For baseball fans, this is the time of year at which to confront a difficult, searching set of questions. Is an ability to come up biggest in big moments a skill? Can certain players, through heightened focus or unusual muscular training, change their true talent level in the Postseason? Does the Postseason itself reveal who the best or most worthy among the field of contenders really are, or does it simply crown a champion, almost at random? And if (as all the objective evidence suggests) the question to that last question is the latter possibility, what does this game really mean? Is baseball edifying us, or merely crudely entertaining us?
The answers are never pretty. Last season, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in the wake of the April bombing at the Boston Marathon. The Sox were the best team in baseball all season, really, and they beat the best team in the National League, at least over the long season, and David Ortiz was a hero we could comfortably crown—the soul of the city, the defiant rallying voice in the wake of the bombing, then an unstoppable force in the World Series. It was sublime.
Only, it didn’t last. The Red Sox, who had finished last in 2012, finished last again in 2014. Ortiz looked human again, their pitching fell apart, and several of the team’s most notable beards failed to sustain the magic that made them famous. One could call this a victory for the notion of true champions and playoff heroes, a team borne upon the shoulders of a city in the wake of tragedy, but the storyline doesn’t really work. It all felt more like a few good breaks, with maybe just a touch of serendipity. It was the closest we had come to a feeling of destiny in a long while, but it still wasn’t all that close.
And the 2014 Series doesn’t have us feeling all that close, either. The Royals’ big hurdle to clear was reaching the playoffs in the first place. They aren’t a story because of their story, but because of their style of play and the stakes of their season. The Giants may be placing the capstone on a dynasty, but this isn’t the Big Red Machine. Each individual championship has featured different, ephemeral heroes, and the first two have been followed by seasons in which the team missed the playoffs. On Sunday night, though, the game gave back a bit, allowing us a glimpse of possible heroism, a little bit of transcendence (maybe) in a time of great need.
The night began with Madison Bumgarner on the mound, and Bumgarner is the perfect person to break America’s heart someday. At 25, he’s pitching in his third World Series, a long way from growing up in a log house in a North Carolina town named ‘Bumtown’ because practically everyone there was related, once upon a time, to him. Bumgarner is too young to claim the title of best pitcher in World Series history, but he’s built a case so strong that he may ease into that superlative with age. In his fourth Series start Sunday night, he threw a shutout, one that gave him the lowest ERA by a starter in Series history. He’s pitched six times this Postseason, with bookend shutouts around a series of only slightly shorter, less dominant starts.
Bumgarner seems immortal on the mound, his delivery so repeatable, his stuff excellent without being dangerously nasty, or beyond control. He attacks hitters, piling strike upon strike, unafraid to match his best pitch to their best swing, relying on perhaps the best true command of any pitcher in baseball. That his particular brand of invincibility would linger into October is no surprise, although that doesn’t prove that it’s a sign of superior poise or character.
If Bumgarner had been the only story of the night, though, I’d have written this much differently. He demands praise and deserves thorough appreciation, but he puts me in an analytical kind of mood, not an existential one. Unfortunately, what brought me to this frame of mind was a wholly different story, one that hit much closer to home, and that came out early in the game.
Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend died Sunday night, in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Taveras was 22.
This has been a hard year for my family. In June, we lost my sister-in-law, my wife’s sister, to cystic fibrosis. She was 23. Obviously, the situations themselves bear some fundamental differences. Anna had a deadly, lifelong disease, and had had more than one close call in the past, where she was nearly in need of serious intervention, or where she had to weigh the possibility of a lung transplant. When she got sick, she was hospitalized. She spent six weeks fighting for life, waiting for a transplant that never came, having good days and bad days. The suddenness of Taveras’s passing was completely absent from Anna’s, except in that we who loved her forced ourselves not to embrace the awful reality until it could no longer be avoided.
Yet, that’s right where my mind went, when I heard the news. For me, the experiences also had some commonality. I am, unfortunately, given to a certain distance from people, sometimes even people to whom I’m actually quite close. I struggle to develop deep friendships. I worry about forcing my company on people, about saying the wrong thing or just getting in the way. I do care, though, and so I often find myself, when a relationship is near its end, feeling a strong and sudden attachment to this person or group I know I’ll soon lose. It makes for a few wonderful weeks, where I let a little more of myself out and generally get back nothing but good things. Still, it leaves a hollow feeling, like the full potential of that connection was never fulfilled.
So it was with Anna. She was the last of my wife’s siblings to whom I created a positive connection. Maria and I were married before I felt comfortable talking to her very much. She mistrusted (or just disliked; I don’t claim to speak for her, and either viewpoint is valid) my quietness, and sometimes, my rather desperate joke-making. It took a long time for us to find a common frequency, a wavelength on which we could communicate well. It was a great relief once we did, but I still didn’t feel overwhelmingly close to her.
