Baseball is hell. In August, it starts to become pure hell.
Roger Angell may write eloquently about the aesthetic pleasures of the game, its complexity, the intellectual stimulation. I have parroted him more than a few times.
But lately I have had to become honest with myself and to admit that what propels me toward Baltimore 25 or 30 times a season, what moves me to rudely switch on the radio while company is there, is not love of the more edifying aspects of the game.
It is, rather, an unbridled partisanship, an unthinking concern with the won-lost equation. It leads to hatred for my fellow man, intemperate behavior in public and flashes of ill temper at home and work. I want to see my team win; I do not want to see or hear it lose, even if the game is played like something out of a Roger Kahn fantasy. Victory or death.
Baseball has caused me to do a lot of unusual, perhaps abnormal, things in my life, which I tried to attribute to love of the game.
As a kid, I would save up to ride a bus 15 miles from the suburbs to Griffith Stadium. If friends or family were unable or unwilling to accompany me, I went alone.
But when I think back on it, one year it was in pursuit of the dream of sixth place (in an eight-team league.) Another it was in hopes of a .500 season.
Over the years I worked to develop a system of keeping score that is cosmic in its ambitions. I would like to be able to record every occurrence, every nuance, everything but--and perhaps including --whether the pitcher was thinking about his stock portfolio when he threw the hanging curve. I now think that this was to distract myself from the tension of worrying about who was winning.
I buy scorebooks of such ancient lineage that they spell baseball as two words on the cover, and I fill them with tiny symbols: letters, arrows, chevrons, circles, stars--the stuff of the cabala. When they are full I throw them in the back of the car.
(Once, when I was transporting some colleagues to lunch, one of them, sifting through the trash in the back seat, picked up a scorebook and began passing it around. The comments were tactful; my embarrassment was acute. One person recalled that reams of ledger paper containing similar chronicles of the Cleveland Indians' activities had been found among her grandfather's effects. He, however, had the good fortune to have died before they were discovered.)
Now it is August, and we are engaged in the pennant race once again. This shouldn't be a valley of pain: the Orioles win something like 60 percent of their games.
But psychologically, three days' wins can be overshadowed by two days' losses. A victory is a few moments atop a short stepladder; defeat is a day in a black pit, as hard to escape as a bad metaphor.
And each loss now is a small disaster as the time to catch up with the league leaders shrinks.
Then, too, as one who spent a couple of decades following the Washington Senators, I have never really been able to adjust to the tensions of a pennant race.
I find comfort in being able always to see the defeat looming behind victory.
When the Orioles were in the World Series three years ago I dutifully wrote for tickets and attended every game in Baltimore.
Walking blocks to the stadium in the middle of that gay autumn atmosphere, I felt in the back of my mind a sort of this-isn't-real dread I hadn't known since the Cuban missile crisis, a knowledge that I had flown too high and the wax on my wings was dripping.
When Willie Stargell hit a home run over the right-field fence to give the Pittsburgh Pirates the championship I was relieved at being returned to the real world.
There are many like me. Every other backwoodsman in New Hampshire feels compelled to drive four hours to Fenway Park to pump himself full of whiskey in consolation for the anticipated Red Sox defeat.
We may be the mainstays of baseball. We are people who do not follow the batting averages or the trades, who have hardly even heard of most of the players on the visiting team. We know only the bottom line of victory and defeat, and that we must witness as much of it as possible.