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September 29, 2011
The Problem of Pain
I remember the first moment when I fully realized that I could die, and in fact could die very soon. I don’t think anyone ever forgets that sort of moment—at least, the ones who live to talk about it. Not at all coincidentally, this occurred only a few minutes after what I believe was the start of hostilities in the Iraq War.
It was March 20, 2003, and I was at a place called Camp Commando, which was an overly formal name for an otherwise-barren patch of desert in northern Kuwait. I was the most junior member of a small office for Marine Corps public affairs (in other words, media relations). There hadn’t been enough trailers shipped over from the US when we got to Kuwait at first, so we were working out of a trailer purchased locally and retrofit to our needs. It wasn’t a fancy job—the windows had been covered over with nothing more than sheets of cardboard to keep the sand and the heat at bay.
There was a rumbling overhead, like a low-flying jet, and then a large, dull thud. I was knocked out of my chair, and one of the pieces of cardboard covering the window landed on me soon afterward.
I had, of course, spent months training for such an occasion. In a matter of seconds I had put on my gas mask and was headed out the door for one of the tiny cement bunkers that were strewn throughout the camp. There were probably 20 or 30 of us crammed into this one bunker, looking at each other through gas masks and chatting amicably enough through breathing filters—sure, the adrenaline was pumping, but like I said, we’d been training for this for months.
In our bunker was a contract worker (most likely one of the many Coptic Christians who had left Egypt looking for work, and had found quite a bit of employment setting up camps and the like for the US military during the build-up to the war). He did not have a gas mask—the attack had come as a bit of a surprise, and I don’t think anyone anticipated having the contract workers still in camp when the fighting started. He spoke no English, and I knew practically no Arabic, but he was very clearly communicating that he was completely terrified.
And as one of the translators started to talk to the man, to try and comfort him… I knew, or at least thought I knew, what was at stake right then and there. Shit, as they say, had gotten real.
I stayed behind in Kuwait for the march up to Baghdad as part of the rear command element, and the rest of my time there was not quite as exciting—as they say, war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. That first attack used Seersucker antiship missiles, which flew under the radar systems used to deliver early warnings and operate the Patriot anti-missile batteries. (The landing spot was probably only half a mile or so from where I was sitting when it hit; I walked out there after ordinance techs had secured the area to take pictures of the blast site.) Those were short-range missiles, so once the ground advance started and the battle lines shifted north they shifted to SCUD missiles, which flew high enough for radar to give us a warning—a high-pitched siren that I can still hear if I put my mind to it. We’d rush out to the bunkers and wait for a second siren to indicate all-clear. You could typically tell when the all-clear was coming from the sound of one of the Patriots hitting a SCUD, and you could usually tell how close this one had come from that sound, too.
Between those moments of terror there were long expanses of boredom—watching CNN and Fox News to take notes on what the media was saying about our operations, reading and compiling press clippings for higher—ups, coordinating with the media agencies still in Kuwait for this or that.
There was exactly one part of my day to look forward to—each day, I was tasked to put together an e-mail with sports scores and headlines, for “morale purposes.” I received a series of e-mails from CNN with headlines and scores, and I compiled them into one little e-mail that could be printed out and passed around among the troops to give them some news from home. And that was the one part of the day where I got to hear about the Cubs. I didn’t even get box scores or line scores, just runs scored and allowed. Everyone was under strict “infosec” guidelines, so that was as much word as anyone was getting from back home. Standings, I had to put together myself from those daily logs of team results.
Eventually the ground fighting died down, our presence in Kuwait was no longer needed, so I was sent north to Camp Babylon to join the rest of the Marine headquarters. Infosec restrictions loosened, and we had Internet in our office. So now I finally had box scores, and standings I didn’t have to compile by myself. There were other diversions now as well—every week or so the mobile PX came by and we could buy new movies and CDs. Phone calls back home were allowed again, and a steady stream of care packages from Mom and Dad started up. But keeping up with the Cubs was still one of the very few highlights of my day.
Finally my tour was up and I was shipped back to the States—and after only a few days in California, I was given leave. I went home to Iowa for a spell. That’s when I saw my first Cubs game of the season. Most people think of the pitching on the 2003 Cubs and they think of Wood and Prior. When I think of the pitching on the 2003 Cubs, I think of Shawn Estes. He pitched nine innings, allowed four hits but no runs and gave the Cubs a dramatic victory. (And let me tell you—I believe in DIPS as much as anybody in the world… until we start talking about that one game in 2003.)
