Maybe you’ve noticed, I like to root for things. That I have to choose objects of my affection deliberately probably means I’m doing it wrong, but I think that’s part of the fascination I have with the whole phenomenon. Why shouldn’t caring without material stakes be mutable? I don’t think it undermines the spirit of sports to prove that it eminently is. I like to remind myself that you can opt into being emotionally affected by something larger than yourself, and that often it’s so gratifying to do just that.
By the time the World Series left Houston the first time, dragging the beleaguered baseball world with it, I was rooting to not have to go back.
A month ago I had never been to Houston, but then I was there for the end of the American League Division Series, the beginning of the Championship Series, the end of the Championship Series, and the first two games of the World Series. It was the opportunity of a lifetime; I was ready to go home. And D.C. is close to home! (This story gets a little bit more sympathetic soon.) So I was hoping that after another curiously dated United Airlines flight (no, they didn’t have WiFi, they didn’t even have television screens), the next mode of transportation I would take would be a comparatively breezy train back to New York. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
I wasn’t rooting for a sweep, which would have been a little on the nose in terms of jaded, joyless beat writer cosplay for someone covering their first postseason, but five games seemed fine. Five wild rides, with unexpected outcomes — they would have to be, they already were with the wild-card Nationals up 2-0 in the series on the 107-win Astros and having not yet played a game in their home stadium. I was rooting for the Nationals both because I like them and because I was tired.
I went to one game in D.C. before I got too sick. I’ll spare you the bodily details but my bosses decided somewhere around getting discharged from the ER that I shouldn’t go to Houston. Instead, once I was well enough to travel, I went back to New York. Just like I was rooting for.
I was despondent, worse than that, I was petulant. This is not a story about how I heroically took a last-minute flight to Houston to be at the World Series, because the people around me are smarter than that and because, seriously, it’s just sports. But I did throw a fit, put flights on hold, talk about how it would never be this way again.
It wouldn’t be, of course. They don’t remake sports seasons and except in the dusty annals of team-owned channels with too much airtime to fill in the offseason, they don’t replay individual games either. They’re better in your memory, anyway. It’s too cheesy to say that it’s like life in that way but that’s because the truest things always are, and the relief you feel at rooting when something goes your way is miraculously never undermined when it doesn’t.
And so I got petty. In Game 6 I rooted for the Astros to win quickly, ending it all and saving me the decision of whether I should board a flight against my editors’ explicit instructions. Saving me, at least, from missing out on a Game 7, the crown jewel of any baseball season. From the relative comfort of my couch I watched it play out precisely the opposite way. It’s funny how the ad copy version of your childhood baseball memories always includes the smell of cut grass and the heat of stadium seats but by virtue of sheer numbers I have to assume most people’s nostalgia for the game, mine at least, is tied to television broadcasts. The omnipresence of baseball background noise in the summer and the appointment viewing come fall. Where you were when that one big game was on and you had to try to find a TV.
It was that big Game 6 that made me think if I had just a little more stamina I would write about what we’ll lose with the smoothing out of human error. How a common enemy can be good for the sport, inspiring a national dialogue and creating nameable moments.
Or maybe I’d write about the predictably outrageous concern-trolling over the increasingly creative ways that talented people manifest their personal pleasure with high-level success, much to the widespread delight of people who pay handsomely for the chance to see them do just that, how even those people serve a useful narrative role in the sport’s ecosystem insofar as controversy drives not just virtual clicks but literal engagement and often inspires intelligent analysis. That is, as long as we all just wink and nod and collectively agree that anyone who has made Not Having Demonstrative Fun the metric of what makes someone worthy is in fact, self-consciously or not, playing the heel.
Instead I went to sleep and when I woke up, I rooted for Game 7 to be boring. I’m sorry! I didn’t want to sit at home and watch on TV — forget everything I just said about how much I love watching baseball on TV — a game that would make people say, “Oh, were you there for ...?” when I tell them what I do for a living. This is not a very sympathetic sentiment. It’s bratty and greedy and selfish. The way wanting your city to be happy at the expense of all the others is. The way you know it will feel good to watch others fail because, at the root of your coordinated colors and sing-songy cheers, that’s what you were rooting for.
There is something exquisite to the sourness of sports fandom. Sometimes it’s bigger than ourselves, but it’s rarely, if ever, altruistic. When it’s unkind we try to stamp out the unkindness, but sports are ugly and antagonistic by design. I like to think my fleeting, shallow fandom is safe from that sort of impatient, impolite hunger, but it was exhilarating to feel so invested in something — which has already been rendered moot — that it made me angry. The longing is part of it, people usually say when I ask them why they would want to root for a bad team instead rooting for a better one. The 2019 Nationals are a very good team, but the longing was part of it for me.
It will never be this way again: That’s the sort of thing I said when my high school boyfriend broke up with me from afar and I was powerless to stop it and it seemed like the novelty was the only thing that really mattered. How could anything ever be as good as a cursed team’s magical run in my inaugural season on the job to make what was really just a wish look like a prescient prediction? It wasn’t the first time I had fallen in love with a baseball team, but it was the first time I was supposed to be there when their season ended, however it ended. World Series, unlike relationships, are reliable, and I will be back next October wherever back in the thick of things may be.
But it’s immutably true that it will never be this way — Max Scherzer, famous for his aggressive intensity and yet disarmingly childish in his manifest joy for his teammates; Juan Soto’s provocative slide-step to celebrate a birthday and mark the birth of a new superstar; Stephen Strasburg’s worth-the-wait return on investment; Ryan Zimmerman’s storybook culmination of the career one-team athlete; Anthony Rendon’s slow heartbeat; the viral dugout drag race pantomime of Howie Kendrick and Adam Eaton; the credit they all gave to Gerardo Parra; the quotability of Sean Doolittle; the scared-but-not-broken heart of manager Dave Martinez, on fire for his players from the slow start to the hot finish; the fans who have been here a lot longer than I have waited for something to cheer about in October, who never did see a World Series win at home but still were ecstatic in the rain nonetheless — again.
Notes from the clubhouse
Adam Eaton on the car-revving celebration he and Howie Kendrick do in the dugout after home runs:
“Started doing it around the All Star break. Neither of us were really hitting home runs. He came up to me like, ‘You know what? When we hit a home run, I want to drive.’ We always want to drive period. My passion in life is cars.
“Both of us drive. There’s two [steering] wheels, six pedals, if you will. I think he’s more of like a Porsche sound. I’m more of a V8 guy, so I think mine’s a little lower.
“I’m glad that everyone loved that. I hate that it’s taken this long for everyone to see it.”
Notes from the stands
I am going to keep these columns going during the long, cold months without actual baseball activity and for the sake of covering what you care about, I’m curious how fans of the sport reallocate their game-watching energy when there are no games. So this week I’m asking: How do you engage with baseball in the offseason? Let me know at email@example.com or on Twitter.
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