is real.
So: Wrigleyville West is imaginary, to make us believe that Wrigleyville is real.
Since 1988, Wrigleyville has not been real. But we’re not fans of Wrigleyville, we’re fans of the Chicago Cubs, and the Cubs can still endeavor to be real, to exist, to do more than just simulate.
Disneyland is Baudrillard’s second example. The first is God.
All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange: God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.
Not long ago there was a truth at the heart of Cubs baseball. There was a heroic quest to defeat a metaphysical evil. There was meaning and truth: as long as the Cubs were striving to break the Curse, the images reflected a reality. The struggle was Real.
When the lights came on in 1988, the reality of Wrigleyville was undone, but the enterprise of Cubs baseball remained “real” as long as the curse went on. Even when the Ricketts family bought the team in 2009, the quest remained, the purpose rang true. The Curse remained a reference point for the team, the ownership, and the fans.
In that sense, winning the World Series in 2016 was the worst thing that could happen.
As long as ownership and management could simulate a winning culture, they could maintain the reality of the endeavor. They had to make the right signings, promote the right branding, and stay consistently in the postseason conversation. That’s it. Epstein and Maddon and the Ricketts never actually had to bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy. They had only to make a convincing effort to do so.
It’s a paradox, of course, to simulate a quest in order to keep the quest real, and the contradiction collapsed in 2016. Now, by striving to win another World Series, they can only do as well as their recent selves. At best, they can reproduce what they’ve already done, but this time a victory would bear no meaning beyond an exchange of icons and images. The Cubs are no longer real; they are a simulation of the Cubs.
A project like that is always pathetic and usually doomed: consider Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign, or any post-St. Anger Metallica album. The core, the drive, the reality is neglected in favor of the pervasive banality of simulation. The system is weightless, reduced to signs, a thing of emptiness and horror.
There remains one more connection. This last idea is rising to the surface like a noxious gas from the ocean deep, and I’d prefer to avoid it, but neglect would be irresponsible.
From Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury:
Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his business deals and real estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he if he wasn’t going to win?
What’s more, Trump refused to spend any time considering, however hypothetically, transition matters, saying it was “bad luck”—but really meaning it was a waste of time. Nor would he even remotely contemplate the issue of his holdings and conflicts.
He wasn’t going to win! Or losing was winning.
Trump would be the most famous man in the world—a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton.
His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors.
Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement.
Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star.
Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh would get their Republican Party back.
Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching.
That was the trouble-free outcome they awaited on November 8, 2016. Losing would work out for everybody.
As simulated journalist Wolff explains: a simulation of winning can accidentally precede reality, upending all the careful management and the reality principle too. The election and Game 7 happened within a week of each other. The intense feeling of unreality around that time was indeed a symptom of reality slipping away; and the bizarre, aimless corporate energy driving the Chicago Cubs today is the persistent hangover of a victory we should never have wanted.
Listen, only the weirdest and saddest kids at my college ever read or talked about Jean Baudrillard. They were the ones who brought plastic bags full of loose change to the 7-11 to pay for cigarettes, the ones spending long hours making postmodern experimental theatre between the garbage compactors in the loading dock—unbearable people, in other words, trying in nonsensical ways to make sense of a world resistant to logic. Whether his ideas broke my friends or my friends were broken in the first place, Baudrillard surveyed our landscape of images and symbols and spoke an unspeakable conclusion: the image no longer reflected reality. It dominated it, preceded it, ejected reality from our experience of the world.
But it is February. It’s here, spring training, the hypermodern heir to a tradition established by our hometown’s old-time kings. I missed baseball. We all did. This week, relieved and ecstatic fans are congregating in Florida and Arizona to celebrate the return of the sport we love, and with it, spring, the literal rejuvenation of life. It’s been a long, twisted winter in Chicago. I can’t wait for it to be over.
Soon, as soon as we’re home from Wrigleyville West, we’ll return to Wrigleyville with all its ugly bars and pricey times. We’ll have our NL-best infield to cheer and our new talent to scrutinize; and around it all, there will be the promise and electricity of another year in contention. The machinery of baseball will go on producing conflict and drama, disappointment and joy. In 2018, maybe our distance from the trauma will begin to obscure it, and we can cobble together a vision of a future more substantial than corporate endurance.
Probably not. We have consumed and discarded the last great baseball narrative. Probably this is the eternal future of Cubs baseball: year after year, a corporate performance, a pointless reckoning, an orgy of consumption.
And Wrigleyville dancing, raucous and ecstatic, our shadows thrown from our bodies by unnatural electric light.
Lead photo courtesy Orlando Ramirez—USA Today Sportd