Hello nobody! Hello nothingness! Hello void! Hello, chaos of the old cosmogonies! And welcome, to Astros baseball.
In years past, we have determined the Worst Game Of The Year via a careful sorting process focused primarily on average leverage index, the absence of any number of redemptive qualities, or contextual tiebreakers. This year, we go with a much simpler process. We first look to see whether there are any games that got a 0.0 television rating, meaning that even if somebody watched the game, nobody watched anybody watch the game; and, further, see whether said game was played in a ballpark that drew fewer fans than the Marlins and Astros drew to their ballparks, despite being home to a playoff team. Might such a game exist?
Such a game exists. On September 22nd, in the middle of a 15-game losing streak that continues to this day, the Astros closed out a four-game series against the Indians. Could a game of so little interest to the rest of the world possibly provoke genuine human emotions? Could it speak in any way to the human experience? This is our question, our quest, our ion. We will watch the Astros and the Indians play a game, in a ballpark that fans do not go to, on a television broadcast that fans do not watch, and we will determine whether there is a point. Here are your keys to the game:
Indians: Keep the ball on the ground. Don't pick it up, no matter how many people yell at you to pick it up. Fight anybody who tries to pick it up.
Astros: This universe is your own hallucinatory creation. While this means your existence is pointless and the answer to all spiritual questions is "nope," it also means that, as the only person with actual agency in your universe, you must have written the works of Shakespeare and the television show Party Down. Aren't you sharp as a tack!
And here is your Astros starting lineup, in Sporcle form. Give it a whirl!
In the course of nine innings, we discover that the capacity for emotion is strong. Even in a wasteland such as this, we can identify no fewer than six emotions on display. None of these emotions can be described by a single English word, though there are, naturally, German words for them, German words that, quite coincidentally, are also all the mashed-up surnames of multiple players on the German national soccer team. We will discuss these emotions now.
1. Boetengmertesacker, or the feeling invoked by the Astros.
There’s not a pure Astros blooper moment in this game, no six-car pileups on the infield. The closest was a miscommunication in the outfield, between L.J. Hoes and Brandon Barnes, and I’ve been going frame by frame trying to find the most Astros moment in the play. Is it here,
where you have two legitimately outstanding athletes, among the very best in the world, genuine marvels who we should all marvel genuinely at, each engaged in nearly flawless execution of an athletic achievement, and yet somehow doing it so wrong? Or is it here,
where they don’t look like they’re playing baseball at all but are playing some other game, like pin the tail on the donkey or hitting a pinata or, more likely, running a three-legged race, where the purpose of the game is explicitly to make people look uncoordinated and drunk? Or is it here,
where Brandon Barnes stares out into space, perhaps in shock, while his teammate shows concern for the state of his mind, guiding him back toward the action like a nurse in a mental hospital steering a patient back to the recreation room, where the sweet soothe of colored pills awaits? Or maybe here,
where Brandon Barnes stomps off angrily, without appearing to even acknowledge L.J. Hoes’ apologies, and you want to yell at him, “no, don’t you understand, in the end all that matters are the friendships you make in this game! Don’t throw them away so casually!” But he doesn’t hear you? No, finally, you realize that at the end the purest expression of the Astros is never in the play itself, but the observation of the play. The Astros, like all baseball players, exist to be seen. The truest Astroer of all is the Astro who watches:
2. Podolskischweinsteiger, or the ambivalence felt upon realizing that you have finally achieved your childhood goal of having an entire bucket of gum, and nobody can eat it but you, it’s all yours, so no touching, it’s yours yours yours, but that, alas, you are a grownup.
His own bucket of gum.
3. Schurlegotzereusbender, or the feeling of having an adversary who is more powerful than you and thus immune to your attacks until one day fate cuts him down and you can walk over unchallenged and as he lays prone, put your foot against his face, and just sort of topple him over into the mud.
C.B. Bucknor was the umpire behind the plate, and he had a rough day. Everybody was mad at him—pitchers, both dugouts, announcers. Here’s his strike-calling when left-handers were batting, for instance:
"Clueless" was a word that was brought up by one announcer, who noted as well that Bucknor's reputation is (paraphrasing here) "no better than that of a urine-soaked hobo." And so, after we’d all spent hours yelling at him, it was a bit uncomfortable for us all when this happened:
We don’t, after all, truly wish him any harm. He’s not trying to do a poor job; he’s probably a pretty good guy, and when you step back you realize that in this whole self-serious enterprise he was probably the guy smiling more than anybody else on the field. This is his default facial expression:
Looks like a peach. Smiles go a long way! Shoot, do I feel like a jerk. This’ll teach me to sweat the small stuff.
