It was a strange baseball season for Sox fans. In late June, it looked like another lost cause, and I drifted away, preferring binge-watching on Netflix to sitting through loss after loss. Then suddenly it all looked so possible. Boston got hot, Baltimore faded away. Forget about the wild card, we wrapped up the division with a tidy four-game margin.
Then October comes, and the September Red Sox are nowhere to be found, the team back to its anemic June version. sigh
The Sox's oh-for-three showing in the American League Division Series had me thinking a lot about the particular joys and heartbreaks of the game itself.
Game 2 was a blow-out. Boston didn't show up, and there wasn't much suspense.
But Games 1 and 3 were both close, and in baseball close games mean suspense, frustration, and missed opportunities. Game 3 was especially suspenseful, since it was an elimination game, win or go home. The suspense, the missed opportunities -- every runner left on base, every scorched line-drive into a Cleveland glove -- got me thinking.
Baseball is full of quiet space. The reason some people find it slow and boring is the same reason fans find it exciting. (Also the reason many serious fans despise the constant noise and fake entertainment at the ballpark.) Those built-in quiet spaces frame the game into a series of distinct moments. Action-pause, action-pause, action-pause. And each of those moments holds the potential for joy -- and its opposite.
Depending on the situation, that potential could be perfectly ordinary, or unbearably suspenseful. Will the pitcher preserve the no-hitter? Will that soaring ball clear the fence? Will the runner make it to the plate before the tag? Each time the pitcher goes into his wind-up, each time the batter takes his stance -- we wait -- we wait -- in our mind's eye, we see what we want to happen, imagining it as if we could will it to happen -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- knowing we have been in this position countless times before, the memories of every crazy, impossible, joyous comeback gathering in our minds -- until we feel ready to explode with joy, and then -- celebration or frustration. We cheer. Or more likely, We sigh. We curse. We groan. The whole ballpark lets loose a collective groan, and the millions of fans watching at home groan with them.
And then the whole thing begins again.
No other sport that I know of contains this kind of constant tension and suspense. The sports with more action -- soccer, basketball, hockey -- don't allow for it. The ball or the puck is moving too quickly. The moments of tension and suspense may be numerous, but they are fleeting. In baseball, where the action appears to stop, is the peak of tension, where we hold our collective breath.
And of course the action only appears to stop, to the untrained eye. That's another thing about baseball: the individual contests being fought nearly constantly within the team sport.
Other sports have defense guarding offense, and there's the lone hockey goalie versus everyone. These are in some sense individual-within-team. But pitcher versus batter is a game onto itself. The pitcher's arsenal, the count, the number of outs, the number of runners on base and which bases, the batter's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, the lineup, the defensive shifts -- all this and more is happening with every pitch. Not nothing is happening -- everything is happening.
So there we are, ALDS Game 3. Bottom of the sixth, Red Sox down 4-1. Runners on second and third, and only one out! Tying run at the plate! David Ortiz! Storybook ending? Comeon-comeon-comeon... No.
Bottom eight. Runners on first and second, two out, Xander Bogaerts smacks a bullet... right into a glove.
We're still breathing, not dead yet, but first our pitchers have to hold the score, each pitch an agony of suspense as we collectively will the Cleveland batters to do nothing. Finally three outs, we breathe, allow ourselves a millisecond to relax, then here we go again, our season in the balance, David Ortiz's final season in the balance.
Bottom nine, two on, two outs, here comes our storybook ending, we just know it, another chapter in the book called David Ortiz Greatest Clutch Hitter Ever -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- and our season ends.
Every at-bat, the potential for celebration or disappointment, for joy or heartbreak.
A much better writer said it best.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.