No one enjoys losing, but in baseball’s long play to the end, even fans of the best teams experience it with predictable regularity. At season’s end, those losses all look the same, and count the same way, but the true character of the “L,” its emotional tone and tenor, can vary wildly. At the season’s halfway point, I wanted to think about how these different sorts of losses might weigh on us, and sort them into their different categories and subcategories, to see what weird, sad families they form. And so here, for your reading pleasure (?), is a Typology of Losing.
The tight game
Short-term heartbreak: Stubbed toe
Long-term heartbreak: Feelin’ groovy
At least you were in it, you know? Your best matched up against their best, or your on-the-field-that-day matched up against theirs, and you kept it close. It was as much like a tennis match as a baseball game, with the teams volleying back and forth, until your best came up just short at the end. It’s a satisfying loss, if such a thing exists. The boys had grit and sticktoitiveness. You’ll get ‘em next time. You just needed one more inning.
The one run what-might-have-been
Short-term heartbreak: Bobblehead breaks before leaving the ballpark on bobblehead night
Long-term heartbreak: Gloria Gaynor
The thing about feelings is that we all have them and at some point you have to express them, lest they burrow into you only to burst forth, Alien-esque, at inopportune moments. Reactions in the moment are a fairly pure response to stimuli; memories of the moment can be tempered by what we know about those moments rather than what we feel about them. Which is why, though they may sting mightily in the moments immediately following the game (“If only he hadn’t been thrown out at home!” “If only they could have done something with the bases loaded.” “If only they hadn’t wasted another Felix start.”), these game rank fairly low on the long-term heartbreak scale because their feeling can easily countered by what we know about one-run games. We know they can be flukey; we know the Fates can be fickle and so too can bullpens. We move on from them because we can convince ourselves this doesn’t say much about the team we like best. Sometimes you just get unlucky.
The three-run first inning deficit that is entirely insurmountable
Short-term heartbreak: Setting your morning coffee on a shelf in your closet only to find it cold 30 minutes later.
Long-term heartbreak: Heat death of fandom
This is the domain of the perpetually sad, the pre-defeated, the singers of “There is Always Next Year” on April 10th. As individual losses go, they’re a practiced kind of defeat. Your opponent puts up three runs in the first, normally by hitting a solo home run and then singling in two more, and you know your team is toast. It’s not that they can’t score two runs before the ninth inning ends. It’s that you know for a fact they can’t score three. They’re the losses where you suddenly find that all of the dishes are done and your kitchen is clean, only you don’t remember starting to do housework. You just drifted away, know the conclusion is far gone. You look up and see your mother’s cross stitch hanging on the wall: "An Immaculate House is the Sign of a Misspent Free Agency Budget"
The blow out
The huge early inning blow out
Short-term heartbreak: Oh good grief.
Long-term heartbreak: Why don’t I remember this movie being worse?
So, do you want to go to a movie? Or maybe do some yard work? Maybe something where it’s not impolite of me to check the score, just in case the Royals manage to come back after the Astros scored seven runs in the second. I mean, it is baseball, and crazier things have happened, but I’d rather be disappointed I missed the comeback, than be disappointed that I spent three hours of my brief existence on this Earth willing them to come back. Because that’s what a lot of the anger of a loss is really about. Not that the team we root for lost. But that they convinced us to spend three hours of our lives watching them lose. And we could have been at the movies or pulling weeds.
Position player pitching blow out
Short-term heartbreak: Are you kidding, Ichiro is pitching!
Long-term heartbreak: No but seriously, did you see Ichiro pitch?!
Baseball happens almost every day during the season, and purveyors of its wisdom will tell you that players have to learn how to let go of strikeouts and errors and losses almost immediately. To move on is to flourish, to dwell is to be doomed. Late home runs or sharply turned double plays can sooth us in the course of defeat, but there is perhaps no more efficacious balm, no more immediate reversal of the soul’s fortune, than the position player pitching. It’s the collision of what we expect with what we hope for, with an escape hatch for understandable failure. When it works well, we stand in awe as Cliff Pennington throws 91. When it’s an unmitigated disaster, well, of course it was. That’s a shortstopcatcheroutfielder out there. Position players only pitch when the game is long lost and the spectacle is about the blow out. Their presence changes the object of the spectacle. It reorients us from the banal (losing, even badly, is typical) to the bizarre and in so doing, takes us out of the loss and into a new condition. It’s a neat sleight of hand that lets in fresh air.
