Bottom of the Sixth

Pendulum of Baseball

In her first couple of years, as a young fan still gazing out at the magic from within her father’s shadow, Abigail instantly took to baseball. The team was good and won a lot of games. They had five pitchers that each in their own right would be aces on any other staff. Instead, together they formed one of the most legendary pitching staffs ever to crisscross the country. Their lineup wasn’t the most consistent, but at any time anyone with a bat could hit the ball out of the park. It seemed that most days they only ever needed one or two runs. Games seemed to be decided just by the team taking the field and the only suspense was who was going to hit the home run.

The team had seemed to be so charmed during her early years of watching them. There seemed to be a magic about them and she liked to think that magic was real and just limited to her team. She approached every game as if it were already won. Her father cautioned her on the notion. He made sure to tell her stories about how the team, not so long ago, routinely finished dead last in the standings. While she didn’t think he was lying, she did think they were exaggerated narratives to back her father’s modest personality.

She grew convinced that the team could do no harm. And while the team didn’t win the championship every year, when they did, the memory of a past failure was virtually erased. Her team fandom was born in the same heat that the crown was forged and it was all she knew. This is what she thought baseball was. Great pitching. A big hit. Another championship. Baseball.

The team winning was just baseball to her in those days. It was all she knew.

Just as much as she remembers the moment she fell in love with the game, she vividly remembers the moment it all came crashing down. Abigail remembers when the fires were suddenly extinguished and she remembers when her baseball innocence was lost.

The team at that point had won the division five straight times and the last two championships when suddenly they couldn’t do anything right. The ace of the staff was hurt before the season, with rumors of a drunk-driving accident being the cause. A trade had taken another ace to another team and the bats were getting old, although it would take her a few years to fully understand that implication.

For half a season, they found themselves sitting at the exact point of baseball mediocrity. They had as many wins as losses and sat as many games from the basement as they did from the penthouse. It was a position they were actually fortunate to be in.

She remembered thinking how she was convinced at the All-Star break that the second half would be better and they would make a great run that would make all of baseball’s past great runs look like crawls. She envisioned them only losing 10 times in the second half, storming their way to a third straight championship.

The reality was that they lost 10 games in their first 15 after the break, but she still held out hope that was rewarded. A rookie pitcher came up and infused the team with a new attitude and spirit. A couple of the aging bats suddenly came alive and the amazing plays of the shortstop seemed to spark the team in the field. They went on a near-miraculous tear and the magic was back.

It wasn’t just that they kept winning that built up her dreams of another championship, it was the way they were doing it. Near no-hitter, walk-off grand slams, a new hero every night. The team was as she knew them, nearly unbeatable. She felt the magic was back and that nothing would stop them.

With a week left in the season, the team found themselves just two games back starting a three-game series against the first-place team at home. Her dad took her to that Friday’s night game and was overjoyed as her boys took a two-run lead in the first inning. The runs would hold up over the course of the next seven innings and both pitchers became nearly unhittable. In the top of the ninth, the Rivals would get the bases loaded without any outs. Even in that desperate moment, she was convinced and knew her team would triumph.

Then, a looping fly ball made its way out to shallow left-center field. Just as it looked like it was going to drop in, the shortstop came out of nowhere to snag the ball. The runner at second thought it was going to drop in and was doubled off as he tried to make his way back. Just like that, there were two outs and victory seemed assured. It was a beautiful play the shortstop made on it. So beautiful that it could only be labeled as magic. The entire stadium shook as everyone stood. She momentarily got scared thinking the stadium was going to come crashing around her.

Her father, meanwhile, just stood up, smiled, and clapped. He wouldn’t give in to the mania that swept the rest of the crowd. He was a seasoned fan who did not necessarily believe in magic. He was a man of faith, which he would tell her later in life, precluded him from believing in magic. At that moment, Abigail wished he was hysterical like her … jumping up and down like her. But he wasn’t. It was almost as if he knew something she didn’t. In the end, to her horror, she would realize that he did.

With the fielders still glowing in their position and the home dugout still congratulating themselves, the very next pitch was crushed. The image of the centerfielder sprinting to the deepest part of the field and jumping at the wall as the ball cleared his glove by a good 10 feet was burned into her memory. She felt that same desperation as the centerfielder to bring the ball back, even against all hope. The pendulum of baseball had suddenly, if not predictably, swung back and crushed the faithful.

She found it odd when, as the rest of the crowd slumped in their seats or stood with their hands on their heads, her father stood up again and clapped. This time, he wasn’t smiling but yelled out words of encouragement.

The final out of the half inning came quickly, and in the bottom of the inning, the home team got to work quickly. They put runners on second and third with no outs and the stadium was buzzing again. A grounder and a popup quickly softened the mood of the stadium again, even with the clean-up hitter coming up. She suddenly realized that the previous pain and heartbreak from a few minutes before was just a setup for this moment. Every great story needs a moment when it seemed all hope was lost. She just knew that moment was this. She knew that the pivotal home run was about to come.

But it never did. The batter would strike out.

She refused to cry that night. She refused to believe that the game effectively ended their season. They were three games out, but wins in the next two games would have them back at one game with six more to play, half of them at home.

When they were blown out the next day, Abigail still refused to yield and kept on recalculating what they needed to do. When they won the third game, she knew they could make up three games with six to go.

