- NotGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/not -

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