I’m walking to work Monday morning, through the streets of the Pearl, a gloriously crisp and sunny October morning, surrounded by that dim, cold autumn light that crushes your heart with such tender precision. I’m all choked up and my eyes are hot and my chest is tight, and not just because this is my 41st October here on earth– a distillation of every October I’ve ever known down through time. October sun, the last fingers of light slipping from the rim of summer and plunging into the dark, rainy slog of winter. No, what I’m really choked up about is baseball.
This would be nowhere near the first time the sport has stirred up such emotion and plastered my heart to my sleeve, and it is doubtful that it will be the last. All the way back to Little League, a three-pitch strike-out or a botched grounder threatened tears and looming darkness for days; a spectacular diving catch or your team putting up a string of runs on the way to victory was liable to burst the heart with untold joy. It is a wonder that gets inside you early– its encompassing atmosphere of simple thrills– from the taste of Big League Chew to the smell of dirt and cut grass to scrapes and bruises on every limb to the sick tumble in your gut when your name is called to the plate; the crack of wood and snap of leather, sunburn, gulps of sticky soda pop, cheering, rollicking parents drinking beer from paper cups in the stands; the life-size physical chess match, the zagging angles of strategy and numbers that gets in your head like the map of some strangely beautiful, rugged ballet. And this childish wonder grows with you until you are a man, and you begin see the game differently. It reflects your adult life, and the burdens of manhood and responsibility, the acute strategy and sacrifice and loss, the tense, enduring grind and the close calls– but it still carries that deep seed of magic, of sheer sensation. It has the power of pure magic and always will. It is something that others, whether they’re fans of your team or not, share a similar passion for. Step into any sports bar in your adopted city (Portland in this case) and you can quickly befriend anyone in a ball cap with their eyes tilted toward the game.
On this Monday morning, my Giants are up 3-2 in the World Series. It is their third appearance in five years. I have said this many times in the last few weeks– I am a very, very lucky baseball fan, and I know it. Hell, I am a lucky sports fan. I grew up watching the 49ers win five Super Bowls, four of them behind one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. After more than a decade of frustration and futility, the current 49ers have been to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl, though they still have no ring to show for it. I’ve had the fortune of seeing the Giants in five World Series. They lost the first two and won the last two. On this Monday, they are one win away from making that a winning record for my lifetime, and solidifying an odd but undeniable dynasty for the 2010’s.
Sunday night they won behind Madison Bumgarner, who pitched a 9-inning shutout; the first complete game shutout in the World Series in 11 years. His pitching dominance in the World Series is well-documented. He’s pitched in 4 WS games since 2010, won them all, and only given up a single run the entire time. I remember watching his first World Series performance, when he was a skinny, shy, clean-cut 21 year-old kid, and even then his performance was seamless and utterly convincing. He was fourth in the rotation then. Now at 25, the ace of the rotation, bearded, shaggy-haired and completely dominant, he looks like a lion up on the mound– hulking, fierce, cold-blooded and unshakable.
It was a tense two-run game until the eighth, when Juan Perez walloped a triple (technically a double with an error) that cleared the bases, sending Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence home, making it 4-0. Perez hadn’t been in the lineup yet. He was stepping in for Travis Ishikawa, who is supposedly the better hitter (he hit the walk-off home run that won the pennant), but green as hell out in left field. Manager Bruce Bochy was trying to shore up the defense with Perez, but got this unexpected burst of offense as well. The bar I was in went wild when the tension broke, shouting and pounding on tables as the runners charged around the basepaths. What none of us knew at the time was that a few innings earlier, Perez had learned that his friend Oscar Taveras, a fellow Dominican and an outfielder for the Cardinals, who the Giants had just beaten in the NLCS for the pennant, had died that day in a car accident back home in the DR. Perez was so shaken that he sat in the clubhouse weeping for several innings. Then, in the eight inning, he came out when his manager asked him to and roped that dinger off the center field wall, creating that explosive moment of magic for 45,000 fans inside the stadium, and millions world-wide.
It was reading that story the next day that had choked me up in the first place; what Perez had gone through, and what he made of that moment. That is what this game can mean. It encompasses every aspect of life– its heartbreak, its redemption, its glory, its miracles, its honor, its love and comradeship. I lend no credence to the inane and pointless argument that sports are somehow meaningless, because they so clearly aren’t. Perhaps you feel left out, or you don’t understand them, or are bored, or you don’t like bros, or jocks treated you like shit in high school. These are all perfectly understandable reasons to dislike and avoid sports. But they can’t invalidate sports altogether. I’m not a huge fan of comic books or opera or Game of Thrones, but mostly because they are off my radar. They don’t particularly stir me to excitement, but I’m not naive or presumptuous enough to think that makes them inherently meaningless.
Saturday night after the third inning of Game 4, after we had dropped two games straight and were behind 4-1, I was massively discouraged. I felt sick. Unfortunately, I couldn’t foresee that in a short time we would score 10 unanswered runs on our way to a massive blowout. I was so miserable I could barely pay attention to the game. My girlfriend, who doesn’t particularly love sports, but who loves me, was very kindly putting up with me, though she was a little worried about how far down I was going to go. Like most people who don’t have a deep love of sports, I’m sure she was wondering why I put myself through this. The answer I’ve always come to, other than the fact that I don’t really have a choice, is that you get out of it what you put in. If you want to experience the joy of winning, you have to suffer the equivalent heartbreak when you lose. You can’t lay your heart out there only when it’s safe to. Just as you can’t fall in love and not risk getting your heart broken. And as in life, you have to take some licks and some bruises, feel the pain of loss, before you truly understand and appreciate what it feels like to win.