The stadium is silent, almost from the moment that the ball thuds off his exposed collar bone. Bucknor is motionless. We wait. Everybody waits. The trainer solemnly begins his examination. Bucknor’s colleagues rush in to show support. Our guilt is heavy and suffocating. And from the stands, one voice breaks the silence to let a face-down Bucknor know what everybody feels toward him. In doing so, this lone voice reminds us that we should never be ashamed of the way we feel.
4. Neustadtergundogan, or the feeling of regret when you realize that you paid money to be entertained and yet the very event you paid for is that thing that is putting you to sleep (and, ultimately, edging you toward your appointment with the deepest sleep of all).
There were many ways that watching this game made us sleepy. Like reading the gamethread at Crawfish Boxes, where after just three other comments, Joe in Birmingham lonelily posts the final 25 comments with no response. Or watching this young boy physically hoist his grandfather’s arm to force him to cheer, Weekend-At style:
Or seeing this girl finally fall asleep after innings of staring boredly:
Or seeing this cop repeatedly and literally twiddle his thumbs:
But probably the most sleep-inducing part of the game was watching the yawns. A small selection of them,
5. Benderdraxlerbendersam, or the realization that in your neurotic effort to avoid even the smallest moment of awkward silence, you blurt out something considerably more awkward:
I want to be clear here: There are 13 movies listed here, and I have a problem with only one. Well, I have some problem with Ernest Goes To Jail, because the truck didn’t abide by the instructions to list only three movies, and because the inclusion of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo strongly suggests that the truck is trying to be funny with its choices, which, fine, no problem there, we’re having a good time, but you don’t break the freaking margins on the page if your joke is only as good as Ernest Goes To Jail.
But, fine, the truck went with irony; cool, cool. Julia picked Tombstone, which is terrible, but some of my personal favorite movies (not top three, but movies I truly love) could easily be construed as misses, or cheap pop, or hopelessly dated, or just not very good: A Life Less Ordinary, for instance; Rounders; Can’t Hardly Wait; all have their haters. I can see why somebody would love Tombstone, so fine, good pick! Chasing Mavericks is awful, truly, but I’m guessing Geoff Blum is really into surfing, so why not. It speaks to him. The Bucket List, oh man. That’s terrible, but it’s pretty clearly not intended for a person of my life stage; the same way Can’t Hardly Wait resonated with me because I saw it on the eve of my high school graduation, The Bucket List would certainly resonate with somebody who … well, I’m not looking to get too macabre here. Thirteen choices, 12 defensible. Fine.
But The In-Laws (2003)? A tired remake of a pretty good comedy not 25 years old? Candice Bergen, 34 percent Rotten Tomatoes, $27 million total box office, viewable in full on YouTube and thus far watched by only 641 people? The movie with this dialogue:
Brooks: I'm sorry I called you the worst father in the world.
Douglas: Thank you Jer.
Brooks: I'm sure there are at least two or three guys that are worse.
Ashby encourages all of us to go see it. Here’s his case: “KC and the Sunshine Company? What is it? The Sunshine Band? They're in it.”
Anyway, the point is that this is what happens at the end of baseball games that get out of hand. This is what the Worst Game Of The Year, ultimately, always is: A delivery system for this stuff.
6. Schweinsteigerzielerschmelzer, or the feeling that as soon as you’ve identified something as being undesirable, a malicious force in the universe cruelly increases the frequency or magnitude of it, just to screw with you, such that you are unwittingly an agent in your own seemingly random bad fortune.
This game was so bad. So much worse than the first two years we did this. Everybody's body language was awful. There were no notable defensive plays. There were no players chasing 5-for-5s or shutouts. The announcers were at the end of a very, very long year. But the worst thing was how badly it slowed down in the final four innings.
This game, you should know, was a blowout. It was reasonably close until the fifth, and then the Indians started scoring runs and it ended up being 9-2. The Astros hadn’t won a game in more than a week, and they wouldn’t win another for at least (at least) six and a half months, so from our perspective it was pretty much a certainty that the Indians would win the game, especially once they started pulling away in the middle innings. But Terry Francona, the guy with the gum bucket, doesn’t get to treat things as casually as we do. He has to win this game. So with his team up by one, then by five, then by six, then by seven, he starts making his moves: Three pitchers in the sixth, then two in the seventh, then three in the eighth, when his team’s win expectancy is 100 percent. In all, he uses eight pitchers, makes five mid-inning pitching changes, uses three pitchers for just one batter apiece, five pitchers for no more than two batters. He’s well within his rights to do this. But it leads to one of those miraculous moments when the TV announcers don’t realize that, as they go to commercial, they haven’t quite gone to commercial. And in that moment, Alan Ashby and Geoff Blum sum up the game, if not the season, if not the sport, if not all existence:
Ashby: This is…
Blum: What is going on?
Ashby: … a joke.
Blum: A joke.