ball

70-92
by Andrew Schenker

ONE

I started following baseball in 1987, at the age of seven, which means the first World Series I watched was between the Twins and the Cardinals. The previous Series, of course, was won by the Mets, the team I soon came to root for, hanging posters of Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson on my bedroom wall. I’ve continued to follow the Mets throughout the years, but three decades later, although they’ve twice returned to the Series, they have not been able to close it out, to achieve what they did the very year before I started following them.

*****

When I was eight years old, I left my baseball cards on an airplane. I’d just started collecting and had, perhaps, at most, a couple dozen cards, but I attended to them faithfully. I grouped them by teams and then arranged these groupings in order of the current standings, checking the paper every morning to see if any reordering was necessary. I rubber banded them together and stored them in a brown paper bag.

It was this bag that, when we flew down to Florida that year for our family’s annual February trip, I wedged into the mesh holder on the back of the seat in front of me and then forget about. After I discovered the cards missing, my dad called the airline, but they had not, they assured him, recovered any grungy wrinkled paper bags. Looking back on this incident as a teen, I begin dating my unhappiness to this moment.

*****

I was not generally an unhappy teen, nor am I generally an unhappy person. I have, like many people, had my bouts of depression and anxiety, sometimes rather severe, but under the long-term care of both a therapist and an SSRI-prescribing psychiatrist, I’ve been quite stable for many years. It was in my teen years, though, that I first started seeing a therapist and was prescribed my first SSRI, Prozac. At 16, I had begun my first serious relationship and that relationship soon became the only thing I cared about. To combat both my obsessiveness and my inevitable disappointment at the non-fulfillment of that obsessiveness, my parents sought professional attention for me. It was at this time that I began thinking back on my lost baseball cards.

*****

My family, like many families, takes its sports seriously. My father and my sister, who refer to their teams as “we”, can’t bring themselves to even watch the games of their favorites, so nervous are they about the result. When these teams lose, they’re unhappy for the rest of the day. I can understand this impulse, since I follow my own teams very closely and a loss by one of them certainly doesn’t do much to improve my mood. But I find it hard to cede that much power to the result of an action that is both completely out of my control and is ultimately of no great importance in the balance of the world.

*****

Of course, many people would disagree with “of no great importance.” I might, on occasion, disagree myself.

 

TWO

In college, after half a decade of not paying attention to baseball, I found myself once again following my childhood team, the Mets. This was a good time to start watching them; after not sniffing the postseason since I was 8, they suddenly made the playoffs in back to back years, advancing to the World Series in 2000. There were many thrilling moments along the way, chief among them Benny Agbayani’s walk-off home run in the 13th inning of a playoff game against the Giants. But excitement soon turned to disappointment as the hated Yankees made quick work of the Amazin’s in the championship round, dispatching them in just five games and earning their fourth title since the Mets’ 1986 triumph.

*****

When I was in college, I also suffered my first bout of extreme anxiety. While I was home visiting my parents for summer break after my freshman year, I drank half a bottle of Robitussin to get high. The syrup not only succeeded in that regard, it completely unloosed my nerves and caused me to hallucinate. I couldn’t relax for days. Then, when I returned to school, my first night back, I took two hits of a joint, and the feeling from the syrup returned, much worse than before. I couldn’t sleep and I spent several days wandering around campus, trying to exhaust myself, until I finally checked myself into the local emergency room. Since this was in small-town Iowa, the doctors seemed completely baffled by my situation, but they eventually gave me some Xanax which succeeded in calming me down.

*****

If I was disappointed by the outcome of the 2000 playoffs, though, I was also hopeful. That offseason saw a bumper crop of free agents hit the market. When I had last followed baseball, the free agency period, in which players whose contracts have expired sell their services to the highest bidder, was a time of some interest, but in my years away, it had expanded into a cash-dispensing frenzy. The offseason after the 2000 World Series saw unprecedented amounts of money being thrown at players, highlighted by Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million deal, then the richest in baseball by some measure. Although the Mets hadn’t been able to best the Yankees, I was certain that if they re-signed Mike Hampton, and inked Mike Mussina, Juan Gonzalez, and Jeff Nelson, they would not only be the best team in baseball, but one of the best teams ever. This was the hope that sustained me as, a couple of months out from my hospital stay, my anxiety continued to harass me, as it would for the rest of the semester, even if it never reached the same acute level of its initial surge.

*****

Of course, the Mets didn’t sign any of these players (with the Yanks swooping in and scooping up Mussina) and they didn’t return to the playoffs for six more seasons. A year later, the Mets did go all in in the offseason, swinging trades for such notable players as Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn. The result was even worse: all the new guys underperformed and the Mets ended up with their first losing season since 1996. By then, though, my expectations had been lowered.

