Misery Loves Baseball

“That the abyss is bottomless is the bad news. The good news is, it must also be topless!”
-David James Duncan, The Brothers K

I learned to enjoy feeling sorry for myself just after I hit puberty. Whenever my dad would yell at me or one of my friends would do something mean, I’d wail and storm and taste my tears and love every second of it. I remember seeing Claire Danes cry and that, of all things I could possibly envy, was what I aspired to most: to cry that hard, to mean it that much. It got worse as I got a little older and met girls with eating disorders or who took anti-depressants. Illogically, but earnestly, I put them all on tall pedestals. I read books like Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation, The Bell Jar and The Virgin Suicides. I tried making myself throw up a few times. I listened to sad songs exclusively, once making a tape for myself to fall asleep to that consisted only of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” over an over again on both sides. (Yikes.) A lot of this weirdness wore off as I grew up. Most importantly, I stopped romanticizing mental illness. But I still love crying, and sad songs, and I think more than a little bit of that self-victimizing sap inside of me has remained. Which explains a lot about why I like baseball so much more than I like any other sports. Baseball is basically a giant stage for failure, disappointment, and sadness. And that’s exactly what makes it so goddamn beautiful.

My mom used to hate that we played Little League because of the pressure on the individual in the batters box. More often than not, you fail. Which is awesome, and precisely why baseball players are “just like us” and other athletes are aliens or superheroes. Who in their normal every day life succeeds at most of what they do? Jerks, that’s who. Who fails most of the time but keeps trying anyway? People like us: not good enough 7 times out of 10 but just wonderful the other 3.

All of this joy inside sadness is exactly why I have such a hard time relating to fans of teams like the Yankees or the Cardinals, and why being a Houston Astros fan feels sewn into my personhood as much as the color of my eyes or the sound of my sneeze. Your team wins?! The World Series?! On a regular basis? What on earth do you have to look forward to?

I wonder, if it was measurable, what the difference would be between the joy of a Cardinals fan this past weekend versus the joy that will soak the entire body my friend Frank the moment the Cubs finally go? Aside: Frank has a tattoo of a Chicago Cubs World Series Trophy with a blank space for the year. I’m really not trying to be dismissive of fans of super teams: kudos to y’all. Congratulations, certainly. But I just can’t imagine. Losing is what makes winning special. Right? The assumption that is in place whenever you deal with advanced metrics is that winning is always the goal. Wins are our currency. But the value of a win is relative to who cares about it and how much, isn’t it? If a baseball game was played and no fans were there to see it, would it make a sound a difference? And who cares really has more to do with losing than it does with winning, doesn’t it? The fear and memories of loss seem to me to be what you start any game or at bat with. And when you win, the reason it matters is because your fears are assauaged. Isn’t “relief pitcher” a double entendre?

Maybe when my team does finally win the World Series, I’ll be in such shock that I won’t even be able to celebrate. When I picture it, all I can see is euphoric chaos — blood and beer and confetti times a thousand million. That dream is better than the real thing will probably be, as is the case with most dreams. Which is to say, if I stop dreaming and am realistic, I can make an educated guess about what winning is like. It is probably, like most nonfiction, anticlimactic. The joy is in the realization of a lifetime of anticipation, and then, before you know it, it’s over.

I guess what I’m getting at — and this is partially to comfort my fellow Texans who are feeling the sting right now — is that the best is boring. I look at the best and I just see the kids who were seemingly always happy and well-adjusted during the same years I was sulking and angsting. Those kids sucked — and I don’t just mean that I thought that then, I mean they really did. They were vapid and thoughtless. To truly know the world is to be sad at least some of the time.

When I think about what I love about baseball, I think about Cameron Maybin. I think about years of disappointment wrapped around limitless potential. I think about the joy of seeing someone who you fully expect to do something wrong do something right. Every time Cameron Maybin gets on base, my heart does a Snoopy dance. This past year was a good year for people like me, but I fully expect to see him in a AAA uniform at some point in 2012. That’s the nature of his beast. And it’s glorious.

In conclusion:

1. Winning might be > Losing, but only because you lose a lot.
2. In terms of Otis Redding: “Pain In My Heart” and “These Arms of Mine” are much better songs than “Happy Song” and “Shake.”
3. Claire Danes really is prettiest when she’s crying like a kitten caught in a foothold trap.
4. Mario Mendoza hit four home runs.
5. “This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.”
-Roger Angell




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Summer Anne Burton is a writer and illustrator living in Austin, Texas. She is drawing pictures of Every Hall of Famer.


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A Washington
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A Washington
4 years 7 months ago

tl;dr

mattc
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mattc
4 years 7 months ago

people like you are the reason everything sucks.

swieker
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Member
swieker
4 years 7 months ago

Brilliant!

Kyle
Member
4 years 7 months ago

As a Seattle sports fan, I can dig it.

Chuck Hussel
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4 years 7 months ago

At Royals games, my friend, Matthew H. Downing, often sings, “If they don’t win it’s the same…” (He may not be the 1st person to observe the 7th inning stretch in this manner.) The thing is, he sings it with so much joy — joy that can only be earned through prolonged suffering — it’s a sort of sporting shibboleth. Proof of skin in the game. Loyalty proved by cynicism.

I’m sure that winning is fun. I mean, it SEEMS fun. But, like the degenerate gambler doubling down with his last chip — his 9 against the dealer showing a 6 — he knows the deuce is about to drop, or the house will draw to 21, or both. Yet, he’s stays to the end, another 19 year old loser at the Windsor Hotel & Casino. (Not that I know anything about gambling, mind you.)

