My Cup of Coffee with R.A. Dickey

When guys make it to the big leagues for a handful of games, maybe an entire season, later on in their lives they’ll say they “had a cup of coffee” in the big leagues. The implication here being, of course, they didn’t stay long.

My baseball career was short enough to call it a “shot of espresso,” or maybe, “the tiniest, whispered sip of espresso.” This metaphor admittedly gets a little complicated, because, after my cup of baseballian coffee, I entered the coffee business. But before I began dispensing non-baseball cups of coffee to thousands of non-baseball-playing Nashvillians, I did have a teeny, David Eckstein-sized cup of coffee for a local college. And while I was swishing around that dirty, grimy coffee in my mouth, I faced R.A. Dickey, Cy Young Award winner.

...

My freshman year, I played outfield at Trevecca Nazarene University, a small, Christian college in Nashville that fines you if you miss chapel. Trevecca has a competitive Division II baseball program (the school was in the NAIA during my time)—we finished second in the conference that year. During the fall semester, a block of months reserved collegiately for football and basketball and whatever else, baseball is relegated to conditioning drills, long-tossing, batting cage work, and good-natured rookie hazing. Rules prohibit teams from holding “practice” (rules also prohibited teams from “hazing”—I guess shaving our heads and dizzy bat racing us into viritigalian stupors didn’t count)—so we did all of these other things and didn’t call it “practice.”

One of the things we did was have a round-robin “intrasquad world series.” Our 25-man roster was divvied up among three teams—Team Black, Team Gold, and Team Purple. To round out each team’s nine-man starting lineups, our three coaches were eligible to play. A draft was held to select the teams—one of our players’ dads owned an upscale bowling alley, and we had the live draft there, complete with a draft board and microphone’d podium, in one of the “party rooms,” definitely a place where your ninth birthday was, with a cake and party hats and a clown you’re scared of and you’re not sure why is there. The three teams were captained by each of our three coaches.

Our head coach, Jeff Forehand, now the coach at Lipscomb University, played high school ball at MBA, under his father, legendary Nashville coach Fred Forehand. Coach Forehand (our Coach Forehand) was teammates and remains good friends with former MBA and University of Tennessee star, current Toronto Blue Jay, and 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. R.A. and Coach Forehand had a yearly standing agreement that, if R.A. was in town, and healthy, and just happened to be near Trevecca Nazarene University’s campus during the intrasquad world series, he would pitch for whatever team drafted him. It was a risk—you draft R.A. and he doesn’t show, you’re down a man on your roster. If you pick him, you get a spot start from one of the best pitchers in the world.

Of course, this was 2005. R.A. Dickey was not one of the best pitchers in the world. He was one of the best pitchers in whatever room he happened to be sitting in, maybe? If he was sitting in a room completely devoid of professional baseball players? At the doctor’s office, definitely, he was the best pitcher there. And, say, at the mall, although there are lots of people at the mall sometimes, so you can never be sure. He definitely was the best pitcher at any given moment at any local doctor’s office, and he was sure in those a lot. Had a host of shoulder problems, all kinds of stuff.

Also, he was old.

He’d starred in high school in the early 90’s. His good friend and contemporary, Coach Forehand, was our coach, in his upper 30’s; this is what R.A. should’ve been doing at this point, settling down, having a family, “giving back” to the game. Instead, he was floundering around minor league bullpens and major-league disabled lists. Numerous times, he was a shot of espresso away from being out of baseball entirely, forever.

In 2005, he was technically with the Texas Rangers. Although he was with the Texas Rangers the way you’re still married to your wife even though she made you move out and you’re eating pizza every single night and she is dating someone new and the divorce is just a matter of paperwork. As a formality, Orel Hershiser (just a totally random and huge name to appear in this saga) told R.A. to learn a knuckleball, like the wife saying to her estranged husband, “Um, get a job that pays six figures, and quit drinking, and dedicate your life to Christ.” I’ll get right on it, honey!    

