Baseball, Heartbreak, and the Absurd

Happy today to post this from my colleague Jeffrey Scholes, the Director for the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Jeff sends up a cry shared by all Texas Rangers fans, after this last World Series, about the absurdity and cruelty of the universe.

by Jeffrey Scholes

We have been told that baseball is a religion by movies, scholars, players, pastors and especially fans. Whether this equation draws on either an over-romanticization of the sport, as we get in films such as Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, or from a stripping of religion of its transcendent objects, at the very least, it’s safe to say that baseball is religious for many. As a life-long baseball fan, I’ve known this generally and intuitively. But as a life-long Texas Rangers fan, I now know this specifically and viscerally.

The loss in the World Series at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals late last month in game 7 was painful enough, but the Rangers lost last year in the final game of the season too. You’d think the collective fan memory wouldn’t be that short or own coping skills wouldn’t atrophy that quickly so as to leave Rangers fans with no psychological protection. Ask a current Cubs fan or a White Sox fan six years ago or a Red Sox fan seven years ago about reconciling short memories with 100 year-old ones. Thankfully (mercifully?) the wounds incurred by fans of the Rangers are superficial by comparison. And no doubt, the charge of superficiality is likewise made by those who wonder how on earth religion and a game in which millionaires hit a leather ball with a wooden stick can even be mentioned in the same sentence. I understand the reaction of both the long-suffering fan and the sports critic alike, but as the little girl in John Feinberg’s example of the futility of rational arguments in the face of pain, I say to both, “Yes, but it still hurts!”

The pain that requires some kind of religious medication is not there by virtue of the fact that the Rangers lost in the World Series for the second time in a calendar year. It is the pain that comes from reflecting on how the Rangers lost—specifically in game 6. With a 3-2 series lead and needing one more game to win their first championship in 50 years of franchise history, the Rangers blew five leads in last Thursday’s game.

Admittedly, the difference between wins and losses in baseball often comes down to a pitch moving one centimeter higher than it should be or a fielder standing one foot to his left before a ball is hit. Hence leads can change and games can be won or lost in “butterfly effect” fashion that can’t really be applied to football or basketball. Yet in game 6, the micro became macro in a hurry as the butterfly’s wings flapped one foot away from a drunk with the nuclear codes.

The Rangers had a two run lead, two outs on the Cardinals with two strikes thrown to the opposing batter in the “last inning” of the game—TWICE. The Cardinals reducing both of these leads to zero in do-or-die moments for them before hitting the winning homerun—well that simply doesn’t happen in baseball. On pitching to the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman in the 10th, Rangers’ pitcher Scott Feldman sums it up: "I was one strike away. That pitch there, I didn't quite get it in enough and he was able to get enough of the bat on it to knock it into center field." An inch more inside to Berkman, and who knows. We can only be left to wonder.

Every team that loses in the World Series can point to reasons for the result, some more sound than others. And yes, Rangers fans should be happy with a more successful season than 28 other teams this year. But the way game 6 was lost, all of the appreciation for a great season or the giving of an obligatory “we’ll get ‘em next year!” does not heal. Nor do counterfactuals used as rationales (“If Cruz had a slightly better read on that ball, he would have caught it!”).

I know that Red Sox fans have their “Buckner moment” and Cubs fans have their Steve Bartman; both of which punctuate as well as scapegoat their decades of heartbreak. But both teams also have a religious infrastructure to explain the inexplicable and to comfort, at least partially, the extremely discomforting losing seasons year after year. Heart-attacks as well as heartbreaks demand diagnosis and when the pain is chronic, failed yearly treatments will move the most skeptical fan into the transcendent for the cure. But what about acute pain that occurred at a time when no attack was imminent nor had one happened before?

Absent a history of devastating losses and the ability to experiment with a host of religious palliatives, Rangers fans are left to deal with a kind of absurd occurrence. They may never have to experience something like this again with a championship next year or another unending World Series appearance drought. Or they may be dealt another trauma sooner than they’d like. Either way, game 6 stands alone with no history and no future. In religious terms, the isolated, seemingly pointless—yes absurd—can shove you into a Kierkegaardian leap of faith that next will be different or into a Nietzschean resignation to a nihilistic world or into something in between.

Even in the case of the historically forgotten Texas Rangers, baseball, yet again, draws on religious ways of thinking to do the work of interpretation. Though game 6 has nothing to do with romanticizing baseball or the kind of moralistic didactics that show how one can learn from such seemingly random events. The game is just there to do some damage for the time being. And while fans of the Texas Rangers have no recourse to their own pantheon that can intercede on their behalf to explain the pain away or be manipulated so that this doesn’t happen again, this may be the only time in which I wish we did.


