Had there been such a thing as a playoff roster, I wouldn’t have been on it.
I played my last organized baseball game nearly 20 years ago when I was a freshman in high school, having left the pursuit early the next school year in favor of something I could actually do reasonably well – the theater. I’m still very comfortable with that decision, in large part because, while I’ve always loved baseball, I wasn’t particularly good at it. Sure, I made the freshman team at a large, competitive high school, but my spot was always that of the “designated hustler.” Picture David Eckstein without talent. I tried so hard, cheered so hard, and hit weak groundballs to shortstop so hard (er, well, you know what I mean).
So, when we lost that last playoff game my freshman year, I took it in as I had most of the games in the rest of the season: standing at the dugout bar, cheering on my teammates as fiercely as I could. If someone made me a helmet with hands attached in a rubbing motion or passed me a bubble gum bucket, I would have worn it.
In other words, as we moved through the playoffs that year, I was something closer to a mascot than a contributor. I still greatly enjoyed the experience, though it was not without a sour ending.
Memories from that time are imprecise and shaped by the version of events I like to recall, but the way I remember it is that we lost our first few games of the season, despite our coach’s insistence that the group was among the most talented he’d ever coached. Thereafter, we didn’t lose again, cruising into the playoffs, pasting even the teams that had beaten us at the start of the season. On into the playoffs, the routs continued, and a trip to higher and better playoffs – whatever they were for freshman in those days – seemed inevitable.
But we lost in the league championship game, or something approximating it. The game, incidentally, came against one of the teams to which we lost at the start of the season, and then subsequently crushed during the regular season.
I don’t really remember specific moments from the game, or even the score. Instead, I remember only a feeling, at once indelible and difficult to articulate. It was like everything in front of me had been covered by an unreal haze; a gloss that disconnected me from what I knew was happening and what I’d allowed myself to believe was cosmically aligned. It was a very specific kind of dissonance, best described as I-don’t-understand-what-this-experience-is-supposed-to-be.
Having not thought of that moment or feeling for years, I’m not sure I knew it was still in there until I looked up at a solitary, bright, partial moon over Wrigley Field in the top of the first inning of Game Four of the NLCS, as the Cubs once again immediately went down early. I shook my head, on repeat. Eyes wide. Almost intoning.
I don’t understand what this experience is supposed to be.
* * *
One line, in particular, stuck in my head for most of the week of the NLCS.
The line referenced in the title of this post. It’s a Garth Brooks song; it’s a little cheesy and on the nose, but it’s what’s stuck with me. I don’t even like Garth Brooks.
In fact, I once had a bit of a baseball-related bone to pick with Garth Brooks.
Back in 1999, a couple years after my inglorious baseball career had finished, Brooks signed a minor league deal with the Padres and came to Spring Training. Brooks, you may know, is a country singer. A decent enough athlete, perhaps, but primarily a country singer and a baseball fan.
Baseball is extremely difficult.
Frankly, it bothered me that Brooks leveraged his celebrity into 22 at bats in 1999 – with one hit off of Mike Sirotka (oof for Sirotka) – and then another Spring with the Mets in 2000, and another with the Mariners in 2004. Who was he to act like he could play baseball with the best in the world? Didn’t he know he’d just fail, and maybe even embarrass himself?
Many years older now, of course, I can see he just wanted to do it. He just wanted to play, regardless of the results. He was in a position to make a dream happen, and, hey, I can’t begrudge him for it. My guess is he had a whole lot of fun, and the results simply became a funny story he later shared with friends and well-wishers.
And, well, all right. Some of his songs are OK. That one keeps playing on a loop in my head as I type.
* * *
When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod ushered in a new era of Chicago Cubs baseball operations in late 2011, we knew what was coming: a wholesale rebuild. An entire overhaul of everything the organization had been doing, and a complete turning over of the roster. Sure, they didn’t always say it explicitly – though Epstein notably remarked that you can’t turn an ocean liner on a dime – but, if you were paying attention at all, you knew it was going to be a several year process.
We wanted it! The Cubs needed it! Finally, the thing was going to be torn down to the studs, and built up to be a consistent, sustainable winner. The Plan, The Plan, The Plan.
And, for the most part, fans were on board. Epstein was greeted as a rockstar wherever he went, and fans thanked club owner and chairman Tom Ricketts for finally starting the process of modernizing the club. Sure, it was going to take years, but it was going to be worth it. We’d all support it.
The thing is, there’s a fundamental difference between saying you’re on board with a rebuild in late 2011 – even meaning it – and actually living through the process. Those 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons, with the exception of the final month or two of 2014, really sucked. It was hard to watch sometimes. It was hard to feel as good in mid-2013 as you felt in late-2011, even if you had already contemplated that it was going to be that way several years in advance.
