Meaningful Games: Distortions, Aberrations, and the Potential for Heartbreak

The playoffs are a strange prism that can distort and warp and obfuscate, in which Daniel Murphy can look like Babe goddamn Ruth, or at least someone other than Daniel Murphy, and in which the historically torrid Toronto offense can suddenly flag, and wilt, and disappear altogether.

If we were to speak disparagingly of bandwagon fans—which, again, I don’t wish to do—and if, by that term, we mean those whose sudden interest in the Blue Jays marks their initiation into whatever guild or loose assemblage contains those who feel deep passion for the game, then we might talk about how they’re now experiencing what the grizzled fan has long known: that the potential for heartbreak dwarfs the likelihood of elation. This is true of all sports, yes, but somehow it is truer—mercilessly so—for baseball. It’s always an unbalanced equation; the numbers are always off. When Toronto broke out and scored 11 runs in Game 3, it was easy to assume that whatever cobwebs had settled over the bats had been swept away and would remain gone for the duration. Then Game 4 wound up looking a lot like games 1 and 2 did, i.e., no bats. None of this can help predict the outcome of Game 5. In the end, we only have hope and faith, and when those agents are involved, pain lies in wait.

But we signed up for this. We signed up for something over which we can exert no control; for faint possibilities and the near certainty of disappointment. Sometimes the reward is triumph. Sometimes it’s only that experience of hope. Sometimes it’s levity, as when, trailing last night by a hundred runs, Jays manager John Gibbons sent infielder Cliff Pennington out to pitch an inning in order to save his bullpen arms for another day. This, if you’re just joining us, happens sometimes, and it’s always silly and strange and charmingly amusing. It’d be more amusing, of course, if it didn’t suggest your team was losing, but when it’s all you’ve got, you take it. There’s a warm humanity to it, something like make-believe, people switching roles, pantomiming their peers, or dusting off skills they haven’t exercised since Little League. In the end, though, it usually ends up affirming why pitchers do what they do, and why position players do something else.

It does also read like a stunt, a distraction amid the serious business of trying to win ballgames, and signals a kind of hopelessness—which refutes what I’m suggesting about the pervasiveness of hope being one of this game’s rewards. But remember that the League Championship Series is a best-of-seven affair. That means that, though their backs are to the wall, Toronto has another shot today and if they win that, another, and so on. The odds, of course, are discouraging. But the stubborn hope exists yet, flickering like a pilot light, and stranger things have most certainly happened.

A pennant-race dispatch from Invisible author Andrew Forbes (What You Need). In April 2016 we’ll be releasing The Utility of Boredom, a collection of Forbes’s baseball essays. 

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