On the Suffering of the Game

One might detect, if one somehow had the inclination, a certain level of melancholy in some of my baseball writing. I assure you that this is in no way reflected in my love for the game in question, but rather a defect in my upbringing wherein my parents lamentably provided me no real tragedy with which to ground my craft. I am a Mariners fan, and this has done its best to to counter my unfortunate life of fortune, but I doubt it’s enough.

Perhaps this is why I took to baseball, rather than football or basketball; in football the offense and defense of a game is seen as a net zero sum, with only occasional flashes of unstoppable brilliance from either side. In basketball, where defense is still treated by the media with uncomfortable derision, offensive performance is quantified as varying levels of heroism, on a scale from zero to one. Only baseball, as Ted Williams remarked, is littered with failure. The best batters get out six times out of ten, and the onus of this is still placed on the shoulders of the hitter, rather than the will of the defense. We are not yet writing poems about the man who struck out Mighty Casey.

The purpose of this long-winded introduction, as you may have surmised, is to reflect on some of the writings of nineteenth-century philosopher and general malcontent Arthur Schopenhauer, specifically his unshakable opinion that the world is full of suffering. His best line: “A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating with those of the animal being eaten.” Misery is everywhere, and it’s unavaoidable.

What does this have to do with baseball? As we reach the end of August, everything. As one who appreciates our sport’s stringent requirements for playoff berths, and the arduous 162-game trek that takes us there, I must pay for it with the month of September. As do the fans of the 15 other teams who, like mine, have less than a ten percent chance of reaching the postseason this year. Even for those more fortunate souls, all but one season will end in disappointment. 97% of all baseball teams will fail.

Yet we stagger along; our unfulfilled desire for glory, reflected in the men who wear our colors, causes us pain. There’s always waiting for next year, but sometimes the hardest part is waiting out the rest of this year first.

Schopenhauer’s got his own answer, of course: suicide. The world is an awful place, there’s no reason (for him) to think that death is going to be any worse than whatever you were doing before you were born, and every man and woman has the right to take their graceful exit. From a baseball standpoint, the option is still there: you can just quit, give up baseball for a while and get back into painting miniatures or writing string quartet ensembles or leveling up your Blood Elf shaman or whatever it is you choose to do with your free time.

There are other alternatives, of course. You can throw your fandom behind the progression of The Kids, assuming your franchise has a youth movement to cherish. As someone whose team’s rotation boasts Kevin Millwood, rental pitcher/clay golem, whose WAR this year (2.3) exceeds that of Dustin Ackley (1.7), Jesus Montero (0.1) and Justin Smoak (-0.8) combined, I can assure you that this is not always an easy task.

You can also spontaneously molt, shed your teal jersey and pronounce yourself a citizen of the world. My colleague, Mr. Baumann, recently provided some excellent instructions for leasing out your fandom. Alternatively, there are those who can refine their love of baseball toward the atomic level, paring everything down to Giancarlo Stanton’s swing, Mike Trout’s everything, and Jose Valverde’s save face. All of these are perfectly acceptable, natural reactions. In fact, I envy the people who can do it so well.

But Schopenhauer wouldn’t be on board with any of these things. It’s death, pain, then death. That’s it; no seasons, no cycles, no restarts. An existence or a fandom that you can erase and recreate at will is no existence at all. Besides, he was never the kind of guy who would run away from suffering. He exalted it. So do I, in a way.

Just as every story needs its rising action, and every boy needs to lose girl so that he can get girl back again, the baseball fan needs to suffer. One cannot know pleasure unless one knows pain. Otherwise the championship becomes stale, then expected, then necessary; we eventually become unhappy with what we have. Happiness, instead, lies in the mercury; it brings us unexpected joy and then reminds us why we shouldn’t expect it. It gives Seattle 1995 and Boston 2004, knowing that neither of these would have been possible without 1994 and 2003.

This is why we decry the bandwagon. It’s not because it somehow cheats the passionate fan. Rather, by providing contrast, it can only serve to elevate his or her dedication. It’s because the bandwagon fan is cheating themselves, failing to pay in advance the pain that fandom requires. Being a fair-weather fan is easy, but it’s unrewarding. They’ve denied themselves their red badge of courage; they can’t meet eyes at an opportune time and mutter, “Bavasi”, like early Christians drawing half-fishes in the sand as a secret handshake.

After the Mariners postponed the inevitable for a few strange weeks, it finally looks like the lean years will include one more in their number. And someday maybe I’ll be nursing a Rainier and laughing about the year John Jaso posted a .900 OPS, and Chone Figgins posted an OPS. 2012 wasn’t a good year, Future Me will admit, but it was as real as any of the others. It just made 2036 that much sweeter.

So, dear patient reader, what do you think? Does suffering make the reward more sweet, or does it just add empty space between the finer moments? Is it better to have a consistent .500 team with the occasional Wild Card run, or a Marlin-style pattern of feast and famine? Is it more important to be happy, or to not be unhappy?