Anonymous said…
As a native St. Louisan and thus a Cardinals fan - I'm a fair-weather one, myself, but in a family of diehard, year-in-year-out supporters - I tuned in and out of Game 6 with a sense of obligation, feeling that I had to watch the inevitable loss. Man, it was amazing to watch that ninth inning last-strike comeback, and then another one! In some ways it was a kind of religious experience for me too. I never get excited about sports events, ever, but I absolutely loved it. It would be interesting to write about a sporting event with this kind of religious valence from both perspectives.
I am, honestly, sorry for your loss. But go Cards!
LD said…
Nicely written.

That said, I am not a bit sorry for the Rangers' loss. I'm a Giants fan. Could barely stomach the Rangers fans' sense of entitlement last year, because their poor club had never won the series. Boo-frickin'-hoo. The Giants had been in a WS drought longer than the Rangers, new moniker or old, had even existed. You want heartbreak? Watch the last inning, the last OUT, of game 7, 1962. And as for a nihilism-inducing game 6, nothing stacks up to the 2002 WS. When Dusty Baker pulled the pitcher, I knew -- *knew* -- that all was lost. And yet I could not look away.

Now you are beginning -- just *beginning* -- to grasp -- or gasp at -- the unrelenting awfulness of Losing. Loyal though despairing -- *that's* the price of being a real baseball fan. So, welcome to the fellowship.

Next lesson: understanding at an existential level what it means to truly hate the Yankees. There are layers and layers....
Christopher said…
Great post, Jeffrey. As a fellow Rangers fan, this was painfully therapeutic to read. Thanks.

LD, thank you for highlighting so well the ironies of sports as religion. Though I'm surely guilty myself, I find few things more entertaining than someone whining about another team's fan base having a sense of entitlement and then explaining why their own team was/is more entitled. It's like a bunch of religionists bickering over which denomination or sect is the most persecuted.
LD said…
I didn't say the Giants were entitled. I said that the claim of entitlement on the part of Rangers fans, which I heard INCESSANTLY last year -- "in 40+ years, we've never won" -- is a crock of crap. You don't get a World Series trophy because you've been waiting your turn. You don't get it because you're "due." Just ask the Cubs. You get it because over a 162 game season and a ridiculously long playoff season, you did what had to be done when it had to be done.

There's only one way to win the World Series, but there are lots of ways to lose it. The way the Rangers lost it this year was particularly, spectacularly awful. It was, as this blog post seems to suggest, existentially awful. So awful that for a Rangers fan to love his team anyhow is nothing less than an act of faith. That's a kind of loyalty I can respect, very different from the petulant whining I heard last year. Rangers fans have earned the right to curse the fates.

Welcome to baseball.
LD said…
Sorry to be so ferocious. The combination of sports and academics is getting on my nerves lately: Good Sports
Christopher said…
My sense is that you heard whining because you are a fan of the team they were playing against. I heard nothing even closely approaching whining or sense of entitlement from Rangers fans, but I sure heard a lot of what sounded like that from Giants fans (much of what sounded like your initial comment).
LD said…
Well, your sense ends where my experience begins, and quite possibly much sooner than that. Unfortunately, far too many of my acquaintances are newly-minted Rangers fans. Of course, that pretty much describes *all* Rangers fans, doesn't it. There's nothing quite like being told that your team's magnificent, much longed-for, long-awaited WS victory was an undeserved fluke, that it wasn't FAIR. I even got -- I kid you not -- the argument that the Rangers should have won because they were the more morally upright team, while the Giants represent sinful San Francisco.

That a loss in baseball -- or any sport -- can be viewed as a problem of theodicy is absolutely fascinating. However, I think linking victory with virtue is a dangerous game, as we can see from the Penn State scandal and the hagiographical lionization of Joe Paterno.
Christopher said…
"Of course, that pretty much describes *all* Rangers fans, doesn't it."

Of course it doesn't, as Jeffrey's post ("... as a life-long Texas Rangers fan ...") and the parallel lifelong fanhood of most native residents of the Dallas area (to say nothing of fans from other parts of Texas and much of Mexico) demonstrates. I don't doubt that you know a handful of friends who jumped on the Rangers bandwagon last year, but, to borrow a line, your sense ends where my experience begins, and quite possibly much sooner than that.
Joe Reiff said…
I feel your pain, Jeffrey. I've been a baseball fan for 50 years, and this season was pretty remarkable, what with that incredible last night of the season (I'm a Braves fan, btw), and then that Game 6 of the WS. Never seen anything like those last three innings, and probably never will again.
Joe Reiff said…
And also, re-reading your post got me to remembering Game 7 of the 1991 WS (still, for my money, the greatest Series ever, even though the Braves lost) and that fateful play when Lonnie Smith hesitated rounding second on Pendleton's double to the wall. If only he'd kept going, the Braves win the game 1-0 and the Series. 'Twas not to be...