So R.A. got right on that knuckleball, a fickle, wavering pitch tried by few, mastered by even fewer. Tim Wakefield was able to grasp it, sort of, in the way that you don’t really grasp a knuckleball anyway, but just kind of heave it up there, with your knuckles, hoping for the best. It’s a long-shot pitch, capable of dancing past bats and ducking catcher’s mitts. It can dart and flutter and weave, and it can float there like an eight year old’s toss.

R.A. took up the knuckler because he couldn’t take up anything else. Injuries had ravaged his other stuff—his fastball was hittable by every two-armed human in the coffee shop you’re in right now; his curveball wasn’t so much of a curve as a Google Maps “slight left” on its way to being a stand-up double; his fast-less fastball meant his changeup wasn’t much of a change from anything, except maybe now every single human being on earth could hit a homer on him. He wouldn’t have lasted 15 more minutes for the Rangers.

So he learned the knuckler.

It didn’t start well. His first year throwing the knuckler, by some miraculous finagling of the disabled list, Dickey made the Rangers’ opening day roster. No pitcher in major league history has given up more home runs than he gave up in his first start of the season. The Detroit Tigers launched six (6!) on him that day, which is half a dozen, and also twice the homers I’ve hit in all my life

So he hadn’t quite figured out the knuckleball yet. And he wouldn’t, either, for a while. Six years it took, one year for each of those six bombs, for Dickey to figure it out, or maybe it just took that long for the unpredictable yips and zips of the knuckleball to float the right way for R.A., in a career that had zipped in all the wrong ways for so long.

In 2012, as a member of the New York Mets, Dickey won the Cy Young Award. Six years removed from that ignominious home run record, seven years removed from making a fool of me in the Trevecca instrasquad world series.

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I redshirted my freshman year. Redshirting is code for “looking good for the girls.” My sole purpose at Trevecca Nazarene University—other than keeping the pitching charts, which I did with accuracy and aplomb—was to look good for the girls in the stands. I wore my socks just right, high cuffed, with my jersey tucked perfectly into my pants—and I never worried about it becoming dislodged, either, as the fastest move I’d make all season was to swiftly high-five a run-scoring teammate on his way back to the dugout. My actual on-field performance was irrelevant, unnecessary, and, if I was to keep my redshirt designation (which allowed me an extra year of eligibility on the hypothetical back end of my baseball career), prohibited. So I had to make up for it with sartorial swag.

Technically, my freshman year was dedicated to my continual improvement as a baseball player. There was no pressure on me to perform.

And then, in game one of the Intrasquad World Series, R.A. Dickey shows up.

This was not the R.A. Dickey of the Cy Young. In fact, this was not the R.A. Dickey of the major league-record six home runs. This was a half year prior to that, R.A. still testing out the knuckler, recovering from surgery—about 70%, he told us—and basically still figuring out if he could throw a baseball as a means of employment any longer. He was at the end of his rope. He could barely stand a chance on an MLB roster.

And he dominated us.

I faced R.A. four times. I made contact once. I hit it from me to you. Really. If you and I were sitting here talking, that’s how far I hit it: a conversation’s length. He fielded it, and easily threw me out at first. This after three straight trips ending in strikeouts.

The knuckleball was annihilating.

Maybe it was just 18 year-old me, never having seen anything like it. But it was crazy—nothing like Tim Wakefield, who just lobbed the thing up there like a greased-up watermelon. R.A. pitched the thing, hard—not like, 90-miles-an-hour hard, but hard, low-80’s probably. With that amount of heat on it, the knuckler did some funny things. It dropped halfway there and continued on its path, like some sort of horizontal Tetris game. It shifted to the right just as you were about to swing, like a girl in the high school hallway, narrowly avoiding crashing into you. Most of all, it was fast, accurate, deceptive, and dizzying.

That this man couldn’t cut it on a major league roster had major league implications for me: I was nowhere close. I had tasted, and I had seen: my cup of coffee tasted nothing like his.

After completing a full season of looking good for the girls at Trevecca, I retired. When he could hardly carry his own arm out to the mound, R.A. Dickey struck out my baseball career.

You can go ahead and pour one out for me--I was about to brew a new cup of coffee anyway. 

Hope

Vanderbilt won the College World Series.

The Commodores are national champs.

Vanderbilt.

