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

TLDR: On Learning to Die

Situated in the farthest reaches of Angels Stadium on July 9th, as part of this summer’s SABR fesitivites, a number of things occurred to me: this hot dog, with all this mustard on it, is delicious; this beer, with all this beer in it, is delicious; Mike Trout is secretly asking me to be his friend from right field or, like, a mentor-type person.

One thing that didn’t occur to me is where either of the teams playing — i.e. the Angels and Mariners — where either of them stood in the AL West or Wild Card standings.

The peculiar thing about this is that, a mere two-plus months later, the season was/is over — and, in the case of Seattle, has been over for some time. In the meantime, playoff races have materialized, have dissolved, have re-emerged in unlikely places, and have come to what can only be referred to as a “glorious, pulsating climax.”

Again, all in fewer than three months.

Inspecting this phenomenon, a fact reveals itself: the baseball season is (just?) long enough such that one is compelled to forget, at some point along the way, that it ever ends — to forget, moreover, that the actions of an early summer game have real consequences.

Intellectually, of course, everyone understands this. When a manager or player says that he or the team are taking things “one game at a time,” he’s essentially saying, “This particular game is no different than the one before it, the one after it.”

The actions of those managers and players suggest differently, however.

Consider: while discussing Terry Francona’s lineup for Boston’s 162nd game of the season, NESN colorman Jerry Remy noted that the Red Sox would be batting Jacoby Ellsbury, Dusting Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Adrian Gonzalez — in that order — to “get their best four hitters as many plate appearances as possible.”

Anyone familiar with the science of lineup optimization knows that, at its most basic level, the ideal strategy is to give the most plate appearances to the best players. And yet, a number of managers don’t construct their lineups like that at all. They put speedy guys in the leadoff spot. They put guys who “handle the bat” in the second spot. By Remy’s tone, one was supposed to find Francona’s intentions exceptional. One was supposed to think that Francona was, in some way, “pulling all the stops out.”

Because humans play the game, “roles” have some value, even if they don’t allow for the greatest theoretical number of runs. And Francona, of course, is (or was, now, I guess) hardly the most flagrant offender in this regard (and was hamstrung at the end of the season by an injury to one of his best hitters in Kevin Youkilis). But he had batted Mike Aviles in the two spot as recently as the previous Wednesday — had, in fact, batted Jed Lowrie cleanup in the previous game.

The specific choices of Terry Francona aren’t the point here, though. The point is how humans are only willing to abandon the comfort of their given roles once the consequences become conspicuously dire. Only at such a time as the urgency of a situation becomes intelligible on a visceral level — in the form of Game 162, for example — that one is able to fully embrace all the possibilities.

This is also why, for example, the obedient bureaucrat of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru is unable to pursue capital-T Truth until he’s diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Life, like the baseball season, is long enough that we don’t fully comprehend the urgency of it until we understand, viscerally, that it has an end. “To philosophize,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century (and wrote Cicero before that), “is to learn how to die.”

That’s fine for Montaigne to say — but the challenge, of course, is in keeping this idea of death right before us at all times, such that we act in a vital and engaged and creative and totally open way every moment and not just when we’re forced to such measures by circumstance. It’s a pretty hard challenge, turns out — one at which the author, for example, is perpetually failing. And at which the reader is failing pretty often, too, I’m guessing.