The Value of a Losing Season

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April of 2007 came and I was ready to prove that my love of baseball had been no fluke- that I was a baseball fan and nothing would stop me from watching, following, worshipping the Cardinals. Little did I know, I would become the expert on a team that ran itself into the ground. But, somehow, despite the losses, the blowouts, the apparent lack of interest in playing, I never lost my wonder, my awe in both the team and the game. I was on a quest to find out what it meant to be a baseball fan and that was the only way I knew how to start.

The season didn’t start off well in Spring Training. Tony La Russa, the manager, of all people, the person who’s supposed to be the trailblazer of the team, the player’s first advocate and role model, got a DWI. I don’t know how it affected the clubhouse- I’ve never been in. But the media and the players can say all they want, it had to have done something to the atmosphere.

And then there was Chris Carpenter. The ace of the Cardinals staff, one of the men who were supposed to carry this team on his back. His original injury seemed like enough of a death sentence for a team who had two relievers-turned-starters, an ineffective free agent signing who was to be one of Dave Duncan’s “experiments,” and a starter who had only proven himself in Game 1 of the World Series. But then he had to have Tommy John surgery and he was out the rest of the year. The team didn’t realize how much they counted on him until he was gone. I had made that mistake before.

And then there was Josh Hancock. The Cardinals relief pitcher died in a car crash in late April of 2007. I was devastated by his death. The rest of the city of St. Louis was probably devastated in the same way. Because the ball players we loved weren’t immortal. And if they weren’t immortal off the field, they weren’t on the field, either. The errors, the mental lapses, the weak hitting showed how very mortal they were. And that’s when it began to show, I think. That these weren’t distant figures. They weren’t celebrities, they weren’t warriors, they weren’t pixels on a computer or dots in a newspaper or flashes on a TV- they were men. Not like me, but like men I knew. Men I loved. Men I knew weren’t immortal, but prayed every night could be.

And then there was Scott Spiezio. The media didn’t crucify him, surprising even in St. Louis, but I did. I felt personally slighted by his off the field substance abuse problems because he was one of my favorite players. I had even advocated his prowess to my younger brother in the numerous arguments we had about who made the best Cardinal utility man. And it turned out that he, too, was just a man. He was not immune to the temptation that haunted me in my high school hallways, that hung over the heads of many of my own family members. While the Cardinals did a very nice job of shoving it all under the table and out of the fans’ view- and maybe that was the best way to handle the whole thing- I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how they were helping him. It turned out he had more problems in the off-season and was jettisoned from the Cardinals roster, to be picked by the Atlanta Braves minor league team, and then released for much the same reasons in April of 2008. But I got over my fury with him, handled it, and then I felt sorry for him. And much more telling sign of my maturity- I appreciated what he had done for the team and what a good ballplayer he had once been, substance abuse aside. It wasn’t until later that I learned the fury I placed on him was misdirected. It was much easier to point a finger at a ball player I didn’t know than the addicts I had reason to be angry with.

And then there was Juan Encarnacion. He was hit in the eye by infielder Aaron Miles while standing in the on-deck circle. When I watched the play, I couldn’t believe it. At first, I felt more sorry for Aaron Miles. I, obviously, couldn’t understand what went through his mind, but what I imagined was bad enough for me. One foul ball effectively ended his baseball career. It was a freak accident, but it only added to the bad luck surrounding the club already haunted by the poor off the field choices and loss of teammates. And when you talk about the 2007 season, it’s easy to forget what that can do to a psyche. How easy it is to take things for granted, especially on a baseball field.

But, despite all of it, they made play-off pushes, though short-lived and disappointing. They did the interviews in the clubhouse, even when the wear and tear was visible on the pale, sunken faces and the disenchanted eyes. And more than that, they let me take notes. I learned baseball lingo, I learned about other teams, I grew up in baseball, like so many before me. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve done it. I wouldn’t go so far and cliché as to say that baseball taught me life lessons, but it did make it easier. And when I learned what it meant to watch a losing season, and take something valuable away from it, I became a baseball fan.

But what I truly took from my quest for the baseball fan was myself. In looking for what it takes to be a fan, I had found what it takes to be me.





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