Baseball, Heartbreak, and the Absurd
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.