The extra innings blow out
Short-term heartbreak: I’m going to set myself on fire
Long-term heartbreak: Heat death of fandom
We can conceptualize losing in extras and we can conceptualize a blowout, but combining them is a special sort of indignity we can scarce endure. These moments require uncomfortable explanations to our children about why we taught them to love baseball, and not a different, non-baseball thing. Extra innings mean free baseball, but they often also mean that traffic will be a little worse when we leave the ballpark, or that plans will have to be altered, or that we will get to bed far later than we meant to for a work night. The close games in extras are painful. The back and forth when each team rallies are blood pressure rising, but at least feel like they justify extras. If you come back to score a couple, only to see your opponent do the same and ultimately prevail, well, at least you made the case for being there. You get no such pleasure with the extra-innings blow out. Losing is bad enough, but what makes the blowout in extras so demoralizing is that it makes us wish that the team we love had had the decency to get down to losing earlier, so that we might be spared inconvenience. So in addition to a loss, and a blow out, and extra innings, we’re forced to confront the reality that our affection for the things we love is really only ever as deeply felt as our ability to escape to the freeway and avoid rush hour in 20 minutes or less.
The opponent comes from behind loss
Strong start, weak bullpen (The Felix Hernandez)
Short-term heartbreak: The banality of evil
Long-term heartbreak: Weirdly, Felix is ours and you can’t have him
Your ace hands over a one-run lead to the bullpen. He’s fought and clawed all day. He struck out 10, largely kept them off the basepaths. All your bullpen has to do is close it out. Your bullpen then proceeds to do the exact opposite of that. Your bullpen then proceeds to be cruel and callous toward that which you hold most dear. Because your bullpen is a bummer and so is baseball.
The Huge Comeback
Short-term heartbreak: wut
Long-term heartbreak: I’m going to see highlights of this a lot, aren’t I? Like, a lot, a lot.
It is an odd little moment when you go from feeling secure (“We got this.”) to feeling a bit nervous (“Surely not?”) to feeling really nervous (“Uh oh.”) Sometimes, it’s a big thing. A home run shot that brings an otherwise listless opponent within five. Sometimes, it is something much smaller. A pair of singles off a tiring reliever. An error from an otherwise reliable fielder. You realize with a twisting of your stomach that the bullpen is depleted, that you’ve already used your bench players. You worry, but think, “Hey, how could they…” And there is a crack of the bat and the ball goes just past the infielder's glove and seven singles later, the Mariners, once down 12-2, are ahead 16-12. And all you can think to yourself is how swiftly you went from feeling like your mom had wrapped you up in a warm blanket, to wishing she was there to literally do so, societal expectations of 30-year-olds be damned.
The blown save
Short-term heartbreak: My Closer is Terrible: An Origin Story
Long-term heartbreak: Maybe we should trade for Ken Giles?
But you had it. Your team was ahead, and needed just three outs. Your best reliever, your closer, your guy, was in. They played his closer walk-in; he stared menacingly at the camera. He had a steely grimace on his face, and swagger in his stride, and all he needed was three little outs. He gets through the first two no problem, but then he walks a guy. The steely stare continues, only now the camera is a little bit closer. A hard-hit double follows and your team, which needed just three outs, now has runners at second and third to contend with. The steely stare continues, only now, with the camera even closer, you can see the blinking start. The nervous tick of concern. And just as your face comes to mirror his, a single bleeds through, and your team is losing. You begin to stumble to the exits after the first groundout in the bottom of the ninth, because at least you can beat traffic. You get to your car just in time to turn on the radio for the final out, only to find yourself trapped in the garage.
Short-term heartbreak: I feel so close to you right now
Long-term heartbreak: You’re so far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one play anymore?
The worst part of the typical walk-off is the defeated shuffling of the pitcher back to his dugout, and how lonely a shuffle that is. Yes, there are eight other guys on the field, but they aren't the ones who surrendered the win in that moment. They were complicit to varying degrees in all the other moments, which may well have been more important, but this moment, and its sad shuffle, is the pitcher's. It makes us sad. Our hearts break for the loss and for the individual in his loneliness; we feel for the guy, and presumably his teammates do, too. But that's not bottom. What's worse is the walk-off walk, the wild pitch, the passed ball, or dropped third strike. We always assign blame in situations like this. And we allow for, or at least understand, mistakes. What really bothers us is the sloppiness. Walking in a run with the bases loaded feels sloppy, like pitching made unkempt. You’ll suffer a lonely walk to the dugout, but we wonder if you get just a bit of a look on your way back after a moment like this. Literally dropping the ball when your team needs you has a similar feel. It's all losing. Someone on the team is almost always to blame. Mistakes are almost always made. But these feel sloppy, unruly, and dare we say, unprofessional. And so we wonder if that kind of shuffle back might not be lonelier, with a bit of a knowing glance that says you are of us but not a part of us. At least, not right now.
The almost come back
The double TOOTBLAN
Short-term heartbreak: Oh crap.
Long-term heartbreak: Oh. Crap.
Kyle Seager: I’m not fast. I’m not fast. I thought I was fast, but I am not fast. I am not fast. I am a good baseball player, but not a fast baseball player.
