It’s been months since I cared about the outcome of a Mariner game. Months. Individual players I still want to succeed, sure, but the scores themselves? The wins and losses? No, not really. If anything, I have wanted them to lose in order to maintain draft position. It is incredibly hard to root for your team to lose, so I have succumbed slowly to apathy.
Last night, in the seventh inning, something snapped into place.
I decided to watch this game after work, despite the many things I needed to get done. So I booted up the game on my laptop, put in my headphones, and carried it with one arm room to room as I cleaned, an entirely inneficent way to watch a game and do chores. But Kyle Lewis was playing. I needed to see what might happen.
As the game sped by, and my arm became tired of holding their faces, I feared I was watching a no-hitter. I almost turned it off, but stuck around to see a few more Donnie Walton and Kyle Lewis at bats. I accepted the loss, I did not care about the loss. Apathy.
Then the unimaginable happened. Kyle Lewis took Very Good Professional Baseball Pitcher Sonny Gray deep to right-center, to break up the no-no, to break up the shutout, to take the lead.
The swing in win expectancy was wild, nearly 50%. In one drive the complexion of the game changed.
I ran around my living room saying “Ooohhhhh wow holy—what? What?” Or something. My cats eyed my suspiciously from their trees. I high-five their stupid paws, “Kyle Lewis hit a home run” I told their dumb, unblinking faces.
I then returned to the floor where I had set my laptop, sat down, and watched in silence. The water bubbled behind me, waiting for pasta. I registered the sound, but it soon slipped from my mind. Kyle Lewis had saved the game and now the Mariners needed to win. Suddenly, winning felt important to me. The thought that Kyle Lewis’ homer run would be irrelevant seemed to me a crime.
The eighth came and went quickly, then, the ninth.
Sam Tuivailala loaded the bases. The winning run now a swing away. I felt anxiety flicking through me, a new unfamiliar emotion when my system had been trained to tune out, shut down, yawn. But not tonight.
In storytelling, tension is created by a combination of a protagonist wanting something, an obstacle for them to overcome to achieve it, and something at stake for them to lose. It’s a simple formula but good stories features these elements nearly universally. In that ninth inning the Mariners (protagonist) wanted to win (goal) but had to overcome Joey Votto (obstacle) in order to achieve it. What’s been missing these past few months is the stakes. Other teams have playoffs as their stakes. Or personal pride, or something that makes them care. For the Mariners, there hasn’t been anything at stake to make whether the protagonist achieves their goal meaningful.
Kyle Lewis was the stakes last night. Not wanting Kyle Lewis’ achievement, his clutch home run to break up a no-hitter, to feel empty. A new energy permeated the stadium. With the stakes raised, the investment high, we saw the outcome on an unusual strike-three play.
The batter took the base on what should have been a dead ball, a runner scored, the win in jeopardy. Notedly mellow Scott Servais charged out of the dugout and mimed his heart out.
The response from the umpire:
This was true. The play is not reviewable, Scott’s argument was essentially meaningless. Most manager’s arguing is meaningless and performative and therefore kind of dumb. This probably was as well, but the more I watched, and the longer the video board replayed the obvious mistake, the more I came around to realizing Scott was legitimately angry. Furious, even.
This is the reaction of someone who feels there is something at stake in this game. That is feeling pressure, tension, all of the scary feelings that make sports fun.
After, the crowd came to life. You could hear it. Every subsequent pitch carried additional weight, the outcome taking on significance. It was a game in September among two terrible teams.
When a borderline pitch was called a ball the stadium groaned.
Joey Votto grounded out to first. The Mariners won. Fireworks erupted. The crowd cheered. Daniel Vogelbach made this face.
I pumped my fist. Refilled the water in the pot. Checked Twitter and LL and basked in a feeling of accomplishment. That reflected glory I wrote about in a recap no one read. For a game, the apathy had been washed away. I had been struggling since moving to San Diego, where I don’t know anyone, no friends, family. I feel far away from everything I’ve known, any sort of community I’d made.
Last night I cared about baseball again and for a moment the miles of concrete and forest and dust between me and my home town collapsed in a feeling of shared joy.
We don’t need baseball, most of us. Baseball is an extra part of our life, it’s a hobby, a passion, even. If it were to disappear, poof, our lives would continue forward, the gap created by baseball filled with sewing or fishing or other hobbies as I’m not very good at coming up with hobbies other than baseball. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of how joyful it can be. It’s been a long time since I cared. I didn’t realize how badly I missed it.