The 2015 season was fantastic. It was fun. The Cubs were good. They made the playoffs. Everything that could be right about baseball was right with the team. I loved it.
And when they advanced in the playoffs, first past the Wild Card Game, and then past the divisional series against the Cardinals, I told myself I would feel great about the year, no matter what, when it was over. How could I not, right?
* * *
Once again, I feel that fundamental difference between knowing something in advance – knowing what’s right, in the broad perspective – and then actually living through it.
I have found this past week very difficult to accept, and very difficult to contextualize, both within the broader scope of the 2015 season, and, if you’ll indulge me, my own life. Like the long forgotten freshman baseball memories that came rushing back, I spent several days simply letting the swirl of emotions and justifications and calculations exist in my mind. I’d land somewhere eventually. Maybe even as I wrote this very post.
From a logical standpoint, the best revelation I could come up with is that the playoffs are simply an invitation to disappointment. We know that it’s a small sample pile of good and bad luck once you get to the dance, but so much of a season’s story is wrapped up in how a team does in the playoffs.
By definition and by rule, nine teams will end their season cruelly disappointed. You only hope that the team that wins it all somehow absorbs the lost positivity of the other nine, keeping the energy of the sport in some kind of balance.
It’s all quite the masochistic exercise when you think about it, especially when you realize that’s it’s more painful the further the team you love goes in the playoffs. I have no doubt whatsoever that Cubs fans – at least in the short-term – would have had a much easier time embracing the joy of this season in full if the Cubs had simply lost to the Pirates in the Wild Card Game.
That is, of course, crazy. And backwards. But it’s true. Eventually, of course, having won that game – and the series against the Cardinals that followed it – will prove to be a more valuable memory for Cubs fans than the temporary relief of not having been so damn close.
The playoffs are stupid. But we are stupid, too.
* * *
Last year at this time, after the Pirates had been bounced by the Giants in the Wild Card Game, I asked if you could lock in a Cubs postseason appearance – specifically, a Wild Card Game appearance and loss – for the Cubs in 2015, but then have your memory wiped so that you wouldn’t know it was coming, would you do it? The design of the question, of course, is to probe exactly what kind of season would have satisfied you, and most folks, like me, felt like that would be a perfectly swell outcome. We would lock it in, and then have our memories wiped so that we could experience it fresh.
No, I don’t think we actually managed to make some kind of deal with the fates to lock in a Wild Card Game win, an NLDS win and then an NLCS loss, but, if we did, I know two things: (1) I would definitely have taken that deal if you asked me at this time last year; and (2) I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, because it allowed me to experience the joy of the 2015 season, imbued with the dream of what could be coming.
And if you can step back for a moment, allowing yourself to forget the ending, you’ll start to remember just how incredible – yes, magical – the 2015 Chicago Cubs season was. The wins. The comebacks. The walk-offs. The tension. The rookies. The fun. The Arrieta. The Wild Card Game. The NLDS.
As I said, I’m quite sure that, in the fullness of time, we’ll all remember the 2015 season as fondly as any in the last century. Even as I struggle to incorporate the NLCS sweep into the story of the 2015 season that I’d like to hold in my mind, I still smile in spite of myself when I picture Anthony Rizzo standing on the tarp or Starlin Castro mimicking Kris Bryant’s throw or Jonathan Herrera taking a curtain call nobody asked for. And my smile evolves in a sated nod when I picture Hector Rondon striking out Stephen Piscotty to lock up the Cubs’ playoff series win over the Cardinals.
* * *
I might always wonder how it is that a team can be so fantastically enjoyable – and fantastically good! – for a full season, a postseason game, and a postseason series, and then be rewarded with a complete and thorough punch in the gut on the doorstep of the World Series. There’s something in that I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile. And maybe that’s the whole thing. Maybe that’s the experience.
In my heart, though, I know I enjoyed the ride. I know that the highs would never feel as high without the lows. I know that the universe can be a chaotic ball of randomness, serving no master but its own desire to befuddle.
We plan, baseball laughs.
Thankfully, on the whole, I laughed a whole lot this year, too. I can set aside maudlin ruminations long enough to acknowledge what a blast I had this year following this team. Didn’t you?
So, then, even if I might never be able to wrap my head around the cosmic lesson attached to the way it ended, I know that I’ll always appreciate the experience that those same cosmic forces gifted to me as a baseball fan this year.
* * *
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above.
For a moment all the world was right.
How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbye?
And now, I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end. The way it all would go.
Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain,
But I’d have had to miss the dance.
– Spring Training Baseball Player Garth Brooks, ‘The Dance’
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