 

THREE

In 2009, I quit a steady job as a librarian to become a full-time film critic, trying my hand on the freelance market. Although I soon landed regular gigs with several high profile outlets, my financial position was always largely precarious. In addition, the days spent working from home, broken only briefly by the awkward socializing that happens at film screenings, led to an intense feeling of isolation. This isolation made me feel more anxious then I had been in years, and although I had previously adjusted to the steadiness of employed adult life and had been off medication for a number of years, I now felt I needed to go back on. I made an appointment with a local psychiatrist and then I was on 20 and then 40 mg of Celexa.

*****

Among the outlets I wrote for was Time Out New York, but the only assignments I could seem to land were capsule reviews of movies that no one else wanted to write about. Mostly these were documentaries of negligible aesthetic value that would play for one week at a forgotten downtown theater and then disappear into oblivion. Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, one such movie I reviewed, certainly fit the description, but as a baseball-loving Jew, I found this one to be of more than usual interest, detailing as it did the ways in which an immigrant people defined themselves by their affection for a sport that they rarely excelled at playing. I awarded the film a modest three stars out of five and concluded that it was “likely to prove irresistible to baseball fans, Hebraic or otherwise.” This line, though, was actually composed by my editor, a decidedly goyish individual. Such were—and are— the perils of the freelance game.

*****

“You might want to keep your emotions in check during next week’s Super Bowl,” warned a WebMD writer several years ago. “That’s because the emotional stress that some people experience during a Super Bowl loss could prove deadly. A new study suggests that the big game is associated with increased heart-related death rates for men and women, and in older fans as well. Some sports fans may get heavily invested in rooting for their favorite team, and if that team loses, stress levels can soar, researchers say.”

Although reports of sports fans experiencing cardiac arrest are most often associated with games like football and soccer, intense extra-inning baseball games can have their effect, too. As Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said after the five-plus hours of Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, “These games are hard on me. I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack out there every single time.” Many fans felt the same way.

 

FOUR

So much about a sports team’s margin of success is precarious. A promising season can turn to a lost one with a significant underperformance by a key player, stiffer than expected competition, or more often than not, injury. Injuries, as devastating as they are inevitable, are the wild card in sports, and the most deflating aspect of being a fan. No matter how well a team plans for success, the grueling, physical nature of the sport (whatever sport it may be) means that there is always a factor so far out of everyone’s control that when these unexpected injuries visit your team, it seems almost like a personal judgement directed against you by some unspecified power.

*****

In 2015, the Mets went to the World Series on the strength of their collection of young, hard-throwing starting pitchers, losing to the Kansas City Royals. In 2016, these fragile arms started to break down. Whether it’s the increasingly breathtaking velocities that they reach, or the amount of high-stress sliders they throw, pitchers today go on the disabled list with much greater frequency than in decades’ past, and this trend finally caught up to the Mets vaunted rotation in 2016, as key contributors missed more and more time. Nonetheless, the team squeaked back into the playoffs. By 2017, though, things had really fallen apart and, because of rampant injury, the team tumbled to fourth place. In this case, though, the injuries didn’t really come out of nowhere, they were not entirely unexpected. This did not make them any less demoralizing both for the fan, and no doubt, the players themselves.

*****

I watched at least part of almost every game for the first two months of the 2017 season, both anxiously hopeful and strangely comforted, this latter feeling the result of being reunited with the familiar voices of announcers Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, and Gary Cohen after a winter apart. When the losses started to pile up, though, I eventually started watching less and less. By the end of the season, I’d only watch one game a week. This gradual diminution in my interest level felt much more like depression than anxiety. But, the truth is, sports aside, I was experiencing only mild levels of either condition during this time.

 

FIVE

There is, in the end, a certain appeal in rooting for a perennial loser. That is, assuming the team in question wins sometimes. If a team posts consecutive decades of sub-.500 records, like the Pittsburgh Pirates did from 1993-2012, then there’s little to sustain the fan’s interest. Perpetual irrelevance quickly breeds indifference. But if there are a few bursts of strong play in between the losing years—provided these bursts always leave the team short of its ultimate championship goal—then there is enough hope to sustain perpetual disappointment. This disappointment can become a point a pride, a badge of moral superiority for fans of teams like the Mets or the Cubs. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 for the first time in 108 years, their fans lost this advantage, having to redefine themselves as something they’d never been before: winners.

*****

I don’t personally take much pride in the Mets’ 31 years of futility, though. After embracing the depressive, perpetual loser attitude of the freelance writer for nearly a decade, I’ve started to find it more than a little tiresome. I no longer view myself as someone whose penchant for light mental illness is definitional. I engage actively with the world, or try to, refusing the comfort that comes from consecutive days holed up in my Brooklyn apartment. Now, I’m interested only in winning, putting no further stock in any kind of lovable loser mythology.

And so, when opening day comes and Noah Syndergaard takes the mound, I’ll allow myself to be as hopeful as I can that the Mets have what it takes to win it all. If they don’t, the result will be only disappointment, not a self-satisfied feeling of knowingness. I will watch the games, accepting the heightened level of anxiety that comes with the viewing, knowing that the warm, twitchy pulse that I feel in my veins is nothing more than the mark of commitment of the only type of fan I am interested in being.

 

Andrew Schenker is a writer living in New York.

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