Baseball isn’t cursed, we are – USA TODAY
CLEVELAND – Baseball makes no sense, so it makes us senseless.
Look: This post has a shelf life of only a few hours before the Cubs and Indians kick off Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night, so you’ll have to excuse me if it reads as a stream of consciousness. It is that. What follows are the sleep-deprived and caffeine-fueled thoughts of a baseball-addled mind completely spent from a month of work and travel. I want so badly to see my wife, to sleep in my bed, to shower in my bathroom, to eat a home-cooked meal, to put on clothes I know to be clean, to spend a day away from a computer screen resting my achy back, to visit family, to hang out with my friends at the bar, to enjoy all the little mundanities of life at home that I never appreciate until I’m gone for a while.
But then in spite of all that – in spite of myself, even – I’m sitting here super psyched up for Game 7. Game 7! I get to go, for free, to a baseball game that will decide if the Chicago Cubs (the Cubs!) or the Cleveland Indians (what?) end their decades-long title draught, and a contest that will determine which team’s long-suffering fanbase maintains that distinction. It’s so awesome. Historic stuff, this, and they actually pay me to travel to Cleveland to watch it. No f-ing way.
I am not a superstitious person. I’m not. I consider myself largely a rational actor, prone sometimes to fits of anger and frustration like everyone else but typically able to see past them in short order to make practical decisions and avoid senseless habits and operate upon what I believe to be true and best and logical for me and the people I care about. That’s what I aspire to be, at least: A man of reason.
But then all that flies right out the window around the sixth inning of a no-hitter.
At this point in my life, for reasons both professional and personal, baseball means way, way more to me than any other sport. So I recognize my bias here, and know that I can’t speak for NBA lifers or college-hockey hooligans or those dudes who dress like Sith Lords at Raiders games. But baseball grips me, in part, for the opportunity it provides to let the mind wander, to fret over circumstances of which we have absolutely no control and to confront the fickle nature of fortune.
Every glacial Pedro Baez pause, every inning break, every pitching change, every batter readjusting his gloves and every catcher walking the ball out to the mound when an umpire takes a foul ball off the mask offers time for reflection. A typical baseball game features about 10 minutes’ worth of action and three hours to sit around thinking about it: What could happen, what did happen, what will happen. Over the course of a 162-game season and a month-long postseason, it becomes some form of nightly meditation on possibility and probability and circumstance. Baseball’s the sport that lends itself to the long, slow zooms on agonized fans that define every postseason broadcast, those shots of nail-biting patrons desperately yearning for whatever catharsis may come at the end.
And yeah, this postseason? This World Series? More than ever. The Cubs and Indians, dude. Lots of people have waited a really long time to see how this plays out.
But then the other thing – and a really important thing to understand – is that the winner Wednesday won’t necessarily be the better team, nor will it even necessarily be the team that played better Wednesday. It will be the team celebrated and commemorated, but it will ultimately be only the team upon whom baseball smiles this particular night. I find myself repeating this all the time: Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at someone. Indians starter Trevor Bauer became a goat in Game 5 because of one lousy inning that featured two infield hits. Two infield hits! Baseball puts that on a guy.
Early in this dope career into which I’ve stumbled, I tried to write an article dismissing the superstitious and psychological specters that seem to permeate discussions of the sport. I started – or I intended to start – with an anecdote about playing Wiffle ball in my parents’ backyard with my late older brother: For about the millionth straight time, he beat me, this time on a walk-off hit on a day I played as well as I ever had. As we walked back into the house, I suggested that maybe some mental or magical force prevented me from ever winning our matchups. “Or maybe,” he replied, “you just suck.”
The point was that baseball sometimes compels us to find convoluted explanations for phenomena that could be excused far more simply. Then, between the time I wrote the thing and the time I planned to publish the thing, a sudden and powerful storm hit my parents’ neighborhood and sent the tree that had always served as our left-field foul pole smashing into the kitchen. Too weird. It cast enough doubt in me that I rewrote the whole post, knowing it would be dishonest to maintain a purely rational viewpoint while some small part of me suspected something more than coincidence.
Seven years later I believe the whole tree thing was probably just a weird fluke, but I understand now that my brother and memories of him will always drum up a strange and ineffable disquiet in my soul. Chris. His name was Chris, and I miss him so damn much. He died 14 years ago this past September, after melanoma started on his shoulder and spread to his brain and murdered him at age 29 on a rollaway cot in my parents’ living room. I’ve written about him a bunch before and don’t aim to retread any of that here, but in short: He was a great guy and an incredible brother and the smartest person I have ever known. I’m as good with his death as I think I’ll ever be, but only because I know I’ll never be fully good with it.
I know this: He made my life better, and still does. Among many other things, he introduced me to baseball and fostered in me the love of the sport that I hope still guides me today. And he exists now as this little tug of ineffable hurt that colors every awesome baseball moment I somehow get to experience, whether it’s chatting up his heroes like Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez or getting doused in booze at a Champagne celebration or being on hand for an actual World Series Game 7 between two franchises without a title between them since our parents were born.
It’d be naÃ¯ve to think I’m alone here. The plain awful truth is that literally every single person you know and love will die someday, and if you haven’t experienced some grave loss yet in your lifetime, I have very bad news about what’s coming. We lose people, we grieve, and we carry inside ourselves forever the lingering voids they leave behind. For me that’s all tied up with baseball because my relationship with my brother so often centered around the sport, but I think also that baseball thrives in part on its ability to perpetuate and enunciate some deep-seeded irrationality that lives inside us all. Or at least in me, I guess.
Because it really makes no sense that I should still be sad. Hell, it’s been 14 years. 14 years! I’ve had my entire adulthood to get used to this and make peace with it and learn how to go about my work without the occasional gut-punch that comes with knowing I can’t call him to tell him about it. Like I said, I try to look at the world and myself in some logical light. I experience love and I enjoy being loved and I love unequivocally those people I love, but I understand our capacity for love as a sort of biologically fueled utilitarian byproduct of our evolution: For a variety of reasons, we need to establish the ability to care for people and be cared for to do our part to contribute to the maintenance and survival of our species.
Grieving, though? No. Doesn’t add up. How does missing my brother help me keep living? It can’t just be a reminder to wear sunscreen or to do whatever else seems necessary to prolong my life on this planet. My instincts point me strongly toward trying very hard to stay alive, and I certainly do not need the looming and largely unspoken presence of my late brother in my consciousness to keep me from keeping on.
It’s the other thing, I think. Something festers inside us that will always defy logic and truth and science. And again, I’m really not trying to speak for you here, but I believe the same indescribable fears and doubts and pain that make us unable to experience life with a fully rational approach are those that turn us into jittery lunatics in the late innings of baseball games in which we have no actual stake, and which prompt us to associate something as trifling as a title drought – no matter how long – with mysterious forces operating outside our understanding.
Baseball can be so completely random. Emotionally investing in a baseball game or team the way we do makes so little sense, really. You can never really jinx a no hitter. There are no real curses. We know all that. Right? We know that.
But we indulge it, and we love it, and we allow it to become part of our identities. The Cubs are not cursed. The Indians are not cursed. The curse is being human, and owning that faculty for abstraction that we believe distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Due to some fairly arbitrary series of events no one can currently predict, one baseball team will end a long title drought Wednesday night, and one fan base’s collective doubts and fears will for a brief time be allayed by the impossible joy that comes along with it. But the curses will continue, because we can never escape our humanity. Baseball’s just here to help us deal with it.
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