Sports, from the moment you meet them, are about the pain.
It’s October 4, 2017 and I’m pacing in my living room. Actively pacing, too. Absolutely putting a line in my carpet as I move back and forth. The Rockies are down 6-5, having crawled their way back from a 6-0 deficit, and they are making the Diamondbacks at least work for this game. Back in the third inning, it looked like a blowout, a sad ending to a fun season. But now it’s 6-5. I began the night planning on pacing, then found the couch in despair, and now I was pacing again.
Sports are a complicated relationship for anyone who devotes a significant amount of their limited time alive to them. Rarely can you answer the question “why do you care so much?” without pausing as those words rattle around in your soul. Why do we care so much?
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: There is nothing rational about sports fandom. Not. One. Thing. There is nothing that makes sense here. We spend hours talking about sports, we build friendships around them, we lose sleep thinking about them, and none of it makes any tangible sense. Why do we care so much?
But as I paced, as Pat Neshek set to fire a pitch, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world and I may never be able to answer why.
There comes a time when anyone’s passion becomes an unhealthy obsession. We are only so close from unhinging our mind from the daily minutiae and throwing ourselves into becoming hermits in the woods, forgetting all of our knowledge except the pitch sequence of Jon Gray’s 16 strikeout game in 2016 which we repeat to passersby or family callers. There is only so far we can go before we’ve gone too far and the line isn’t always in the same place.
Sports are both the madness that we are so close to and also the center of gravity that keeps us from falling into it. They push us to the brink of obsession (as anyone who has wasted hours pouring over a FanGraphs spreadsheet will tell you). But they’re also solid ground, a force standing in the way of you losing yourself in the pressures of life.
★ ★ ★
I’m 18 years old and it’s orientation day at college. Looking back, it’s one of the easiest things a person can do. You show up, your day is planned, and for the most part you just sit and get free food and cookies. You have zero responsibilities. It’s amazing!
But at 18 and as an incoming freshman there are about 100,000 emotions in your brain all at once, and they are all screaming for you to release them. This is new, different, weird, and not as much fun as you originally hoped. At 18, you’re not really an identity yet, you’re barely a person. But that’s not my point. My point is, I’m 18, and I’m at orientation.
When you’re a kid you are forced to grapple with the fact that a lot of your life is out of your control. But at 18, and at college orientation, you have this brand new idea shoved down your throat that choices suddenly matter. That your life is now fully yours to own. Sure, you have guidance but you are the master of your own fate now. It is simultaneously terrifying and freeing, like any good thing.
So I’m 18 and I’m at orientation. I’m grappling with this new found realization that I am the only one in control now and I look around and realize everyone else is too.
The orientation leader, likely experienced and well-travelled in the adult realization that nobody is guaranteed to clean up your mistakes for you anymore, calls everyone to the front of the room and says we’re going to do trust falls.
A trust fall, if you haven’t ever done something like this, is basically turning around and falling. It’s an exercise to build a foundation for a team or group, instill the belief that you can trust other people to catch you. But here and now, at college orientation in 2007, this is an exercise in giving up your fear of the things you cannot control and trusting that everything will be OK. This is tough to learn at 38, let alone 18, but here were a group of teens gathering around each other trying to not catch each other in awkward places.
The thing about a trust fall is that you always get caught. These people are prepared to catch you, that’s why they’re here after all, but whether it’s your first fall or your 50th, the moment you lean and give up your balance your heart catches. You have survival instincts and they all flare on at once saying “WHAT THE HELL DUDE?!” It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, you’re just wired to flash panic before giving in.
Sports, in their own way, are a trust fall. Every night the elation and frustrations are an escape from the things you can control. It’s good for the soul to fall into them, to allow yourself to be OK with the loss of control. Sports can be a reprieve from the daily realization that your life is a series of choices you have to make to succeed or fail. A reminder that sometimes you have to allow things to happen and there is nothing else you can do but hope for the best as you watch Pat Neshek pitch to Archie Bradley with two men on and a one-run deficit to hold.
★ ★ ★
I often make the joke that baseball fandom is simply caring about “geometry, physics, and a stick.” It’s a joke, but like any joke, it’s grounded in truth.
The truth is a baseball season can be determined not just by skill or talent but by geometry angles and physics. Math and science are integral parts of day-to-day life (your algebra teacher was right), and that’s never more apparent than in baseball when sometimes, guys just lose the geometry lottery. Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you want, but sometimes an angle or a spin determines the entire outcome of a season.
That’s why I’m pacing.
I’m not worried about Pat Neshek’s skill. He’s proven that by being in the majors and pitching well for a playoff team. I’m worried that the ball will miss a spin or hit the bat at an angle that forces it in a direction nobody could anticipate.
So all the yelling about roster construction, all the worrying about the right guy in the right situation, all the arguing about who is better or not—geometry makes it irrelevant, a moot point, a silly waste of time like most things we worry about. The geometry of baseball reminds us that you can do everything right and it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you just have to give up control and hope for the best.
So, I’m not pacing because I’m too scared to trust fall, I’m pacing because I’ve already fallen. My heart is just catching, these are just my survival instincts.
Pat Neshek fired his pitch.
We know what happened next.
★ ★ ★
I wish I could say that was some kind of pinnacle moment that wore me out on sports, that Archie Bradley’s triple was a nail in a coffin being made for over 20 decades. I wish I could say that I had given up on putting my emotions into this trust fall, this thing I cannot control. But I’m also very glad that I can’t say that.
I’m glad I’m here again. I’m glad I can worry about something other than politics or saving for a down payment on a house. I’m glad that I’m back on the chair, turning around, and falling. I’m excited to feel my survival instincts again.
The geometry, emotion, and pain of baseball are why I keep coming back. The passion for this game I have zero control over is simultaneously terrifying and freeing, like any good thing.