Like, Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt won the College World Series with an impossible home run and a snarling strikeout. They won with desperate pitching and painfully reckless baserunning. They won with childish joy and thankfulness, prodigal sons hoisting Tim Corbin on their shoulders. They won with hold-your-breath defense, end-of-the-bench replacement players, and a bit of how-the-hell-did-they-just-win transplanted Memorial Magic.

They won, well, somehow.

The Dores probably were not the best team in Omaha. Their 21 losses are the third-most by a champ in 25 years. Take away Virginia’s One Very Bad Inning, and Vanderbilt might’ve been swept.

And yet, they were not swept.

Vanderbilt won the national championship.

Vanderbilt won the national championship, and the players dogpiled on the mound. They gave them a trophy. Men cried, and bear-slapped hugs on brothers they’ll never forget. They hugged Corbin, told him they loved him, held him in the air.

They brought the trophy home, and hundreds of people crowded the bus arriving on campus. They threw a party, and thousands came. Little kids in hats too big for them carried posters bearing autographs of the players whose stance they now copy, whose jersey number they’ll wear this season, whose facial hair they’ll ask their dads to mimic. White-haired Vanderbilt lifers jumped around to “Jump Around” and so heartily performed the “ANCHOR DOWN!” hand gesture you’d think Cornelius Vanderbilt taught them the cheer personally. Middle-aged women posed for photos with the championship trophy. Men who’d rushed over from work stood in the back, crying.

I met up with a friend the night Vanderbilt won. I couldn’t stop texting friends, refreshing Twitter, watching the John Norwood home run, watching the dogpile. She allowed my championship-winning gusto. She was happy my team won. But she didn’t quite understand.

In my lifetime, in my mom’s lifetime, in my grandmother’s lifetime, in all of our lifetimes, Vanderbilt has been bad. They have been bad at sports. (Sure, they were probably good at stuff back before people drove cars and when they played basketball with peach baskets and football with pleather helmets—work with me here.) There have been some years, some SEC championships, some runs in the tournament, some upset wins. But mostly? Terrible. Cellar dwellers. Expecting the worst.

The campus is pristine and the degree holds major clout—but the colors were shameful. Black and gold—it was never proud and dignified; the black was mournful and the gold dingy, cheap, like they found the color at TJ Maxx. People were Vandy fans the way people wear rainjackets when it’s raining—because it’s raining, because you have to, because your daddy was and that’s how you learned to keep your head down and your expectations down too.

I guess people might think that Vanderbilt fans are all these 1-percenting, old-money do-goods, attendance sparse because they got caught up at their couples tennis match or weighing their stock options. Nerds, geeks, bookworms—too enamored with academia to pack the house for a football game.

But from where I’m sitting (Section 2L, Row 15, in Memorial), Vanderbilt fans are just like anybody else, a little gun shy maybe, a little athletically fatalistic. They are these men and women whose names I do not know. I’ve seen them for years. They are old and have retired, they bring their own cushioned chair-backs to the gym, they wear a Vandy sweater from 1979 with a hat from last year’s Nike line. They scream at the refs like neglected children, because they are that. They are just regular old people, a place out in the country, a job to do and kids to raise. Vanderbilt sports were a reason for hope, even though hope has always been impossible, maybe because it’s impossible. I have seen hope flash in the face of the man across the aisle from me, a face slung too low by getting his hopes too up.

They always lose, always lose, always fumble, always miss, always strike out, always, always, always.

And this time, they didn’t. They won. Vanderbilt won. They hugged and I wonder what the sweater-wearing chair-back couple did, if they hugged too, if they cried, kissed, sat disbelieving in their chairs for an hour. I wonder if they were like my mom, who shrieked, covering her mouth, shocked, almost scared that something this good could happen. I wonder if they even took it in, if they had to go to their friends or to their car or take a walk and repeat, out loud, as if learning English for the first time, Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt won the national championship. Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt.