So I spent the next few weeks letting people congratulate me on not being dead, eating delicacies like eggs sunny-side up, and watching Cubs baseball with friends. I told myself I was mostly fine—I was the only one in a sweatshirt and coat while everyone else was hanging around in jeans and a t-shirt, but that was the only aftereffect of my time in Iraq, surely. Okay, so every time I got into a car I’d put my hand behind me to steady a rifle that simply wasn’t there. And sure, when lightning struck the sign out in front of the sports bar we were at I dove under the table in the space of about two-tenths of a second. But, y’know, I was fine. Really fine.
The Cubs beat the Braves to advance to the next round of the playoffs, and I headed back to California to rejoin a unit that mostly wasn’t there. Transfers that had been delayed due to deployment overseas happened en masse, and not everyone had returned from leave like I just had. I was loaned out to the base newspaper, assigned to do photo shoots of things like the new Taco Bell opening by the airstrip. At night I would return to a nearly empty barracks and go to my nearly empty room, most of my belongings still being stuck in storage. It was like my life was a TV on mute—everything seemed subdued, nothing seemed interesting, nothing seemed to matter.
Except Cubs baseball. I found a Thai restaurant near the base that was more than happy to serve me heaping amounts of pad Thai noodles and give me full run of their TV for the evening. For two to three hours at a stretch, I could again feel like there was something in my life that mattered, something I cared about.
That night was different. The cable company had finally arrived to hook up my in-barracks television and Internet service. I went to my storage space out in town and crammed my TV set into the passenger seat of my car and took it back to the barracks. On the way back I picked up something for dinner and some beers to drink while I watched the game (since, finally, I wouldn’t have to drive anywhere after). The Cubs were one game away from reaching the World Series. Mark Prior, my favorite baseball player pretty much ever, was on the mound. What could go wrong?
Absolutely everything could go wrong. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
Everyone focuses on the Bartman play. Frankly I’m not even sure I remember the Bartman play as it happened—I think I remember it more from highlight reels after the game than at the moment. What I remember is this—a routine grounder to Alex Gonzalez, tailor-made for a double play, and it comes out of his glove and everyone’s safe.
And it only went downhill after that.
At that moment I was, I think, forced to confront the great number of things in my life that were not, in fact, fine. Were not fine at all. I remember years later reading Moneyball for the first time, and the very famous scene of the book where Billy Beane picks up the chair and throws it—that really resonated with me, at first. But then Beane neglected to pick the chair back up and finish the fucking job.
So, to all of you that are American taxpayers: I am deeply sorry for the destruction of your chair. I hope you can forgive me, in time.
At the office the next day, we had our weekly photo critique session, where we would talk about various photos we’d seen and try to learn more about photography. We spent the entire session on one photo from that day’s sports section—a girl in a blue stocking cap with a red “C” on it, watching the game and crying. People kidded me about the outcome. I made attempts to laugh and play along. I felt about as low as it’s possible to feel inside, though.
But there was always Game Seven, right? Cause for hope? Not really, I thought. I knew how this story ended. And as it turned out, I did.
All of this (well, in condensed form—it all seems a lot briefer in my head) was running through my mind last night as I watched the Braves and Red Sox end their seasons in roughly the most aggravating fashion possible. I thought about all of the Braves and Sox fans I know, and while I don’t think they went through quite the same set of emotions, I thought I had a pretty good idea what they were feeling right then. A lot of them were that girl in the blue stocking cap who was just staring at the field in shock, not knowing what to think.
Sports are supposed to be entertainment, right? Like television shows, or movies, or video games. But nobody has to suffer for me to enjoy watching Blade Runner. Nobody feels like their guts have been ripped out of them when I beat Portal 2. So why do we care about sports? Why are we so attracted to a form of entertainment that dispenses ecstasy and agony in equal measure?
And I don’t think we have to explain this as a contradiction—I think at least in part the attraction in sports is the fact that we can suffer as well as triumph. There’s something at stake when we watch a sporting event, that isn’t at stake when we watch a movie or read a novel. Something is being risked. And in that sense, I think sports are a reflecting pool for life.
And when we look up from the reflecting pool, we’re faced with the exact same question: Why is there suffering in the world? Why are people oppressed, why are people sick, why are people sad?
The answer, I think, is the same in sports and in life: Without actions that have meaningful consequences, nothing matters. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem o Pain: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”
Without the agony of defeat, Game Six doesn’t matter to me. But neither do any of the other games. None of those scraps of teams and scores that dribbled down to me through the season would’ve mattered, my cobbled-together standings wouldn’t have mattered, the box scores wouldn’t have mattered, Shawn Estes wouldn’t have mattered.
And I wouldn’t want to give any of that up. Not one single bit of it.