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Patrick Dubuque writes for NotGraphs and The Hardball Times, and he served as former Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration at Pitchers & Poets. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.

9 Responses to “On the Suffering of the Game”

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  1. Kyle says:

    This is just excellent. God Damn Seattle Sports.

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  2. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown says:

    Good stuff. Substitute Cleveland for Seattle and it hammers the point all the more.

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    • The sad thing is that, for a long time, Cleveland was the shining example by which the Mariners would set their rebuilding plans. The Indians pried away some of the M’s best AAA talent in Shin Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, and in return Seattle got… a generic manager. I still don’t understand why it never worked out for the Indians.

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  3. Excellent piece, Patrick; superbly written. I like to think the suffering makes the reward more sweet. I hope that’s the case. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a Yankees fan. Does it get boring, all the postseason appearances? Is winning, or signing the top free agents, expected? Even worse, assumed?

    I hate Yankees fans.

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    • I was hoping a Yankees fan would arrive to take the stand, actually. My first instinct is to think of those Braves teams of the 90s with the unsold playoff tickets, whether they existed or were just part of my jealous imagination.

      From my personal experience with Yankees fans, there’s little second-guessing in evidence. They’re proud of their championships and Hall of Famers, and don’t lose sleep over the economic inequities of market base or the use of other teams as farm systems that helped get them there. It’s all just fact; it’s incorporated into the worldview. But on the bright side, all these expectations make the inevitable meltdown, as we’re seeing in Boston this year, all the more epic.

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      • AC of DC says:

        Sure, I’ll out myself as a Yankee fan and risk the thousand vitriolic shocks such admission is heir to. I will aim for brevity as well, though this is not my strong suit. In complete disclosure, I have in my few decades witnessed “my” teams win 5 World Series championships, 4 Super Bowls, and 3 Stanley Cups. Vent what hate please you at my fortune. Though I came to each team prior to these runs of glory (my sense of such affairs was frankly limited at the time I was selecting), I have suffered few losing seasons. I apparently made far better choices when my age was in the single-digits than I have in many years since.

        Inasmuch as fandom is an existentialist choice, reevaluating such associations with a more developed brain than one featured in youth will yield for none (or few) of us a rationally defensible conclusion; we picked a team and we tend to stick with it. I may not be fond of every aspect or habit of the organization or of, say, a fancy-lad SS-turned-3B/DH, but a fault-vs.-merit debate hardly stands a test of time well spent when we are, after all, talking about favor without impact in professional entertainment.

        I am not studied enough to suggest what is the deeper meaning of our identifications with teams; I can only speak to human identity politics and this is scarcely the forum. One may appreciate the franchise’s past success, but I can claim no more ownership of bygone greatness than I can claim credit for victories I have personally watched. I can’t stand those entitled crybabies who got upset over missing the playoffs for the only time in a decade and a half. Some as yet unconceived correction for financial imbalance — to, if nothing else, impart more substance to a championship — would not be unwelcome.

        What does it all mean? Yes, one comes to expect to win the majority of the time; the dice are fixed in our favor. By the same token, loss has a muted sting. I can accept playoff flameouts and bad contracts. I can watch my basketball team be a national embarrassment. I can pull for the Nationals or the Pirates or whomever out of a consideration for their own followers, the betterment of the game, the love of balance. I have won so much by no effort of my own, why shouldn’t I see it spread? This is not to suggest that life is not a brief trail of misery and suffering, but that for one such as myself, sport is a realm detached from the wretched world where her vicious claws are checked by gauzy wonderment.

        I have little way to convey this, I suppose, without the sentiment coming off as little more than a pompous stretch for magnanimity. But I don’t care; I’m a Yankee fan, remember?

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  4. Daniel says:

    As an Orioles fan, this last month of the season coming up terrifies me since I have no idea how to react to contention. I have to cover my eyes and hope it ends quickly, or else I’m going to have a heart attack.

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  5. Robert J. Baumann says:

    Patrick: amazing, as ever. Thank you. Thank you.

    I’d feel guilty about “leasing my fandom” — I do own Orioles and A’s caps — but I know that my heart has always been with the Brewers, who, in my lifetime, have provided nothing but lean years, the teasing of 2011 nothwithstanding. It is with them deeply.

    After last year, I almost decided to severely reduce my involvement with baseball, lol. It was too emotional, being at the game game that ended the longest season the Brewers had played since 1982. Fans were clawing at each others throats, McGehee jersey vs. Fielder jersey, Gallardo vs. Greinke. I couldn’t look my GF in the face — I didn’t want to see anything beautiful.

    But, a few days later, I was watching the World Series, imagining what that would be like, at Miller Park, with my lady to my left, my best bud to my right, my team in front of me, on top of the world, finally. And that’s what brought me back — that glorious imagine like a fine mist that scatters when I wave my hand at it.

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  6. CJ says:

    As a fan of both Schopenhauer and the Twins, this might be my favorite NotGraphs article ever.

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