Just before she was hospitalized for the last time, though, we decided that she and her husband and my wife, our sons and I would move in together. It was a promising arrangement, for two young families without financial flexibility, but more importantly to me, it meant finally feeling at ease with her. We got along better during the last month she lived in fresh air than we ever had, had more conversations in those four weeks than in the previous four months, maybe four years. And then, cruelly, that budding friendship was lost. I was left with that familiar feeling of emptiness, a missed opportunity, even though this time, it wasn’t because I waited too long. It was just because the world got moving too fast.
Oscar Taveras and I were never going to be friends, I imagine, and I’m almost sure we never would have looked for a rental house in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, but one develops connections to baseball players, too. In particular, as I’m a Cubs fan with my eyes on their very bright future, I was paying close attention to Taveras. If the Cubs were to return to prominence in the NL Central, the path would go through St. Louis, and Taveras was one of the Cards’ most promising long-term assets. He may have been the enemy, but I was steeling myself to admire and enjoy him, with all the intimate enmity a great rivalry can conjure. Losing him leaves a much less significant, substantial hole, but it remains a relationship wrested away before it could be realized. The feeling is sort of the same, only a lot smaller and less paralyzing.
One of the great flaws in non-statistical evaluation of baseball players is that humans will always seek patterns in random data, always allow certain moments to flood memory logs that should be analyzed on an even keel, giving all events roughly equal weight. For that reason, I’ll never stop leaning on numbers when talking about the game in a normative, explanatory way. Frankly, I love that the stats are there, because I would hate to even try to give away my subjectivity and emotion in the name of knowing baseball better.
So I won’t tell you that Juan Perez came to the plate in the eighth inning a different batter than he always is. He wasn’t. He was the same old Juan Perez, the one who hit .170/.224/.270 this season, in 109 trips to the plate. Finding out about the death of Taveras, a good friend, a former teammate (in the 2012 Dominican Winter League), in the fourth inning didn’t turn Perez into anything but what he is: a light-hitting, nearly powerless (two career home runs) defensive specialist. On Saturday night, Perez had tied the game for the Giants with a shallow sacrifice fly. It came with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, and I had stridently recommended that Bruce Bochy pinch-hit for Perez.
He hadn’t, and Perez had flared a ball into center field. Jarrod Dyson made a terrific diving catch, but leaving his feet, was unable to prevent Hunter Pence from scoring. I said then, and maintain now, that Dyson was playing too deep against the weak hitter. A few steps in before contact and Dyson catches that ball on the run, standing, holding all runners. Perhaps the game goes differently thereafter.
That’s a story about how rarely Juan Perez hits the ball hard, told to underscore how startling it was when Perez connected Sunday night. The ball flew deep to nearly dead-center field, well beyond Dyson’s reach, off the top of the wall. Two runs scored. Perez ended up at third base. This from the man whom Hensley Meulens, the Giants hitting coach, found crying in the clubhouse earlier in the game. He wasn’t suddenly a superhero; he just hit the ball hard. It wasn’t the meaning that might have fed into the event that mattered, though. It was the meaning that came out.
In the end, it was just baseball, but not really. I wish people wouldn’t trivialize baseball so much. It’s a game, yes, but it’s also a booming industry, a big part of American life. Leisure is not a sin; it’s the true purpose of life. Just as importantly, right now, it was Oscar Taveras’s life’s work, and it’s Juan Perez’s life’s work, and it’s Madison Bumgarner’s life’s work. Either baseball is worth the billions of dollars and thousands of hours America invests in it each year, or it doesn’t, but in either case, it deserves the same dignity as any other major sector of the economy. On nights like Sunday, it deserves its special place in society, not because the players are perfect or overwhelmingly admirable or heroic in the face of tragedy, but because the game is such a perfect conduit for the release of emotion and the consideration of complexity in our lives. There was no better way for a baseball fan to share the experience of loss and grief over Taveras than by taking in that game, not just because of Perez or because it distracted from the pain, but because the game is worthwhile on its own merit, and because it’s familiar in a way that can’t be lost. And also, because it creates a huge community, a massive universe of people to whom one feels a connection, which lends perspective on the equality of all human tragedy.
Every time a young person with such tremendous, untapped potential dies, it’s awful. We experience the tragedy differently only insofar as we are closer to some of those who die than to others. Anything, be it baseball or Words With Friends or religion, anything that brings us into closer contact with other people, far-off people, sharpens our understanding of tragedies we might never know of or feel at all, and also allows us to rejoice in more shared good times, and therefore, has value.
Today is still hard. Most days since mid-June have been, for me. This was just a story about how a great baseball game made it a little less hard.