Baseball is not a game for people who like happy endings, I don’t believe.
Actually, that’s not entirely what I mean to say; sports in general are not ideal for people who want, who crave, perhaps even need, a happy ending. If you need to come out the winner, to have your big musical number at the end and maybe a parade, sports might not be the most satisfying thing in the world for you.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. After all, hope springs eternal, and maybe the thing that keeps people coming back to sports actually is that need for a happy ending. Sure, we almost never get it, but that doesn’t keep us from hoping. From wanting. From trying again and again, like Charlie Brown running at that football over, and over, and over. Maybe we’re all just too gullible to see we’re not going to get to kick the ball yet again, but it’s in our nature to believe that no, it really will happen this time.
But there’s a part of me that really does wonder at the why of sports, and the why of baseball most of all. Baseball is my favourite sport, the sport I love, my first real love in a lot of ways. You do not choose your family, and thus do not choose the people you are forced to love by chance. I can pretend not to care about my father’s drinking or my brother’s meth problem, but I don’t really have much of a choice to actually stop caring. But baseball? I chose to love baseball. Well, I think I did, anyway; it never felt like a choice, but it had to be, right? I’m sure if I just tried hard enough, I could stop caring about baseball. Hundred percent sure. Totally could. I could stop any time.
So anyway, let’s talk about baseball, huh?
I don’t know that baseball is for people who like happy endings. Other sports too, sure, but baseball is special. Football requires you to care for sixteen weeks, plus some playoffs, and every Sunday is like a party. Everyone loves going to parties, right? And sure, there’s Monday night football, and the occasional Thursday night scrum, but football is, by and large, one big party per week. And if you decide to skip a week, you have probably just one game you have to completely catch up on, along with the general news and notes from another dozen.
The NHL and NBA are a little more intensive; you’re talking a couple games a week for each sport, every week for months. The playoffs in each league run an absurdly long time, much longer than I feel like they really should, but the regular season is manageable. It’s a lot, but it’s not too much. Three hockey games a week to watch, or at least track what happens, is not that much stuff to worry about.
Baseball, though, is different. We all know it. Baseball....takes time. Lots of time. I’m not talking about pace of play concerns, either, though obviously the fact of baseball’s time exacerbates moments when that time seems to take too much time. No, what I mean is that baseball just takes a lot of time. It takes months upon months. It takes hours upon hours. There’s a baseball game, on average, six days a week, every week, from early March through the end of September. Add in the playoffs, potentially, and you might watch your team play baseball, or at least follow a game involving your team, close to 200 times in a year. Three hours a game, and you’re talking about 600 hours of baseball. Pregame shows, postgame shows, the article you’re reading right now...how many hours in a year do you watch baseball? How many hours do you think about it? I don’t mean to downplay the investments of fans in any other sports; everyone passionate about any hobby spends hour after hour thinking about it, if nothing else. But baseball, well, baseball takes time. I believe I may have said that before.
It is both the blessing and the curse of baseball that there is simply so much of it. It is a constant companion during the season, feeling more like a friend than a social engagement, and there are times when nothing in the world is more comforting than a baseball game pouring from your car’s speakers. On the other hand, how much can one really care about a single game in mid-June when there are 161 others just like it? What if there are more like 185 just like it? What can you possibly hope to take away from any one contest when it is dwarfed, utterly, by the enormity of baseball? The beach does not miss a single grain of sand.
When the investment is so long, so monumental, and yet so monolithic, so resistant to segmentation, what is there to do but try to simply enjoy all of it, all the time, whenever you can? Baseball is a game that requires you to care about it for seven months a year, but refuses to allow you to care only a little, only when you want to. Or at least it is for me.
And that’s why I wonder how you could love baseball if you still always want a happy ending. If you’re sitting through sixteen, maybe twenty games, then I could see a limit on your investment. But baseball has this way of simply swallowing up your care, always asking for more, but punishing too much investment in a twelve-inning one-run loss. You care too much about those, and you’ll burn out or lose all perspective entirely. But care too little, and it’s easy to lose track of a season, to simply get lost in the wash, unable to keep track of who this new reliever you’re watching is, and where he came from, and who he replaced. And then it just slips away from you.