It didn’t happen as the Boys could not seem to recover from the Friday night blast to center. Two nights and two losses later, they were officially eliminated as she quietly sobbed behind her father’s chair. She could not understand what had just happened. She could not understand how her team had lost. It boggled her mind and she struggled to cope with the emotions.

She was angry at her dad, as well. She felt like if he had gone crazy at the stadium, they would have won. She felt like had he shown a little more belief in the magic, the baseball gods would not be punishing them in such a harsh way. She felt betrayed by her father, by the magic, and by her team and she had never felt anything so awful in her life before.

Those moments were burned into her soul, but there have been countless heartbreaks since then. For true fans … the true believers, every loss is heartbreak. Every loss feels like something sharp to the chest. It was just a matter of degree. Getting blown out by a first place team from another division in the second week of the season feels like a sewing needle to the chest. Losing in the bottom of the ninth to your archrival when you have a lead and need to win to stay in the playoff hunt feels like an industrial chainsaw ripping through you.

That first big heartbreak gets scorched onto your baseball soul. It may even change you for life and change how you view everything. It is the true trial by fire. Many feel that first flash and walk away. Others continue through the fire, waiting for redemption because that is what baseball and sports are about. Failure. Redemption. Repeat.

After that first big heartbreak, losing never becomes easier. The second heartbreak hurts as much as heartbreak number 4,406. Age and perspective help, as does learning how to cope, but calyces never form even as the losses pile up.

Now, as an adult, Abigail would think back to those seasons before the heartbreak, and if she weren’t a logical person and if she hadn’t seen the team’s record for those years, her memory would let her believe that the team never lost.

But of course they lost, and as she grew older, they began to lose in earnest. “Who would hit the home run?” became “Who would commit the error?” which usually didn’t matter as the pitching staff seemed to get shelled on a regular basis.

Of course, the team wasn’t always that bad all the time. There were some years when they were the definition of mediocre. They won as many as they lost and there was nothing special about them, at least not to those outside of the fanbase.

As she got older, she began to understand the game more. Losing seemed to give her a bit of clarity on it. When you weren’t waiting for the long ball and anticipating your ace to strike out the next batter in a crucial situation, you noticed the smaller things. You noticed how some catchers are better at pulling a ball back into the strike zone than others. You notice how outfielders position and reposition themselves from batter to batter and even pitch by pitch. You notice the way certain pitchers shake off their catchers. You notice how a batter adjusts his stance a little when they have two strikes.

As she got older, and the lost games, lost series, lost seasons began to pile up, it seemed to mature her as a fan. They caused her to look at the game differently, to approach each strike, out, hit, and inning individually, instead of as a whole defined merely by whether you could chalk up a win or a loss. It became obvious in a lot of the seasons that the team was more likely to lose any particular game, and while she hoped for the win, she knew what the inevitable outcome was going to be. So she learned to love each moment of the game. She learned to love each fielded ground ball, long drive, and innings with long rallies.

As she got older, she became more mature as a fan. She soon realized that rooting for a winning team was easy. When things are going your way, it is easy to stand up and root for your team. Losing made her a better fan and she began to wear this as a badge of honor. When the team was failing, she took more pride in sitting through the games with her father. She now understood why he stood up and clapped as the world collapsed around their team. He appreciated a rally and an effort regardless of results.

Abigail also knew that when the team started winning again, it would be all the sweeter.

As she lay in bed that morning, with images of the last 22 games going through her mind, she thought about how this was all so new to her. It was new to everyone. Nobody knew how to deal with 22 straight losses. It was an unheard-of streak in baseball. Losing that many games in a row was a statistical improbability. Just like a winning streak that long is nearly impossible, so is a losing streak. A ball on the line, a pitcher having a bad day, even a bad call by an umpire. These are all things that send a game in one direction or another. No one loses 22 games in a row because when you have five starting pitchers and eight guys starting in the field, fresh arms in the pen, and someone on the bench ready to go, someone is bound to be on a hot streak. Someone, statistically, is going to be on a good streak. All 25 guys on a team don’t go cold at once … for 22 straight games.

So this was new and it occupied her mind much like a win would. It even captivated the city. The talk shows were going crazy, people at shared the type of laugh about it that someone might do at a wake, and the general mood of the city was down. She pondered if that was what it was like in the radius of the city, then what must it be like at ground zero.

She was able to get up and go to work and was paid to think of other things. Most of the city was allowed to go about their days and choose not to think about it if they didn’t want to. She pondered the people that work in the front office and realized they had no such choice. They were forced … they were paid … to think about just this. There was no hiding from it for them.

Suddenly, she felt like she needed to do something. So she picked up the phone, and feeling a little crazy, she decided that someone was going to get a pep talk. She didn’t care who it was. She didn’t even care if they said anything at all. So, Abigail picked up the phone and called the office of her team and immediately just started talking about her love of this team, regardless of wins or losses. She laid out as much of two generations of love as she could and told the poor soul on the other end to keep his head up and that better days were ahead.

When she hung up, she felt a sense of relief. She smiled to herself as she put down the phone. When she then turned to get ready for work, she found herself facing her son. She had not heard him come in and he was just staring at her. For years, she had not openly shared her love of this team and baseball with Brian. She knew it reminded him of that night and made him uncomfortable. She froze because she knew this and he had just witnessed her unleash a Shakespeare-worthy soliloquy about baseball to some stranger on the phone. She didn’t know what the impact on her son would be.

After what seemed like an eternity, he just looked up at her, smiled, and asked if he could go to a game with her. 

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