Shawn O’Malley: I am a fast baseball player! I am not a good baseball player, but I am a fast baseball player!
Seager: Oh crap.
O’Malley: Oh crap.
The ninth inning bases loaded, no outs
Short-term heartbreak: But you promised?
Long-term heartbreak: Thank you for providing pre-fab narratives to fit my eventual disillusion.
This should be fine. You should be fine. We should be fine. Your team is in the final inning of the game, you’re down by a run or two, but so far, everyone is doing their job. They’ve hit some singles. Maybe they even got a little bit lucky, like the Angels did on June 27th. Maybe the leadoff hitter struck out swinging, but advanced to first on a wild pitch. Your team has loaded up the bases with no outs. The game was close, and your team is bad, but here they are, wedging open the door to hope. And for the first time in awhile, you’re ready to walk through the door with them. But you’re actually not walking anywhere. You’re a passenger in your team’s car and they are about to get into a car accident. Without warning, they’re about to go screaming into a 1-2-3 double play, and that hope isn’t a good feeling, but rather the 16-year-old who is texting and driving and about to T-bone you.
The big deficit almost erased
Short-term heartbreak: Well?
Long-term heartbreak: Well.
The almost-ran, the almost-did. They meant to win, but didn’t quite. They put together a few innings of quality baseball, only to be undone by the normal, the typical, the first few innings. They may have come very close early, but they didn’t do much else. You crossed your fingers and began to chant. You leaned forward in your living room… and then you recoiled in disgust. You thought they would win. And they almost did.
The recently traded prospect and/or veteran who beat you single handedly
Short-term heartbreak: We have no one to blame but ourselves.
Long-term heartbreak: Lonely… I’m so lonely.
The revenge game. The reminder of what you’re missing. The knowing look up to the GM’s suite. Every franchise has one they let get away, sometimes because they let a free agent walk, or because they underestimated a prospect, or because they shipped a viable catcher off to Arizona when the starting catcher is hitting .180. The traded party understands it is both a business and deep slight against their family and proceeds to clobber your team. You lose, and dang it, you feel like you should.
Watching your pitcher have to “wear one.”
Short-term heartbreak: That felt mean.
Long-term heartbreak: Sometimes, our team is really mean.
Every now and again, you have to take your lumps. Not me, or you (well, in life me and you), but one of our guys. The bullpen is taxed and there is no help coming, so you just have to wear it. You just have to soldier on and watch as one of your dudes gives up seven runs in four innings, and shakes his head after every run surrendered. You. Just. Have. To. Wear. It. And so does he.
The bad call (rarer these days, still happens)
Short-term heartbreak: I should really let this go.
Long-term heartbreak: I just can’t let this go.
With the advent of instant replay, we thought we would suffer fewer of these, and generally we have. It wasn’t a loss (hell, it wasn’t even a run) but mostly gone are the days of Armando Galarraga's near-perfect game. We generally just don’t make those mistakes anymore. But when we do, oh boy, do we feel them. The obviously wrong called third strike, the misplayed replay? We were promised justice and fair dealing, and when we don’t get that, we are ready to rage. And we do not forget.
The closer-coming-in-just-to-get-work who then blows a five-run lead and has to throw 55 pitches
Short-term heartbreak: I do not want to have a catch anymore.
Long-term heartbreak: Let’s just forget this ever happened.
This was just supposed to be a work out. Getting your normal bullpen in. A typical day at the office. You haven’t thrown in a while, probably because your team is pretty good or pretty bad. And you know, why not? Today is your day. Throw a few. Then you throw a few. And you give up a run. Then you throw a few more. And give up another two runs. Then you throw a few more and give up a few more and throw a few more and then well don’t you know, you’ve thrown 55 pitches, given up five runs, and are now unavailable for tomorrow’s work.
The game-ending thrown-out-at-home
Short-term heartbreak: I can’t believe he just did that.
Long-term heartbreak: I still can’t believe he did that.
All you had to do was time it differently. You could have held up, and had another shot. Maybe that shot wouldn’t have done anything, and maybe the game still would have ended, but we would have assigned that blame to a different bit of action. Now we’re assigning it to you. You are the one who ran. You are the one who wasn’t fast enough. You are the one who couldn’t wait. You. It’s because of you. And a really good throw. But mostly you.
The first-game-of-a-DH extra innings loss
Short-term heartbreak: Oh god, there is another game.
Long-term heartbreak: Oh god, I just sat through another game.
The loss is bad because of the anticipation of the next loss. Your team is tired and their team is tired, except their team just had the elation of winning in extras, and your team just got to sit through losing in extras knowing another lineup card will soon be exchanged and another nine innings played. And what if that game goes to extras? Are you going to miss dinner? Do you really want to watch this? Do they even want to play? Ha, no.
But they have to.
Thank you for reading
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