“Baseball has gone away, its tail-lights receding in the woods and then winking off around the bend.” – Roger Angell, “Gonezo”, November 5, 2015, The New Yorker
As the Toronto Blue Jays’ season came to an end on Wednesday night, the radio clicking off as Troy Tulowitzki’s foul pop-up found its way into first baseman Carlos Santana’s mitt, I felt a familiar compulsion – to call in to Jays Talk, the Fan 590’s post game phone-in show. I often wonder why I feel that strong urge. Partly, I think that it is out of a sense of duty to protect Mike Wilner, the host, from the abuse and the inane arguments of the median caller – to raise the level of rhetoric above the whining and griping usually heard on the show.
The other part of the compulsion is that doing so forces me to organise my thoughts – I spend a lot of time thinking about baseball, and every now and again it’s nice to put something concrete on the record. In this instance, I was lucky enough to be the first caller of the night, and as such I wanted to take the opportunity to say something meaningful, to set the tone for my fellow Jays fans and to try and figure out why this had happened and to make it all feel OK. But what I ended up with was a meandering quest for meaning in the face of the end of a should-have-been-longer post-season run.
At the end of the call, I mentioned to Wilner that I wished that Roger Angell would eulogize this team, as I was longing for the type of closure to a baseball season that only he can provide. As I biked home, considering my call to Jays Talk and realizing that it had failed to result in me feeling as though my thoughts about the game had been fully organised and put in the proper order, it occurred to me to attempt to write myself the Roger Angell article that I was unrealistically hoping would show up on my Twitter feed.
Writers like Dickens, Thoreau, and Kierkegaard would spend hours a day walking – to observe, to contemplate, and to be inspired. I’m not usually one to do such a thing, but I felt like going for a run, and anyway, I had received a new Dodgers hat from my girlfriend for my birthday that needed a good sweat in it to start the break-in process. So off I went, thinking about how I was going to pull off writing an article like Roger Angell, the preeminent baseball writer of the past 50+ years.
After the run, here’s what I came up with.
At 3 in the morning, several hours after the final out was made in the final game of the Blue Jays season, it began to rain. Where the morning of game 5 appeared with golden sunlight and the promise of something joyful, the following days have been damp and wet and gray the way that the days after can often be – it really does seem like the end of the baseball season. The leaves are rapidly abandoning the trees, and this is it. The hopes and dreams of a World Series in Toronto are dead and gone for another year.
It all seemed so promising. Last year’s tyrannical march to the playoffs, stopped only by a hoodoo Kansas City Royals team, had steeled the team’s nerves for this year’s kick at the can. With even better pitching and largely the same corp of hitters, success seemed even more likely than the last year. And at first it all went so swimmingly – a cuticle-gnashing play-in game with the best possible ending, followed by a thorough demolition of a swagger-filled Texas Rangers team. The final play in that series a shrewd baserunning decision by our MVP – that it was allowed to happen due to an error by the offensively odorous Texas second baseman, all the better.
And then, the bats went cold. Save for a small ejaculation of offense with their backs against the fence in game 4, they stayed that way. Whether against a pitcher dripping more blood from his hand than an Episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, or a guy making his second career major league start, the Blue Jays boppers couldn’t muster the run support to match the stellar pitching performances they received through all five games of the series. Double plays grounded into – the saddest of possible words, Lindor to Kipnis to Sant – brought forth expletives, unleashed loudly from the top of a ladder into the October breeze.
A loss of this magnitude, and you sit by Lake Ontario and you wonder – what was it all for? Why are our emotions so tied up in these grown adult men playing a silly game? After all, these men (who are in fact not the heroes or demigods that we would at times like to believe, but just people who enjoy chicken hot dogs, are occasionally mean to Barry Davis, and who may sometimes in fact behave quite badly) may not even be on our team next year for another run at October glory. Are there not greater issues to live and die with? Do we not have better things to do than to spend our time cheering for laundry?
