The crowd and its team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game counts too. – Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day
Summer ended abruptly this year, on a long fly ball into the dark of night. The World Series has yet to be played, but for me, the baseball season ended when Travis Ishikawa drove a stake into the heart of Cardinal Nation, on a walk-off home run into the right field stands of AT&T Park in Game Five of the National League Championship Series. It is the second time in three years that the Giants have defeated the Cardinals in the postseason, the final moments played out in the windy confines by the San Francisco Bay. As the Giants celebrated on the field and mobbed each other to the delight of 42,000 wildly screaming fans, the Cardinals players disappeared quietly into the visitors’ clubhouse, packed their gear and headed home. The sun has set on another season of baseball. Winter has unofficially begun. It is time to rake the leaves once again.
For the third consecutive year, the Cardinals ended the season with World Series glory just beyond the horizon, the sun beckoning in the near distance, only to be spoiled by the dark clouds of defeat. They were an underachieving assortment of aging veterans and untested rookies, at times displaying brilliant play, and seemingly blessed with unlimited talent. And then, as if to curse destiny, they would commit inexcusable running mistakes, fielding errors, and managerial blunders. The Cardinals limped into the postseason with their ace starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, fighting tendinitis in his elbow; and Yadier Molina, the best catcher in the game, recovering from a severe thumb sprain. When Molina keeled over in pain in Game Two of the NLCS with an oblique injury, unable to leave the batter’s box, I knew then that the Baseball Gods were unfavorably disposed. This year was not to be.
This is not to make excuses, for the Cardinals had their chances. The Giants simply made fewer mistakes. As former manager Bob Lemon said, “The two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen.” The Giants’ bullpen was flawless during the final three games in San Francisco, shutting down the Cardinals’ bats and stifling rallies and run opportunities with apparent ease. The St. Louis relief corps seemed always in disarray, uncertain of their roles and unsure of when or if they would be needed to carry the torch to victory.
When manager Mike Matheny put young Michael Wacha into a tied 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the season on the line in Game Five, my every instinct felt ill at ease. Wacha is a great young talent, but he is a starting pitcher, not a reliever, and he had not thrown a single pitch for 20 days. He, too, had been injured earlier in the year, and he had struggled to find his groove in late summer. How precise could his command really have been under such circumstances? Why would you not put Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, or Trevor Rosenthal, experienced relievers who are used to pressure-filled, game-on-the-line situations, to keep the season alive and give your team one more chance at sending the series back to the warmer, friendlier confines of hometown St. Louis? Sure enough, Wacha immediately yielded a single and a walk. The drumbeat of gloom sounded ever so near.
“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock,” said former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver about the game of baseball. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” When Wacha, struggling with his control, finally threw the ball over the goddamn plate, Ishikawa swung and connected. There was no need to look. The ball disappeared into the darkness. The season was over. As if in unison, Wacha and his teammates looked to the ground, catching a final glimpse of grass and dirt before walking silently into winter.
I should be used to these feelings by now, for baseball is more about failure and lost dreams than the spoils of victory. “It breaks your heart,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti. “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins, 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.”
Life will go on, of course. It always does. But the pain and disappointment in knowing that the season has ended on a soul-crushing blow to the 12 year-old residing inside my head, never really fades. For six months, I count on baseball to serve as a respite from war, violence, hatred and disease – all of the bad news that fills the daily papers and nightly cable shows. I rely on baseball as, writes Giamatti, a “buffer to the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive.” And then quickly, almost unexpectedly, it is over; “just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
As I write and look out my window on a cool October morning, the sun shines brightly as the leaves sway in the gentle breeze of fall. The trees are full of promise and color on this day, their leaves falling effortlessly to the ground and covering the smooth green grass below. The birds are singing from the higher branches as the squirrels run and jump and search for nuts, seemingly oblivious to my sorrow. It is then I understand something I often forget during the season – that baseball is only a game, a glorious game, full of history and memories, moments of bliss and boredom and frustration, feelings of joy and anguish, setbacks and heartache. It is life in nine inning segments. Regardless of the outcome of any game or season, there will be another game, another season, with fresh faces and familiar struts adorning the diamond-shaped fields of this, our national pastime.
“Baseball,” wrote Saul Steinberg, “is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.” This all may be true. But for today, there is no joy in Mudville. The Cardinals have lost. The season is over. The cold chills and dark nights of winter have begun.
So, until next year, when a warm breeze in early March awakens my senses and lifts my spirits, beckoning the start of a new season, I will develop perspective and lead a normal life. I will attempt to live in the present, appreciate the wonders of the universe, and make the most of life. But this, too, will pass. For a fresh start to a new season awaits the first hint of spring. Such is the life of a baseball fan.