The Unbearable Tightness of Winning

For most of the night I felt like I could die. Not in the blissful, nirvanic, this-moment-is-so-perfect-I-could-die-and-go-to-Heaven way. It felt more like what it must feel like to actually die—stomach spinning like a barber’s pole, my breathing stunted and hunched, curled fetally with my hands covering my face throughout the game. My Mom made a pot roast I barely touched—nerves had filled my entire body with a fast-drying concrete that would’ve dried up and calcified if Florida State had lost. I probably still would be slumped in that recliner at my parents’ house, feeding on leftover hoecakes and picking at days-old pot roast.

In the month leading up to the title game, I forecasted the result like I had read it in a history book: Florida State was going to hammer Auburn. They would do it in the blasé way they had obliterated teams all year, the starters sitting the entire second half like a waitress cut from a slow dinner shift: Anything else you’d like us to do? My thinking this wasn’t bravado—it was darn-near scientific fact: the Seminoles had won their games by an FBS-record margin of 42.3 points (that’s six touchdowns, or twelve field goals, or “a shit-ton”). Auburn won their games by virtue of a great running game and two if-God-is-for-us-who-can-be-against-us miracles. I wasn’t worried.

When the season started, my football fandom had waned—my frontal cortex addled by reading too many brain-numbing reports on concussionsdick-measuring locker room culturerape charges, and on-campus fear-mongering. Florida State’s ho-hum dominance (and the allegations towards FSU’s own Jameis Winston) did little to rouse my tomahawk-chopping arm. I didn’t even watch several FSU games, knowing they’d romp. While this may seem like fair-weather fandom, it felt more like cloudy-weather confliction: how could I justify cheering for a sport that mentally maims? How could I eagerly belt the Seminole war chant while their best player murkily evades sexual assault? Meanwhile, Florida State, the first sports team I ever loved, marched on to the title game.

The day of the game, I tweeted that I was “conflicted about football,” but “GO NOLES.” My friend (and fellow Banana Damager) Jonathan reminded me that conflict requires at least two sides—and to indulge the fan side that night. I thought this spectacular advice. It uncaged me to yell and chop and feel every single snap. And reminded me that we are not simple-minded beings—we feel an utterly vast variety of emotion, conviction, and belief. We are nuanced, feeling and knowing and believing and shouting so many different things all at once, some of them in direct contradiction with each other. The things I was feeling all at once when Florida State trailed Auburn 21-3: shock, doom, helplessness, claustrophobia, numb chopping arm, a strong desire to cry.

When Jimbo Fisher went momentarily crazy and faked that punt from his own 40, I was too stunned to do anything. Dad said it would change the momentum. And it did. Florida State scored and made it 21-10, enabling me to ingest a bird-sized portion of the pot roast during halftime, which found its way to my intestines just in time for me to almost vomit it forth in the fourth.

On that fourth quarter: I’ve re-watched it about ten times at this point (once three hours after the game, working on a 32-oz. Miller High Life I procured for the occasion—this after a celebratory shot of “Jameis-on”—I had to) and still don’t understand how or why or what any of this business of being alive on the earth is about.

It was effing nuts.

Florida State intercepted a pass, then fumbled, then got it back. I felt semi-alive again. They scored a touchdown, got called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Ms. ______ (insert name of your pissy 3rd grade teacher here) an actual certified collegiate referee, which ruined their chances of going for two and tying the game. My father and I had resumed fist-bumping and arm-chopping, though I merely performed these physical acts to see if my extremities still worked. After the Noles got a massive third down stop, Auburn kicked a field goal, and FSU trailed 24-20. As I emotionally prepared myself for a struggling Jameis Winston crunch time drive, FSU return man Levonte Whitfield scorched down the sideline and by the time he eclipsed the last Auburn Tiger at the 30-yard line I was already turning the corner into the hallway, because when crazy things happen sometimes 26 year-old men will sprint a crazed lap around their childhood home, banging into the door frame of the kitchen and sliding on socks back into the living room where Florida State now leads by a score. All 190 pounds of me (I blame my growing hair) jumped into my Dad’s arms, and we hugged and I think I chest-bumped my mother at one point (?) and I thought then it was over. I vigorously tomahawk chopped and sang the Seminole war chant like it was church and the “conflict” about concussions or bully culture was as far removed from me as the memories of Drew Weatherford chucking interceptions in the 2007 Music City Bowl.