Of course, it’s absurd. As Sisyphus heaved his rock up the hill and up again, the players alternate back and forth between batting and defense, in an endless, summer-long ballet of meaningless struggle and futility. In a life where humankind searches for meaning and guidance in a world that seems devoid of such objective truths, philosopher Albert Camus proposed three choices, courses of action, when encountering the absurd – to escape existence, to turn to spiritual beliefs, or to recognize and accept the absurd.
Acceptance of the absurdity of the game of baseball can free us to enjoy it. The knowledge that it is indeed “just a silly game” grants us the opportunity to suspend our cynicism and disbelief, and settle in to a pseudo-spiritual relationship with the game. To enjoy it, despite being aware of the fact that you’re essentially watching a long series of glorified coin-flips. To yearn so badly for the strikeout when the other guys have runners on, threatening. To believe that Toronto batters managing batting averages less than half the Mendoza line could muster a cluster of hits off of the top relief pitcher of this series, of this season. And to hope against all hope that Jose, Josh, and Edwin could work a miracle off of the Cleveland closer (alas, like the Mudville nine’s Mighty Casey, the ending of our story was not as we’d hoped, dared to expect).
To remember back to your childhood, watching from the 500 level as Craig Grebeck plays shortstop and discussing with your dad whether there’s a hole in the ground between second and third base because he looks far too short compared to the rest of the players to possibly be standing on level ground. Or the time that my brother, my dad, and I were driving down to a game, and heard on the radio through the cadenced din of the windshield wipers that the match had been postponed – not because of the downpour occurring at the time (thank God for the dome!), but because a panel of the stadium roof had crashed to the field during batting practice (Goddamn dome…).
Baseball is a game, more than most others, with an intimate tie to memory and memories. The players remember the pitch they saw last time they were down 1-2, whether the runner took off with two strikes on the batter the last time he was on base. It’s also that game of memory for the fans. I remember being in Jill Guerra’s basement 10 years ago this week, watching Carlos Beltran strike out looking to end the NLCS with the tying run on second base. Being there again two weeks later, this time for a halloween party, and watching Adam Wainwright punch out another batter, this time with a slider, this time with the tying run at first, and this time to win it all. These memories are foggy, but they’re there.
Some memories are even foggier – like an old song lyric that you know you know, but can’t sing at the moment. That game that was on while you made dinner one night, or the sound of baseball in the background on the dock at the cottage. Driving somewhere on a summer evening with ESPN Sunday Night Baseball to keep you company. Nodding off to sleep as an 8-year old with a transistor radio under your pillow and the play-by-play man whispering lullabies to you, one half-inning at a time.
Where does that leave us? To watch the other Championship Series with muted interest – rooting for the Dodgers to vanquish the cubs, a decision made on a whim. And then a World Series, watched with the interest of a scorned lover curious about what their ex is up to now and whether they’ll have success (you hope they don’t). And then, once the Series is won and the parade is over, what? To do like Rogers Hornsby – spend the winter staring out the window, waiting for spring.
In this season of loss – preeminent Canadian baseball writer WP Kinsella choosing to end his own life via doctor assisted death, Jose Fernandez meeting a terrible and terribly early end at the age of only 24 in a boating accident, and long-long-long-time Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully signing off for the last time – we are faced with another. Not on the scale of death or tragedy, or even saying goodbye to a legend, but a loss nonetheless. In his piece on the end of the Mets’ season last year, Roger Angell relayed that former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti always told us that baseball is meant to break our hearts, but that he never said what to do with the pieces.¹
Angell has a suggestion for those pieces:
“Ah, well. What you do is take out the dog and bring in the mail on the way back. Give a little good thought to the Royals—you were great, guys, no kidding—and think of Zack Wheeler ready to join the rotation for us next year. Meantime, thanks, Grandy; tough darts, Murph, and have a heart also for all the other Mets players, who are feeling this much more than we are, believe it or not—out in the woods in their hunting gear at last, or home for dinner with the kids for a change—and, like us, wondering what to do with their evenings if not quite their lives.”