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June 15, 2012
Matt Cain, Peanuts & "How Did the Other Team Feel?"
Click the image to see the full comic.
There's an old Peanuts comic strip that I think about often. It's an old Sunday strip and, in it, Linus comes running out of his house due to sheer excitement. As he breathlessly explains to Charlie Brown, he has just witnessed the most amazing, improbable comeback in football history. It wasn't the famous Stanford "Band on the field!!" game, but it very well could have been inspired by that game. Linus takes panel after panel describing the play on the field and, then, the over-the-top excitement of the fans in the stands. People storming the field, players rolling around in giddiness... finally, Linus lets out a exhausted, happy sigh. "It was fantastic!"
Charlie Brown, who had been quietly listening to the whole thing, responds as only Charlie Brown can. "How did the other team feel?"
It is quite possibly the most perfect comic strip ever drawn (though it could be improved—football over baseball?!). Charlie Brown—and Peanuts in general—is often about Chuck's eternal optimism in the face of defeat. He didn't kick the football last time, but he'll sure as heck get it this time. The baseball team lost 123-0 last week, but a win is certainly in the cards today! Yet another line drive leaves Charlie Brown naked on the mound, but those pitches will start falling for strikes soon. It's why we love Peanuts—not only does Charlie Brown routinely experience the face slaps and difficulties of living in the real world, but he's learned to turn the other cheek and look past those hardships in an admirable way. Charlie Brown is who we are and who we'd like to be all at once.
This strip may not confront that side of Chuck's character directly, but it certainly reinforces it. Only someone who has experienced failure and disappointment as much as Charlie Brown can immediately look past the ecstasy of an overjoyed home crowd and wonder how the losing team feels. That empathy for the less fortunate is a core part of Charlie Brown's nature and a direct result of his endless optimism/adversity. And it's a trait that we should all strive to see in ourselves.
As I said, this strip has stuck with me for 25 years. Whenever I see someone or something celebrating a single, thrilling moment—Aaron Boone's series clincher, the incredible comeback of the Bloody Sock series, last year's Game Six—I try to remember Charlie Brown's lesson in empathy. Yes, the moment is remarkable and unforgettable for the winning side, but that joy comes directly at the expense of someone's sorrow. It's an important lesson to remember every now and then. It doesn't have to keep you from savoring the moment, of course; it's just nice to think of others on occasion.
With Matt Cain's perfect game, however, I don't feel the need to be so considerate. Why is that? Is there something different about a perfect game, or am I just too wrapped up in the moment to even remember my own advice?
The common saying is that baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. That, with all of the action focused around the one-on-one confrontation of the pitcher/batter matchup, it's more like tennis or golf than basketball or football. There is certainly a lot of truth in that point of view, but it isn't the whole truth.
Matt Cain striking out Brett Wallace in the eighth inning on an inside fastball is an individual matchup. So is Cain inducing a weak popfly from the catcher with one out in the ninth. But Cain defeating 27 consecutive Astros without so much as a walk or an error? That's not Federer versus Nadal. It's not Tiger versus Phil. It's not even Daniel-san versus Johnny Lawrence. Instead, Cain standing all alone against a swarm of opponents is more The Bride versus the Crazy 88's than anything else. And though Cain eventually stood victorious atop the mound, it does not make the challenge he faced any less grueling.
Above, I made a joke that this Peanuts comic could only be improved by making it about baseball rather than football. Baseball is light years better than football, after all (and we are on Baseball Prospectus). I still believe that that is the case—if Linus had come running out of his house describing Robin Ventura's grand slam-single or Luis Gonzalez's single off of Mariano Rivera to Charlie Brown, the world might have exploded—but not every situation would work. Ventura or Gonzalez (or Chris Burke or Joe Carter or Bucky F*ckin' Dent or Bobby Thomson or...) all fit because there was a lot on the line for both teams. One pitch, one swing of the bat sent one fan base into riots of joy and the other fan base into the depths of their beer bottles. It's exactly the situation where someone like Linus would focus on the ecstatic group while someone like Chuck would focus on the tears.
With Cain (and most perfect games), however, the stakes are different. It's not one team against another. Fanbases don't even seem to care all that much. It's only the pitcher versus perfection. Will he get all 27 outs or will a ball squeak through the defense? Can he manage to throw strikes even on three-ball counts? Will the offense do anything to mess up his rhythm? We're not even rooting for a win versus a loss in most instances (and certainly not in a 10-0 game). We're all rooting for the man to do the impossible.
When Matt Cain finally does induce that final, heart-stopping groundout to third, no one is particularly devastated. It's no different than any other day-to-day loss. There are no tears in the clubhouse. There's no one for Charlie Brown to wonder about. It's a moment of pure joy, of pure fandom, of pure sports for everyone to enjoy (team rivals might feel different, I suppose).