When the winners are charging on to the field, jumping up and down and piling on each other, the camera invariably finds the somber faces of the losers–the glassy, hopeless eyes, the hanging heads–lingering cruelly, almost fetishistic in its gaze. Even as lucky as I have been with my teams over the years, I am well-acquainted with that feeling. I remember 2002, when we were up 5-0 in the 7th inning of Game 6, 8 outs away from winning our first series title in San Francisco, and it slipped away from us as the Angels unleashed an unstoppable offensive fury. I remember watching the game the next day, in a bar in Novato, California, with a friend from work who didn’t care much about baseball. Every time I groaned or shouted when something went awry, he frowned and asked me things like “Do you have money on this game or something?” It was sickening to have only him for company at such a time, but I guess I’ve been through worse. When we eventually lost, a man at a nearby table stood up and raised his glass to his companions and said “To a great season.” I have always remembered that. It is probably a sports cliche– usually a lukewarm attempt at some kind of consolation– but at the time I felt it. It seemed noble and brave. It was what I needed to hear to help keep my head high, even though my heart was shattered. He was right. It was a damn good season, and one hell of a ride, and one to be proud of. And that sting I still carry, even after all this time, even through subsequent victories.. We live our whole lives with all of our disappointments, our wounds, our regrets. Inside us, defining us. We live and we persevere.
These stories matter. They translate into our lives. Even outside the confines of 9 innings. Robin Williams’ son came out with his brother and sister to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Billy Crystal on Sunday night, to honor the great man and comedian and the San Francisco icon who had such a great lifelong love for the Giants. The night before, Mo’ne Davis, the 13 year-old Little League pitching sensation, was given the honor of the first pitch. Most ceremonial pitchers stand in front of the mound, because sixty feet and six inches is a lot further than it looks on TV. Mo’ne, however, took the advice of Spike Lee (who had directed her Chevy commercial),and threw from the mound. She hurled it in there for a blazing strike. The guy who shouted “Play Ball!” for Game 4 was Bryan Stow, the fan who had been tragically beaten, nearly to death, three years ago on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, for no other crime than wearing orange and black in the wrong place. He eventually came out of his coma, but has since lived with severe brain trauma and is confined to a wheelchair. His family says that the Giants organization has been hugely supportive during his recovery and that being able to be on the field for the World Series was the happiest they had ever seen him.
This is a sport of honor. Of courage. Of miracles. Of wild, improbable luck. Of soul-crushing heartbreak and futility. As an experience, it is deeply, beautifully human. After the game Sunday, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “I should put a poster of MadBum in my cubicle at work. If he can go nine shutout innings, surely I can get through nine hours of work.” Amen, sister. When I texted my girlfriend that I was feeling raw and choked up, she texted back “There’s no crying in baseball!” She was very proud of herself for that, and I have to admit I was pretty proud too, since for some reason she’s only seen about four movies, and she rarely gets any of the (admittedly far too many) movie references I make on a regular basis. “Is that from Airplane?” she usually asks (and more often than not, she’s right). And she’s mostly right about there being no crying. Though sometimes there is a bit of it.
And sometimes you whack a bases-clearing triple that blows the game wide open.
* * *
Now it is late Tuesday night, and we have just been crushed in a 10-0 rout by the surging, never-say-die Royals in Game 6 back in Kansas City. I felt ill the entire time and eventually just stopped watching. It was too much. I went to a shitty, drably furnished, poorly lit bar that I’d never been to before, and realized very quickly that I’d made the wrong choice in viewing venues. The sparse denizens were mostly rooting for the Royals (and half-heartedly at that), the few Giants fans looked inconsolably morose, and my fucking Coke tasted like soap. All in all, it was a brutal, unhappy night.
But what great, wild fucking series. So it goes to to Game 7, as we all kind of expected it would. The pinnacle. Winner-take-all. No team has won a Game 7 on the road in 35 years, and 14 of the last 15 teams who forced a Game 6 have won Game 7. The Giants, going all the way back to the New York days, are 0-4 in Game 7s in the World Series. We have a very steep road to climb, and the odds are most definitely stacked against us. And yet, I am not any more anxious than I have been before any other post-season game. After the Game 6 collapse in 2002, I had little faith that we could rally and win Game 7, and as it turns out, we didn’t even come close to doing so. The team’s spirit was already crushed. Desperation had sunk in. They doubted themselves, and you could see in their faces they’d already surrendered. Yet even after such a brutal beating as we sustained tonight, I know that this team more than any other can come back after something like that. We did it during two different series in 2012, and we can do it again, provided our pitching holds up. It will be a gritty, vicious fight, both sides will give their all, and I don’t think anyone can predict the winner with any real sureness. Just that it will be nothing short of thrilling.
Either way, whatever happens tomorrow–even another humiliating, apocalyptic blowout (God fucking forbid)–everything will be okay. Life will go on, the days will get colder and shorter, and the pain and the joy will all sink into deeper, shadowy crevices of the soul. The scars will heal, memory will fade, and we will survive. We will be grateful for any victory and weather any loss. We can live through anything.
Yep, I am one lucky fan.