My friend Matt Frese posted, despondently, last night on Facebook, after the Washington Capitals’ 2-0 Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL quarterfinals. He asked the following simple question, in the form of a statement:
Not sure why I sports.
This is a question I’ve meditated on periodically, most recently last August, when I concluded that sports (and Mariners baseball in particular) were bad for my mental health. In that post, I repeated something from April 2015, which is my ultimate answer to this issue:
Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.
But I also suggested this answer to Frese last night:
To flavor your life with arbitrary turns of euphoria and tragedy.
The exaggerative nature of those words is, of course, deliberate. Sports have a way of feeling completely disproportionately important, impacting moods and whole world-views at an almost unrivaled level. People cheer, they dance, they celebrate, they fly across the country for a single game. They also throw things at their TVs or computers, cry, yell, scream, and fall on the bare floor in anguish. And while much of the joy and sadness is shared with other like-minded fans, the emotional reality is individually felt and experienced. It’s about a single fan’s relationship with their team.
My team, of course, more than any other, is and remains the Seattle Mariners. And in the last two days, they both swept the Philadelphia Phillies in a short two-game series and got word that a fourth of their starting five pitchers was joining the other three on the Disabled List (DL). It was only their second sweep of the year, after a 4-game series against the Rangers that took them from an almost-DOA record of 2-8 to an almost-tolerable 6-8. But the loss of Hisashi Iwakuma to injury means that the only starting pitcher from our intended opening day rotation healthy enough to still play is Yovani Gallardo, our #5 starter. He threw yesterday. We are entering a 4-game set in Toronto which will feature none of our original starting pitchers, with the great Felix Hernandez, breakout James Paxton, and new Mariner (who has yet to throw for Seattle) Drew Smyly sidelined.
I watched all of yesterday’s game and the last couple innings of the game before. Alex and I saw a movie the night before last, so I asked her to check the M’s score when we were on our way from there to Lowe’s. She put the phone away quietly after checking and didn’t answer my question. I assumed they were down 11 runs or something for her to deny me the score with such summary judgment. “No,” she responded, “but they’re down 9-5.”
“Oh, just four runs? What inning?”
I waved it away. “That’s not even bad. Not great, but not bad.”
My cavalier response here was because the Mariners, unlike years of Mariners teams since the record-breaking 2001 season, are long on offense to go with their shortness on pitching. They have scored more runs than almost any other AL team, sport three of the top ten hitters in the league by batting average, including batting leader Jean Segura, and seem capable of putting up a big inning with ease. Unfortunately, the bullpen is terrible and most of the starters are hurt, so we’re fielding something like last year’s AA pitching staff, with predictable results. Sure enough, though, by the time we left Lowe’s, the M’s had tied the score at 9 apiece. We listened to the next inning on the way home, then switched to the computer and MLB.tv in time to see Motter’s game-winning double (scoring Segura) in the top of the 9th and watch Eddie Diaz shut it down in the bottom. Mariners 10, Phillies 9.
Yesterday, on the other hand, was a laugher. The M’s were up 11-3 after a five-run 7th and a three-run 8th. The game had been tied at 3 for several innings, so the breakout was wonderful because it enabled the game to be both close and a blowout, maximizing fan enjoyment. Of course, then the bullpen pitched in the 8th and 9th, so we only won 11-6 ultimately, giving even the Phils fans some meaningless homers to cheer for before we got out of things. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to somehow coughing up a 9-1 lead for a 10-9 loss like back in game 7, when I first gave up on the M’s this year (they’d had a 9-1 lead in a game early after a really tough start to the season; the loss clinched a sweep-loss to the Angels, who are not great this year, and put our record at 1-6).
One and six feels like a distant memory now, though, as does 2-8. For the first time all year, the M’s are .500, winning as much as they lose, having gone 15-9 since 2-8. 17-17 is not just a PIN that I’ve used in the past, it’s a record that promises that things could go up from here. Of course, the health of our pitching staff portends trouble on that horizon. But if you score a double-digit number of runs each game, you can afford to have no pitching. Like Blazers teams in the early 90s that used to beat people 140-135, you just run up the score enough to make up for your total lack of defense.
This is also like the Mariner teams in the mid-to-late 90s, when we used to make the playoffs in the bandbox known as the Kingdome. The team was laden with offensive All-Stars: Griffey, A-Rod, Edgar, Jay Buhner. The team had, really, exactly one pitcher, Randy Johnson, and a bunch of also-rans who gave up just few enough runs to hold the lead our team would build. But that was part of the magic of ’95: no lead was insurmountable because their staff was never safe from the runs our team could score. I’ve talked about how ’95 being the seminal year in my sports fandom has created unrealistic expectations for the future. Coming back from one of the largest deficits in history has made Mariners fans feel like all future deficits are bridgeable, even though most of the last few seasons have resulted in near-misses, extending baseball’s longest streak of standing outside the expanding playoff picture.
But 17-17 is a reset. It’s .500. It means we could start winning even more now, especially since we’ve erased a dismal start.
.500 means something else, too, of course. It means watching a game is a roulette wheel, a perfectly even bet. Red or black? Win or lose? They’re equally likely.
This is the contract we sign whenever we, as devoted fans, start watching a game. We are about to have our day made or ruined. And we choose to do this to ourselves, voluntarily. Do we think the benefits of the day being made outweigh the negative potential of it being ruined? Maybe. Not necessarily, though. I don’t think we think about it rationally at all. We watch because we are fans and we accept the 50/50 because we have no other choice. Sure, we can try to put on just the right hat or do just the right series of actions to maintain a winning streak. But it’s 50/50 at the end of the day. Or, yesterday, as a Mariners fan, at the end of yesterday.
They’re riding a 4-game winning streak. In their last homestand, they went 4-2 with both losses being in extra innings (11 and 13 innings, respectively). These are promising, positive signs. But it’s 50/50 every time, a crapshoot, a spin of the wheel. And I sign away my mood an my outlook, free of charge. Because maybe it will be that amazing comeback, or that close game-turned-laugher. Maybe we have the lineup to make the deep run this year. Or maybe I just wanna believe.