Playing For A Losing Team Is Hard

We've joked about the Tropic of Cairo before, but if this past week hasn't pulled the rug out from under your passion and interest, I don't know what to tell you. The M's have been outscored 60-17 in their past seven games, they've dropped to a season-worst 14 below .500 and ten below the Rangers, and so many important players continue to struggle that there's just no compelling reason to believe that this team can go on an extended run. 2010, for all intents and purposes, is dead. It's dead, in a heap on the ground, with things sticking out of it.

When a team is bad, it's both the hardest and the easiest thing for a fan to take. It sucks, because losing sucks, but it's easy, because a fan can revoke his emotional investment from the daily grind. You can either stop watching, or you can keep watching but stop caring very much. The losses no longer take a toll on your day. They just roll off your back, because if you're still paying attention, you're paying attention not for the sake of wins and losses, but for the sake of seeing something interesting, or to observe the development of youth.

Imagine what it's like to be a player, though. Imagine what it's like to play for this year's Orioles, or this year's Mariners, or the Mariners from 2008. Players, of course, will continue to believe long after fans have given up, but that's because they have to believe. They have to believe they're capable. But there nevertheless does come a point at which it's clear to everyone that the season is doomed. Then what?

It's hard enough for us to have to watch these guys every day. Imagine having to play for them. Imagine having to lose, and disappoint, and embarrass the organization with games like last night's. Players can't afford to shrug it off like we can. This is their job. This is their living. This is the means by which they intend to support themselves and their families. They have to care, and they have to care like they care about little else.

But how easy is it to keep caring and to stay motivated and driven day after day in a season like this? Fans get all high and mighty when they think a player on a bad team is dogging it, and while no player should ever be excused for giving less than his all, at the same time, can you really blame them? The baseball season is arduous enough when you're competitive. It has to be downright torture when you suck.

And this is why I've never really supported the notion that comes out around award season that players on bad teams had it easier because they weren't playing under pressure. You hear it all the time. Alex Rodriguez didn't get enough respect for the job he did in Texas. Zack Greinke got shortchanged because he did what he did last year with the Royals. A lot of people will discount the numbers put up by a cellar dweller's big star, as if playing for nothing makes playing a breeze.

I'd argue the exact opposite. I think playing under pressure - playing in games that still matter - is the easiest way to play. You're always focused. You're always invested. You're always energized. When your team is bad, you have to motivate yourself. Every single day, you have to go out there and tell yourself "I'm going to play my best", even though nobody's watching and the games lack any significance. That's hard.

Maybe it isn't as hard for a rookie. A rookie just wants to prove he belongs in the big leagues. And maybe it isn't as hard for someone playing for a contract. Free agency can be a powerful motivator. But those guys still don't have it easy. They just might have it a little easier than the veterans, or the guys who're locked up. They're the ones who probably have it the roughest.

You know why losing clubhouses fracture apart? Because it's hard to be team-first when the team doesn't win. It's disappointing. It's depressing. It hurts. Losing clubhouses fracture apart almost out of self-preservation, because when everything else crumbles to the ground, playing for yourself is about the only way to stay sane.

And it's still a chore.

Nobody likes to watch a bad team, but at the same time, nobody has it worse than the players that're playing. It's something you absolutely have to keep in mind, and it's one of those things that puts Ichiro's 2004 and Greinke's 2009 among the more impressive individual feats we've seen accomplished.

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