Auburn—we all should’ve known—had another miracle left (as Brent Musburger reminded us). The Tigers led 31-27. This did not feel…good. I envisioned the worst thing: Winston throwing an interception, over the middle probably, forcing something on third down. But then, suddenly, Rashad Greene broke free and it was like the football gods had lobbed the perfect alleyoop pass to the last ever BCS national championship game and said, “Here, Last Ever BCS National Championship Game, slam dunk the end of this game and leave the fans of both teams catatonic.” Florida State was in the redzone with thirty ticks left. Prime striking distance. It was the same end zone Vince Young miracled into in 2005. I don’t know if I was breathing or thinking or what.

I often think about why I love sports. Sports remind us of life, I have written here. In the daily rhythms of cheering for a team, we find ourselves in a community that is necessary—fellow human beings seeking a common goal, learning lessons along the way. It’s awesome. It’s true. And yet, I’m wondering if maybe I’ve relied on these metaphors as a way to justify the paralyzing effort and care I put into cheering my sports teams who, 99% of the time, lose. I’m wondering if metaphors are for losers.

Because, as it turns out, it is exceptionally awesome when your team wins.

When Jameis Winston lofted that pass for Kelvin Benjamin in the endzone, I again took a frantic lap around the house, punctuating it with one of the more passionate hugs I’ve ever given my mother, and a thunderous, leaping side-bump with Dad. I hooted and giggled and was 12 years old all over again. If you’re trying to feel like a kid again—and we all always are—I suggest watching your team win a national championship. I suffered through the final :13—three prime opportunities for water to wine or five loaves and three fishes or whatever God Malzahn had left. When the clock expired, I didn’t move, slumped in my chair. I felt like I was going to die and I felt like I’d never been more alive—talk about a conflict of emotions.

Football and QVC: Growing Up a Noles Fan

It was just before midnight—I’d begged my Mom to let me stay up—and she was reading her credit card number to me as I recited it to the person on the other line.

Growing up, my family watched two things: QVC and football. With two boys in the house, Mom was outnumbered, so QVC had been demoted to second string. We groaned when she flicked it over to check "Today’s Special Value" during commercial breaks. Aside from those brief commercial interludes, the two worlds never collided—hardly ever did we holler, “SACK ‘EM!!!” when a pair of hoop earrings dropped to $24.99.

And then, one night, one make-believe night so childish and magical I can’t understand how it was real, I pleaded with Mom to punt football for QVC. She switched it, and I dialed the number, stretching the cord into the living room. Worlds collided: I made my life's first and only QVC order. With the 24-hour home shopping network blaring in the living room, I ran to wake Dad. I had to tell him Florida State won, and my official on-field national championship t-shirt would be here tomorrow, thanks to the miracle of FedEx overnight shipping. I was 12, and I loved sports like a child.

I still have the shirt—the colors are fading and the stitching is going. My closet is overrun with Florida State football apparel, and my football fandom is starting to gnarl with my moral code, but I’ll be wearing the shirt tonight. Florida State plays Auburn for the national championship. I say I’ll wear the shirt for good luck, but really I’ll wear it to remember what it’s like to love something like that, with such eager and relentless joy, a joy that has to wake up Dad and turn it to Mom’s favorite channel. If the Seminoles win tonight—and I hope to God they do—I won’t call QVC: been there, got the t-shirt. No, if they win I’ll hug Mom and chestbump Dad and probably shotgun a beer. And then, when things get quiet, maybe I’ll mosey over to QVC, just browsing, remembering, trying to feel again the all-encompassing everything of being a kid.

Go Noles.

Daily Bread

A few weeks back, I found myself leaning forward, my face a bat’s length from the television, my hands clasped around my mouth in what I guess was prayer. My agonized and prostrating posture snapped me back to a simple reality: I was a human being in the world watching other human beings play a game on the other side of the continent. Just human beings playing a game! In that moment was a choice—a choice to lean back and enjoy the comforting rhythms of the old ballgame, or to resume the hunched, clenched-bodied jolts of a game that was killing me. It was a nice moment, this line drive of self-awareness—like a batter stepping out of the box to clear his mind. I was able to chuckle at myself, in that little moment, chuckle at all of us, hearts and lungs and pitching arms straining for that last out, for that one hoped-for base hit. And as the pitcher stepped back onto the mound and peered in for the sign, so did I, leaning forward hopefully, hopelessly, choosing to cheer the way real fans do: willingly giving my life to a game that was ruining it.