At the end of all that, can you still demand a happy ending? If you live with the game every single night for seven months, can you still be devastated if things don’t go your way? After all, nearly every season ends with a loss, either a game or the simple reality of the standings. If you’re the kind of person who needs the loose ends tied up and a smile on your face when the credits start to roll, how can you ever love a game that demands so much, in such balance, with no end in sight, and offers so little in return? In my adult life, only twice has the season ended exactly the way I hoped. There was a third time within my life, but I don’t remember 1982, being barely cognizant at the time. I only somewhat remember 1985, mostly my father and uncle screaming at the television, but I don’t really remember the games. By ‘87 I was old enough to understand, and I remember being convinced the Twins were cheating with the air conditioning in the Metrodome. But only twice have I experienced a season that did not end in failure. In a loss. In going home without the trophy.
Luckily for me, I’m not the sort of person who needs happy endings. In fact, I probably don’t even like happy endings all that much. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not watching Grave of the Fireflies for fun or anything, but downer endings are usually just fine by me. Even so, I want my baseball to end the way I want it, at least sometimes, and yet it almost never does. So what is a fan to do?
What it is important we do is appreciate the moments along the way. Some are large, some are small. Some we hardly even notice, except for the faint smile we’re maybe left with at a particularly well executed changeup that leaves a hitter swinging himself to one knee some night in July. Does that moment change the outcome of the season by itself? Of course not. It does, however, help to add up over the course of the whole year along with thousands of others. And every one of them means something to someone.
Every once in awhile, though, you get a moment that is not small. Sometimes you get a moment that is big. Huge, even. Not just in terms of winning or losing a season, but what the moment means to the fans, to the franchise, sometimes even to the greater sport.
Adam Wainwright gave us a moment like that last night. Maybe not a moment that really matters to the sport as a whole, although it was a Sunday night nationally televised game between two of baseball’s premier franchises. But in terms of the Cardinals, and those of us who follow them? That was a capital-em Moment, the sort we should hold close, to recall in the cold dark of winter, when there is no baseball.
Last night we saw a lion, older and slower than he once was, certainly, but still proud, take the stage in one of the biggest moments of the year. And he put on a show. No, the fastball didn’t exactly sizzle, but it went where he wanted, and that legendary curve was back nearly all the way, if only for one night. Adam Wainwright made one of the hottest offenses in baseball look helpless last night, just like the old days. I didn’t expect him to do it, and I’ll bet not many of you did either. That’s not a failure of belief on anyone’s part; it’s simple understanding of time, and which way it always runs.
For one night, though, in front of a nationwide audience, time did not, in fact, flow in its normally expected direction. Instead, it stood entirely still, letting our old lion put on a show. And it was quite a show.
In the end, it’s possible that last night’s performance will make little or even no difference in the direction the season ultimately goes. The Cardinals have enough flaws they are going to have a tough time holding on to a playoff spot, I believe. The 2019 club will look significantly different from this year’s crew, largely by necessity. It’s possible that Adam Wainwright’s masterpiece will go down as one great moment in a late-season swoon that knocked the Redbirds clear of the playoffs entirely. But then again, maybe it won’t.
But really, does it matter? I would love a happy ending to the 2018 season, but I recognise how unlikely that is to happen. There is a nearly statistically insignificant chance that this Cardinal team has a World Series run in them, should they even make it into the postseason. And yet, I’ll remember Adam Wainwright in mid-September, pitching like it was mid-September of five years ago, far longer than I can recall the bitter taste of whatever loss it is that almost certainly will end this season. I would be willing to be that many of you will as well.
Last night we saw a great Moment, perhaps the final one of Adam Wainwright’s career. Maybe just the last one of his career in Cardinal red. Or maybe not. There might be more moments to come. Who knows, really? It feels like it might have been one of the very last, though.
If it was, it was a fitting one. It was everything we could ask from the lion in winter. And when 2018 is gone, that moment is one that I will keep with me. It may not make the end of the season any different. But it will in the minds of those of us who saw it.