Baseball is inherently — and obviously — uncertain.
You know this, right? You know this. It is a sport whose outcomes depend entirely on a sequence of fallible humans swinging a piece of wood that’s barely 2 1/2 inches wide at its thickest, swinging that piece of wood as hard as they can, swinging it at an oncoming missile whose diameter is less than three inches, a missile traveling 50 percent faster than your local speed limit, a missile darting through the air up or down, left or right — the only way they might have a hint of its direction is if their brains can read and process the spin on the ball within a quarter of a second (the “Miss” in “One Mississippi) — and then hitting that missile in a target zone barely wider than the button on their uniforms, and hoping that the eight people standing in front of them with the express purpose of thwarting their efforts don’t succeed.
And perhaps the only reason you have a chance of succeeding is because the other fallible human throwing the ball toward you has just as ridiculous a task, which is to stand on a hill 726 inches away from you and hurl that ball with a motion all but explicitly designed to destroy the very arm undertaking the effort, hurl that ball with movement and speed and fire and fury into a precise location — no, not the strike zone, most of which an 18-year-old greenhorn with a bat can somehow cover, but at a far more specific spot, depending on the hitter’s individual strengths and weaknesses, that is maybe nine square inches in size.
If either the batter or the pitcher miss by an inch, they fail. And fail they do. One of the first things you learn as a baseball fan is that the best hitters fail most of the time. Pitchers might fail less, but the consequences for each failure are more profound.
In golf, they demand peace and quiet while the best in the world try to hit a ball of a stationary tee. In baseball, the sport explicitly encourages distraction, then demands its participants succeed despite it all.
Baseball is almost purposefully designed for random outcomes, and the only reason there is even the least bit of symmetry in the grass-filled universe is that amazingly, in the panoply of humanity that we inhabit, there are people who might be a thousandth of a percent faster, a thousandth of a percent savvier, a thousandth of a percent gutsier, a thousandth of a percent less emotionally impaired by events of the day or events from their childhood, than their opponent, and because of that, over the long haul of nearly 200 games from the start of the regular season to the end of the postseason, they will triumph in their individual task more times than another.
But even for the best, you know that some days, some months, some years, will go better than others. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” one might say, knowing how often they are not. Clutch is, for the most part, a fantasy, especially in a sport where a 250-foot bloop single is labeled success and a 390-foot lineout is failure. Last week’s slump, this week’s hot streak — they are merely clues to a mystery that won’t be solved until every plot point is played out.
Preposterously, against this backdrop, fans or even neutral observers of the sport develop the unshakeable belief that teams and players will do what they expect. That because success — or failure — happened yesterday, it will happen again today. People seek to impose order on an almost entirely irrational world, and become sincerely shocked when irrationality prevails, even if they understand irrationality exists, even if they understand that irrationality is the charm of baseball, that it is so much of the reason, in combination with its joyful athleticism, that they fell in love with the sport in the first place.
People on the sidelines, even those who completely comprehend the finest points of the game and how difficult it is and how much it depends on movements executed with a centimeter of their lives, will even go as far as to assign character judgments to those who succeed or fail. And yes, character can play a role in one’s ability to rise above the challenge or fall beneath it, but ultimately, the sheer difficulty of the task proves more relevant than any personal trait. After all, what happens when two persons of equal character meet at the apex of battle. Is the loser of any one battle inherently a fraud? Of course not. Moreover, is the loser of 10 battles not a candidate to absorb the wounds of defeat and rise above them? Isn’t that a cornerstone of our mythology?
Many times, I’ve been called an optimist, because I have the audacity to argue that failure does not necessarily breed failure. But I will go to the mattresses arguing that I’m a realist, because anyone who opens their eyes can see how often that failure is the incubator of success. Moreover, it’s clear that success itself can be fleeting, that it can be cyclical, and any extended run of conquest is perhaps life’s greatest surprise, and certainly life’s greatest gift, no matter what values you bring to the table. I believe in potential wherever I can find it, but you have never seen me, and you will never see me, predict ultimate glory for anybody or any team, no matter high they have been flying. It can all end like a car crash.
And so I find myself utterly perplexed by those who make declarations of finality about future outcomes — not perplexed by the desire to make them, because that desire itself is human, but at the certainty with which they are made. Finding trends and interpreting them as hints at potential outcomes is one thing. I’m not suggesting that a fan of the Baltimore Orioles shouldn’t have lost faith in 2018 faster than a fan of the Boston Red Sox. But in the places where the fight is truly heated, you don’t know. You can’t know. Not in a sport where an extra twitch of the finger or an infinitesimal surge of adrenaline can change the outcome of a pitch, a swing, and an entire season. Magic is as good an explanation as any for what makes good things happen this week after bad things happened last week, but magic is not something that you can possess. At best, you just hope it finds you.
Hope springs eternal … and then falls into our collective ignorance. Make your wish list, invest your faith, dream your dreams, even perform your analysis and dictate your strategies. I’m a huge believer in every bit of it. But we are all passengers, and we don’t know — we will never know — where this ride is headed until it arrives.