Just keep swinging

(DISCLAIMER: Baseball is over for the year. The season is dead. But the spirit of the sport is just hibernating. In sleep, we dream. In dreams, we process. And the past 14 months are the first time in my lifelong baseball fandom that my dreams have had substance. Naturally, my musings want to fixate on the [World Champion!] Kansas City Royals. I get that talking about your favorite baseball team is like bragging on your dog or your kid – it’s mostly interesting only if it’s yours. So I will stir in some other musings about life, something we all have a shot at. Trust that I will keep the fanboy adoration to a simmer. A long, warm, savory-smelling simmer.)

Few organized activities resonate with humanity’s quest for the Meaning of Life the way baseball does. As a game, it’s mostly noncombative; it’s not about dominating the other team through physical force or brute strength, or even outstyling the other team through guile and finesse. It’s much more about journeys – who can make the hero’s journey the most times from home, around the world, and back home again, overcoming adversity and steep odds the whole way.

Watching baseball, for me, is a lot like reading about a team of Odysseuses wearing matching pajamas. These aren’t journeys I can make – not on the professional level, anyway – but the thrills, the lessons, the suspense, the catharsis, those are all free for the taking.

In a baseball sense, this year was supposed to be enjoyable for me simply because last year’s Royals made the World Series for the first time after 30 years of below-competent suck. Last year, my team came literally as close as possible to winning the whole damned thing without actually, you know, winning the whole damned thing.

In this sport, so much happens in a year that the great gulf of it is forgettable and forgotten. A few great memories from ballgames of yore are all that sustain folks like me while we voyeur on other people’s teams on dark October nights.

That thought is only depressing if you want it to be. I think it’s merely realistic. Beautiful and strange, even. Rooting for a sports team is about propping yourself up for disappointment. A typical baseball team will crack the playoffs once every three years; reach the World Series once every 15; and win the championship once every 30. If that crown is the goal, you are rooting for something that is unlikely to happen almost 97 percent of the time. Not even Odysseus faces odds that steep.

So you pry out the Cracker Jack prizes of hope and inspiration to succor you through all the down years. And if you are lucky – very lucky, as I suddenly became – those inspirations bleed through your shirsey and into your reality.

Like my baseball life, real-world life was supposed to be better this year too. Last year’s Royals bellowed my embers, stoked the coals I needed to charge that extra 90 feet that the team could not. (Dig through your archives of old Telegraphs – you all keep them too, right? – and you’ll find where I wrote about those last 90 feet.) Safe or out, I went for glory and victory in my life.

Owing no small part to the inspiration of baseball, I left my day job to make it on my own as a writer and editor. I was on the road to reaching and maintaining the proverbial Best Shape of My Life. I was getting married in the fall. I started flossing every day. I was taking the mad dash. All or nothing. Because, sometimes, the universe hands you an extra base, and it’s on you either to take the mad dash or to hold up.

Last year’s team ran on magic. So I tried to make my own magic too.

But magic is a fickle craft. Mine fizzled out. Some potion didn’t bubble quite right. I had editing gigs, but didn’t string enough catches together to amount to a meal. I was writing, but nearly no one was buying. The wedding was off; the floss sat in the medicine cabinet like a bush-league benchwarmer. A back crack here, a back crack there, and suddenly everything everywhere was off track.

Last year’s Royals had their chance, and they did not win. Window shut. Shot blown. Their streak inspired me for a while, but in the end, coming up one run shy had the same outcome as not showing up at all. They might not return to the big stage for another generation, or longer. Certainly not the next year. No one gave them a chance.

The thing is, no one needed to. No one gives you chances in baseball. You have them automatically. And either you take your chances, or you don’t.

In baseball – this is much of why I love it – time never runs out. It’s a very different way of measuring out our lives, one I think suits life more flatteringly, more aptly, than days and hours. Chances instead of seconds. Moments instead of minutes. Time passes no matter how often we cry “time out!” Chances pass only when we allow them to.

Here’s where the Royals – my Royals – tried their damnedest to teach me something again this year. In the playoffs and World Series, they had to win 11 games all told. They trailed in eight of these games. At one point, their odds of being eliminated were at 96.8 percent. I was so fed up that I literally took a hike. When I came back, the Royals were tied. Five minutes later, they held the lead.

The very next game, their likelihood of elimination was at 60.4 percent. They won that game, too. Six times total, they had less than one-in-four chances of winning games that they won.

Conventional emotion, even more than conventional wisdom, tells you to phone it in at moments like that. Mark the time of death, even while there is still technically life in those lungs. As if there aren’t still chances on the scoreboard.

You can give up like that in football, in soccer, in basketball; no team can score 30 points in five seconds. But in baseball, you never have to give up. You can score 30 runs on your last breath. There is always that mythical, mystical chance.

Last year was all about going for broke, like every chance might be the last. This year, I’m learning it’s about seeing every chance available. Games aren’t won or lost on single plays, and there really is always next year. Sometimes, I’ll pop out. Sometimes, a ball will squirt through the infield defense, and then really, anything is possible if I just keep putting the bat on the ball. Magic, I’m learning, can be the luck you make yourself.

– Zach Hively