Unlike the gambler, a baseball fan has to pay $8 for his beer. Also, he can gamble on the games if he wants. Hmmm, what was this analogy supposed to illustrate? Something deeply imperfect, methinks.

Navin Vaswani
Editor
4 years 7 months ago

I’ve often thought: How will I celebrate when the Blue Jays win the World Series? I have no idea what that answer might be. I hope to watch the winning game, and then celebrate, with my brother, whom I watched the 1992 and 1993 World Series victories with, when we were just young boys.

I had a Twitter conversation with a Cardinals fan friend of mine before game seven. I told him to “enjoy the game.” He said he hoped to do so, but that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to, that he’d have to remind himself to do so. I thought he was bang on. I think we tend to get caught up in the moment, live and die by each pitch, but win or lose, I think it’s important to enjoy the moment, enjoy the game, enjoy the fact that it’s game seven of the World Series, and your team’s involved.

Anyway, great post. And I love love love that Angell quote at the end you closed with. There is something about that “stumbling kind of semi-success.” I mean, how many of us are truly destined for greatness, in anything that we do?

And thanks for the book recommendation, too, The Brothers K. It’s been added to my list.

cliff lee's changeup
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cliff lee's changeup
4 years 7 months ago

as a yankee fan, I can tell you that we pay more for our baseball. our losses suck because besides the emotional investment, which is as much one of adoration and time as is any fans, we pay so goddamn much. we pay for the right to see a team win all the time. our corporate masters demand a much higher tithe from us, and we gladly pay.

we want to win so much, we need it and crave it. our victories are not trifles but titles!

we pay with our wallets as well as our souls. if you astros fans tangibly paid as much as we did, just to see a-rod strike out to end your season for what feels the millionth time it still wouldn’t make you better than us. it would make you mets fans, and that’s still as funny as it is sad.

zzzzipp
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zzzzipp
4 years 6 months ago

UGH

Bryz
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4 years 7 months ago

I wasn’t born yet to enjoy the Twins winning the ’87 Series, and I was too young (2 years old) to enjoy the ’91 championship. Toss in rooting for the Vikings*, Timberwolves, and Wild, and I have gone title-less in my entire life. Even my high school basketball team, which made it to the state tournament my senior year, was only able to pull out a 4th place finish.

* You may know that the Vikings have lost 4 Super Bowls. A Minnesota-based restaurant chain called TimberLodge Steakhouse had a steak that was called The Viking, and its description simply stated, “After losing 4 Super Bowls, you know it has to be tender.”

At the beginning of every season, I get my hopes up again. Mainly for the Twins, but occasionally for the Vikings and Wild. Timberwolves, well, in years past when a different coach and different franchise player headlined the team. It gets to be crushing when it’s clear that the team won’t even make the playoffs, because once you make it into the postseason, really any team has a chance. Even the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won a playoff game, against the defending Super Bowl champions, no less.

But once I realize that the playoffs aren’t going to happen, my focus shifts to the young guys. Who is going to get more playing time now? Who will be traded, and who will come back? Will the new guys be useful, or just placeholders until next season? So while a losing team might be heartbreaking, at least there’s still something (er, someone) to watch. Yet once the season is over, there’s no one to watch. No wins, no heartbreaking losses, not even a meaningless Brian Dinkelman to hit yet another groundball single between the 1st and 2nd base hole.

Sure, there’s the excitement of a new free agent pickup, or a trade that brings in some unfamiliar faces, but I root for the Twins. Waiver claims of Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray might be the 4th most exciting move the team makes this offseason, and those just happened a couple days ago. Thus, I go into a months-long depression until April of next year, for not only is my birthday then approaching, but so is the next Twins season, and another chance at the World Series.

Jack Moore
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Member
4 years 7 months ago

Loved this. And I agree.

Robert J. Baumann
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4 years 7 months ago
Dizzy Valance
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Dizzy Valance
4 years 7 months ago

One of my very favorite MG songs, though I’m not sure what a song about divorce has to do with this conversation.

Matt
Guest
4 years 7 months ago

It’s not exactly the same, or even tangential, but I feel sort of the same way about the Orioles, but for different reasons. O’s fans my age (late 20’s/early 30’s) became aware of and fans of the team in the mid-80s, just after their last World Series win, and from 1965 up until 1998, we were always “in the conversation”, and as a result I think we all sort of took it for granted that we’d always be respectable and a legit playoff threat year-in/year-out.

But to see how far we’ve fallen as an organization (I don’t think even the Astros have had two candidates with zero GM experience turn down the offer of an MLB GM position in the same two-week period) is depressing. But at the same time, I kind of revel in it, because I know it can’t last forever (Angelos is 82, and no one lives forever) and it’s very much a character-building exercise at this point.

My friend is a Yankees fan, but he’ll be the first to tell you that at this point, he rarely pays close attention during the regular season, and only really starts keeping tabs on things in late August because “we just always expect to be in the playoffs.”

And it’s not like the guy’s a wagon-jumper; he became a fan in the early to mid 80s, when they were awful. But it supports Summer’s idea that winning all the time gives you nothing to look forward to. Even when he tunes in, my friend treats it as more of a perfunctory obligation than, say, an involuntary bodily function the way fans of the O’s, the Astros, the Pirates, the Mariners, etc do. From April to October, I feel incomplete on travel days and during the All-Star break.

Not watching terrible, sloppy baseball every day makes me feel incomplete. Winning doesn’t do that to you. Losing does.

Sam
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Sam
4 years 7 months ago

Dope

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