By Jon Weisman
Somewhere right now, someone is driving a car and texting about the horrors of ebola.
But let me get back to that …
* * *
Madison Bumgarner is having the postseason that I truly believed Clayton Kershaw would have.
In his final start of the 2014 regular season, in the biggest game of the regular season for the Giants, Bumgarner unraveled. He gave up a leadoff home run to Justin Turner, hit Yasiel Puig with a pitch, jawed at Puig, gave up a home run to Matt Kemp and singles to Scott Van Slyke and Juan Uribe.
One night later, Kershaw capped his National League Most Valuable Player campaign by strikeout-pitching, triple-hitting and behind-the-back-fielding the Dodgers to an NL West-clinching 9-1 victory over the Giants.
Since then, Bumgarner has made six postseason starts and allowed six earned runs, and especially if the Giants follow through and win their third World Series in five years, will have earned the kind of immortality previously reserved for the likes of Sandy Koufax and Orel Hershiser. (Giants fans can pick their own heroes.)
Kershaw, so clearly on the Koufax and Hershiser track, made two postseason starts, pitched fantastically for the first six innings of each and then had twin seventh innings that resembled Bumgarner’s first inning at Dodger Stadium on September 23.
There’s no satisfying reason for why this happened. Nerves, pitch selection, matchups, managing, bullpen depth, dumb luck — it’s all on the table, for both pitchers. Maybe it was one of those; maybe it was all of those. No matter how much you say you know, you don’t, because the alternatives are all speculation. I’m still completely comfortable calling Kershaw’s two bad innings an aberration, just like Bumgarner’s big, bad inning in September.
But we’re haunted, haunted by how close Kershaw and the Dodgers came, haunted by the what-ifs, haunted by the nauseating feeling that destiny was stolen, haunted by baseball mortality.
* * *
Instead of working World Series games for the Dodgers this past weekend, I was attending my 25th college reunion at Stanford.
For weeks, I’ve known I’d be doing one of the two. And there was no doubt in my mind of my preference. Even though I almost never see my closest, lifelong friends outside of these reunions, I wanted to be pulled away. I wanted the Dodgers to have their moment, and I wanted to be in that moment.
What I hadn’t thought ahead about Door No. 2 was that I’d be spending my reunion in Giants country. There was some taunting, though completely good-natured. I’d see the World Series on a TV screen or people checking their cellphones for scores, and I’d sigh. But that was a footnote to the trip, and frankly, since I kicked off my senior year by celebrating the Dodgers’ 1988 title up north, reasonable payback.
For the most part, baseball took a seat in the way, way back, as my friends and I crammed years upon years of “What’s new?” and “Remember when?” through a turnstile of old and new memories.
Thirty-six hours of conversation Friday and Saturday, interrupted only briefly by sleep, played in front of me against a backdrop of questions. You listen to 50 shrink-wrapped life stories, you’re asked over and over again about your own, and you wonder if you’re doing it right, if you’re making the most of your life, if you’re achieving what you should be achieving, if you should even be asking questions at all.
At a bar Saturday night, I sat with four guys from my freshman dorm. Our game feels like it’s starting the second half. We’re 46, 47 years old. I heard about two fathers who passed in the past year at the age of 82. My dad turns 80 next year.
Midway home Sunday on I-5, 5 p.m. or so, traffic slows down. Ten minutes later, looking over at the northbound 5, I see flares surround an SUV, upside down, crushed upon its roof. Fifteen minutes after that, I’m texted that 22-year-old Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras has been killed in a car accident, as has his 18-year-old girlfriend Edilia Arvelo. A hundred and eighty miles to go, before I can hug my kids and kiss them goodnight.
* * *
There was considerable anger in Los Angeles for the Dodgers’ broken postseason. There’s tremendous impatience about the Dodgers inability to return to the World Series as upstarts like the Royals leapfrog in and new perennials like the Giants seemingly rub our nose in it.
When you think about it, fear clearly fuels our impatience. It’s not just a matter of being denied imminent joy, like a Halloween without any candy. It’s wandering in the void of not knowing whether that candy will ever come again.
We keep trying. We rejigger, we reinvent. Win or lose, the clock keeps ticking. But lose, and it ticks more loudly. Fans in their 30s and older wonder when they’ll ever celebrate a World Series again. Fans in their 20s and younger wonder if they’ll ever celebrate one at all.
And fear leads to anger, and the anger threatens to overwhelm everything that’s good. Life is so precious that every moment can feel urgent, every setback colossal.
I’m nagged by the fact that I still wake up in the morning on a given day usually thinking about the problems that face me rather than the pleasures that await me. I’m nagged that a few cold hits by the Cardinals have dwarfed so many warm memories of the 2014 Dodger season.
I’m better at giving this advice than following it, but when disappointment poisons your joy, that’s when you really lose. Be smart. Take precautions. Learn from mistakes. Have perspective. (Don’t text about ebola while driving.) Move forward. But love what you got. Understand what’s really precious. Be about the good, not about regret.
Being a winner is about, perhaps more than anything else, how you process losing.