There's a special kind of guilt I feel upon consciously investing emotional significance in a baseball game. It comes from the rational, adult, part of my mind, the part that realizes the absurdity of rooting for laundry. The part that's acutely aware of the utter inconsequence of nine millionaires' athletic pursuits when eight million people die from hunger each year, ISIS rapes eight-year olds, and we seem to have another mass shooting every day.
It's as if a voice is telling me, in the meaning-investing moments, that whatever portion of my limited time on Earth I've devoted toward caring the slightest bit about who wins a given sporting event could be better spent on an infinite number of other, worthier pursuits. I could volunteer more, join the Peace Corps, maybe try to teach myself Swahili again (the first time ended poorly). It's easy to disappear down this rabbit hole pretty quickly, and it's painfully reductive--you could make the same argument about art, for instance, or literature.
I want to believe--we want to believe--that the games mean something. That when we choose the objects of our inevitable heartache--whether they're Pirates baseball games, Dali paintings, or, hell, chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream--our choices are purposeful. However much we may mock announcers' cringe-worthy deployment of locker-room cliches, it's not hard to empathize with the impulse that drives them--we secretly hope that baseball will vindicate all the hopeful truisms of a sometimes-hopeless world. Who doesn't want to see an underdog win? To see Bill Mazeroski become a World Series hero, or David Tyree catch a football with his head?
And that's why (among other reasons) last Wednesday was upsetting. Not just the loss, but the disheartening manner of the loss. Watching the game, I was torn between trying to appreciate a 98-win season and confronting the intoxicating power of a narrative that went something like this: "We had the second-best record in the majors, and our reward, for the second year in a row, will be a humiliating defeat that never remotely looked like a competitive baseball game. What do we need to do to be a real contender? "
I'm not the only one who had those thoughts. The season's public narrative is already being written, and it's not a good one. It's heavy on attempts to diagnose the fatal flaw that doomed the Pirates to the championship-less purgatory of baseball's postseason. Nor is this the only concern of a dejected Pirates fan base--equally pernicious is the fear that the McCutchen-era Pirates have missed their last, best chance at winning a championship.
I get it--the guy telling you to be happy because a 98-win season is nothing to sneeze at is sort of like the parent telling you that you'll get over your dog dying because he had a good life, and got to chase literally thousands of squirrels, and is in fact probably sprinting after some unfortunate squirrel/mailman in dog heaven right now (which I can only assume is co-located with squirrel/mailman hell). On some level you know they're probably right, but that doesn't make the situation suck any less.
This is where normally I'd try to engage with all the arguments for pessimism. I could make the point that the Pirates didn't have a fatal flaw--they were plenty good enough to win a championship. That given the strength of the farm system they're likely to be good for a long time. That our front office got two star-quality players (Jung-Ho Kang and Francisco Cervelli) last offseason for pennies on the dollar. That we're currently watching a generational player and potential Hall of Famer in his prime.
But you probably already know all of those things, and saying them again won't do anything to dispel the bitterness of the season's ending. So, in lieu of trying to squeeze yet more water from the stone that is the one-game playoff, allow me to simply offer an alternative narrative for the Pirates' season:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt
The ultimate failure of an endeavor does not erase the value of the endeavor itself. It was a lot of fun watching games this year--those of us who lived through Operation Shutdown and the Matt Morris trade will never take a winning season for granted.
And what if the championship never occurs? What if the McCutchen window closes without hoisting the Jolly Roger atop the mast of major league baseball?
Well . . .
Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus describes the progress of the mythological Greek man condemned to spend all eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll back to the bottom each time he nears the top. Camus likens Sisyphus' experience to that of humankind as a whole, condemned to a quixotic journey toward an unreachable goal.
One could be forgiven for dwelling on the negatives of such a seemingly desolate scenario. But Camus' essay ends on a hopeful note.
"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."