On the Beautiful Cruelty of Baseball

To the uninitiated, baseball appears to be a genteel pastime devoid of serious emotion. Just a few guys wearing pyjamas throwing and hitting a ball. Nothing too dramatic. Yet to those who live and die with every pitch, those with baseball in their blood, this is a game of beautiful cruelty.

It sucks you in, compels you to fall in love, before breaking your heart over and over again. The things that make it unique are often the things that hurt you in the end. But even in the pits of anguish, when your team has lost in excruciating fashion, we must marvel at this wondrous creation, this baseball, for it’s difficult to conceive of a more emotive sport.

In its own way, every sporting pursuit has the ability to cause pain. It’s a natural by-product of the physical theatre we so adore. If your football team loses on a Hail Mary catch, or your soccer team concedes a last-second goal, that hurts. But baseball seems somehow different. The long pre-amble. The building storylines. The place it occupies in America’s soul. Even the style of play drips with dramatic potential. There’s a rhythm and historical awareness to baseball that plunges deeper into our psyche than most other sports. That’s why we’re so routinely hurt by its machinations.

Without doubt, more dedication is required to follow a Major League Baseball team than a team from any other sport on earth. Nobody roots for a baseball team by chance. Each season is 162 games long. More if you include spring training and the playoffs. From February to November, one edge of winter to the other, there is baseball to be watched, analysed and digested. It’s an everyday investment.

We develop connections with players and teams, announcers and ballparks. Over the course of a year, the terrain of our rooting unfurls, just like the season. Emotions build in the spring, expand in the summer and reach a crescendo in the fall. Baseball is often sedate, but spasms of action frequently leave you to sort through the ruins of another flawed fantasy. The change in tempo can leave you shell-shocked.

The baseball fan deals with loss repeatedly, because even the very best teams encounter the dissatisfaction of defeat around sixty times per year. Moreover, since 1995, when the Wildcard was introduced, only five of 27 teams with the best regular season record have actually won the World Series in the same season. There’s an unmistakable brutality to that, an implied clause in the contract we all signed as kids. You just never know in baseball. Pain lurks around every corner. Joy also appears in seemingly random interludes, but far less often.

It’s often said that baseball is a game of failure. That’s not true for pitchers or fielders, but I subscribe to the sentiment. Ty Cobb, the greatest pure hitter who ever lived, had a lifetime batting average of .366. That means he failed to get a hit in 64% of his 13,072 trips to the plate. Similarly, Ted Williams had a lifetime on-base percentage of .482, the best of all-time. So even he failed to reach base, the most basic aim of a batter, 52% of the time.

At the confluence of luck and repetition, failure is a common residue in baseball. This game is just so damn difficult to play, and we tend to lose sight of that fact. These guys have dominated at every single level of organised baseball, from Little League right on through to Triple-A. It’s a process that takes decades, and it’s an objective attained by a miniscule percentage of those who actually try. Along the way, along the dusty highways of small town America, unfulfilled dreams are scattered like bird feed. People who sacrificed time with family in hope of making it. People who gave up promising jobs to chase one shot at the ultimate glory. People who just weren’t good enough when it really mattered most. Sure, other sports have similar journeys, but few match the ruthlessness of baseball.

Even those who reach the summit fail spectacularly to master baseball. There is just so much opportunity to fail and so many ways of losing a game. Who else in sport fails more than a baseball hitter? I struggle to think of anybody. That can be cruel, because these guys dedicate their lives to this craft only to have it laugh at them.

The same is true for executives, who build teams despite only having a tentative grasp of the winning formula. We know, vaguely, what provides us more shelter from the ravages of baseball fortune, but there is no way to stop it. After all these years, there is still no uniform way of winning games and championships. That’s tough.

To a certain degree, baseball and everyone associated with it are subservient to the overarching omnipotence of Lady Luck. Sure, having knowledge and ability helps tweak the programming slightly, but this is a peculiar game that answers to nobody. Baseball exists in its own world of bloops and squibs, choppers and passed balls, balks and wind-blown homers. A world where the 2001 New York Yankees lose the World Series and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays win the pennant. A world where Nathan Eovaldi can touch 98-mph with little success, and where RA Dickey can win a Cy Young Award throwing the knuckleball.

Any team can beat any other on any given day. Talent is very important, but even the most talented see their gifts make only a slight perforation in the fabric of baseball. The game is just so broad. As humans, we like to know things. We like to understand logic and control outcomes. Baseball doesn’t afford us that privilege. At least not with enough certainty or impact to satisfy. That frustrates us. It ultimately hurts us, too.

In baseball, the margins between success and failure are small, unpredictable and sometimes unpronounced. Every play is a mini tragedy. How can we explain a perfect pitch on the black that is fought off and blooped in for a walkoff hit? How can we explain a hitter completing mental gymnastics to guess which pitch is coming, then seeing it, putting a great swing on it, and propelling it to the furthest reaches of a stadium, where it is reeled in by a wall-scaling outfielder? How can we legislate for that?

Every moment in a baseball game elicits two emotions, often euphoria and anguish. Think of Bill Buckner. Think of Steve Bartman. Think of Leon Durham and Bucky Dent and Bill Mazerowski and Bobby Thomson. In the blink of an eye, without forewarning, one fan can be leaping for joy as another fan buries his or her head in despair. That’s true of many sports, but few have such a bold correlation between emotions. This keeps us coming back for more.

The codified nature of play adds to this feeling. Baseball is rigid, not fluid. We can weigh the impact of every single action. The finality of every interconnected play, slowly revealing a picture, can be devastating. With each pitch, the camera zooms outs, revealing the full mosaic. Often, a few individual tiles – or plays – determine whether we see a portrait of victory or a photo of defeat. Is it any wonder we’re all addicted?

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings,” said Earl Wilson. Indeed, the length and texture of games allows for ample contemplation, stoking the flames of emotion still further. Then the subtle nature of baseball heartache, creeping up and pouncing, can leave us in great distress.

But each failure, each small brush with pain, leaves us wanting more. After each setback, we chase success, so elusive and rare. And that’s the true beauty of baseball. It’s propensity to deliver misfortune only strengthens our love for the game. It’s an oxymoron, and one that I hold dear.


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