The Braves lost, 4-3, to the Dodgers, ending their season. Juan Uribe, who looks like he should be doing so many other things that are not professional baseball—maintenance work, co-ed softball, carpentry—smacked a game-winning home run that made a lot of people really happy or really sad. I remain sad. In a lot of ways, the Braves were lucky to even be there: Atlanta started 37 year-old Freddy Garcia, who is 37 year-old Freddy Garcia, while Los Angeles threw Sandy Koufax reincarnate, Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, pitching on three days’ rest, was very good, although his defense was not—the Braves plated two unearned runs before both pitchers exited with the game square, 2-2. How the Bravos then took the lead was out of left field—Elliot Johnson and Jose Constanza tripled and singled, vaulting the Braves ahead an inning before Uribe’s inexplicable heroics. While Johnson rounded the bases for third, I leapt crazily in my room, “ELLIOT JOHNSON! ELLIOT JOHNSON! ELLIOT JOHNSON!” While Uribe trotted around the bases for home, I crumpled and covered my face.

My parents recently celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary. They have been married for 31 straight years, which is crazy, to do a thing for that long. I have not done anything for 31 straight years. I’ve been alive for 26, which is about the best I can do. Among the longest-tenured hobbies in my life is baseball, which I have either played or coached or watched, in agony on the couch, for 21 years.

I played high school ball and some college, and coached a few years after that, and always managed to enjoy it pretty well. It was never one of my life’s great passions. Rather, baseball was like a cool mutual friend I met and hung out with every summer for a couple decades. It was fun to hit a line drive into the gap or throw a runner out at the plate (it was also fun to dogpile on the mound when my high school team won the state championship), but all that standing around, the six-hour days at the field with cleats and baseball pants on—I figured there was more to life. And there was. And so I went and lived those other parts of life—so many other parts of life! I got into music, and coffee, and transferring schools. Someone told me about drinking, and hanging out in bars, and that was a hoot. I took a stab at writing. I ended up in Alaska working at a zipline. As my one connection to home, I bought a subscription to MLB.com and watched the Braves every afternoon from my front porch in Juneau. I found myself at home among the reliable rhythms of baseball fandom—each day the Braves showed up and gave you something, at least, to cheer for. And so, after trying out all those other parts of life, baseball remained. Baseball, I came to see, can get so lifey, so strange, sad, and normal.

The metaphorical merits of baseball have been penned and prosed into American lore because, at their core, they are true. Baseball is so lifey. You begin with such hope in spring training—hope that doesn’t even know, can’t know, what it hopes for—just a hope that’s happy to be back, smiling in the sun. There are ruts of your own doing and horrible slumps, when you forget who you are and how to get back again. There are unnumbered little fuck-ups that you shake off, quietly resolving to do better next time. There are bright, lilting turnarounds, and huge, emotional victories. There are days when every ball finds a hole and you hit every green light. There are shocking, nonsensical comebacks, and crushing, uncompassionate defeats. And through it all there is boredom and love, joy and jolting clarity. Baseball is life, with all of its subtler bogging and scootching and forward motion.

Last year, after the Braves lost to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game, I went all Bob Costas on my friend Abby—“Baseball is just so much like life, you know? The ups and downs, the small victories, the daily joys—”

“And sometimes you gotta eat a hot dog!” she added.

Yes. Also that.

Baseball works as a metaphor for life because it is daily bread (or, daily hot dog bun)—162 days with baseball. Every day for six months, half a year of human life, your team plays baseball on television. 180 days, 162 games.

The Braves and a couple of beers after work—this was my daily sacrament. I was normally home by the fourth or fifth inning, and the part of me that needed alone time would unwind and holler for the Braves for the next couple hours. If things got good in the late innings I’d text my mom or my Uncle James—something in all-caps and exclamation point-heavy—who would always reply promptly with equal punctuatory gusto. If he didn’t, I’d know he changed the channel during a commercial and accidentally fell asleep watching Duck Dynasty because two hours later he’d respond, “What happened???”

There were games I missed, of course, games I watched with one eye while flirting with a girl at the bar, games during which I stopped breathing without realizing it because their closer throws hundred-mile-an-hour bullets and our hapless second baseman hasn’t hit with a runner in scoring position since Billy Ray’s hairdo was the one that made headlines. Most days, though, were just days, another of six months worth of days at the ballpark. You win some, you lose some, in the truest sense of that idiom.

Hell, Boston and St. Louis, the two World Series teams, both lost 65 games this year. 65! What could be more lifey than baseball, in which the best teams lose—you turn the TV off, bummed, because your team failed, screwed up, lost—65 times in a season? That’s good for a .599 winning percentage. So, six out of ten: the best teams win a little bit more often than they lose, through strength or determination or talent or sheer luck.

And all this sounds pretty lifey to me—good weeks I write a little more than I don’t, go to bed peaceful and thankful more often than I don’t. Bad ones I drink like it’s ten-cent beer night and spend too much energy trying to get girls to like me. And I realize that life doesn’t come with a big scoreboard, a digital pennant race, but at its best baseball doesn’t either—the crowd swaying together for Take Me Out to the Ballgame, every day in every ballpark in America, the point of the song being the song itself, the self-acknowledgment that, yeah, this is why we’re really here.

Having said all that, the playoffs are awful. The evening pastime is suddenly and suffocatingly tense. Casual beers and catnaps are struck out. The little blunders that, in the regular season and in life, are shaken off, forgotten, are blown into Turner Field-sized errors. It’s root, root, root for the home team—or else. I’m afraid to watch the next pitch, afraid of what will happen, after seeing it all happen, over the course of a season. Maybe that’s why we love and hate playoff baseball—we’ve seen all that can happen, the breadth of joy and failure, and that honestly scares the shit out of us. What began with such happiness and hope—and not hope for the future, either, but just a simple kind of daily hope, a hope that’s happy to be there—now rides on the seams of a hanging curveball from a journeyman relief pitcher.

The Braves had a damn good season. They won the division for the first time in eight years. They led the league in ERA and home runs. They overcame season-ending injuries to arguably their two best starters (Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy) and two best relievers (Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters), and withstood the barrage of awfulness that was our two highest paid players, BJ Upton and Dan Uggla, whose cumulative strikeouts (30 million) and salary (26 million) were nearly equal. The playoffs are a crapshoot—the six-month-long season being long enough for the cream to rise to the top, while the playoffs’ short bursts are short enough for all manner of weirdness to happen. Like having to face Clayton Kershaw twice in five days, or Carl Crawford hitting three home runs in six at-bats after hitting six in 435 regular season ups. Or, just Juan Uribe, fucking Juan Uribe, he of the 12 regular season home runs.

Baseball is a pastime, a hobby, a metaphor, a narrative we attach ourselves to. We learn lessons, we glide along with the rhythms of ground balls and winning streaks as we sit in the bleachers with a couple of hot dogs, Cokes, and our dads. We love the game. We love the players we cheer for. And the awful part is we want them to win. We don’t need them to win, as if to somehow validate the time spent watching and caring—the showing up and the caring is its own validation.

A good friend of mine texted me the day after the game and said, “It’s best if you just forget about it man. Drop it!” But this seems like the opposite of the point. The place where I had found meaning, rhythm, grace, and action—self-consciously and unabashedly so—was gone. How can I just forget about it? The same friend once said we follow sports to distract ourselves from our real lives, but I can’t understand. Where is real life but in the bottom of the fourth, men on second and third, in a middling July game against, say, the Padres? And where is real life but in watching it, inexplicably, from my couch? Strangest of all is that we care, that as the runs come home I cheer, pump my fist, text my Uncle James. Real life, if it is anywhere, is in the home runs and strikeouts, the beers and base hits, a ho-hum doubleheader in the dog days of summer. I root, root, root for the home team; if I didn’t care—that’d be a shame.