It was a 2-2 count,
two outs, runner on first, top of the seventh. Wacha had been throwing a stellar game. 6 2/3s innings, 3 hits, 6 Ks, and was on his way to another quick inning. The Cubs couldn’t figure him (me) out. I always ascribed these kinds of performances to being a result of my personal experience. I played baseball for 13 years, a majority of that time squatted behind the dish, the field general of the diamond. My coaches always expressed an unimaginable amount of faith in me, and as a result, I called every game. Pitch by pitch. Batter to batter. I was a student of the psychology of the Count. Who was up to bat, what did I give him last at-bat, how did he react to those pitches, what was the outcome? All of these questions filtered through my mind in the moments between the batter stepping into the box, the pitcher toeing the rubber, and my right hand dropping out of the offense’s line of sight to deliver the outcome of my brains arithmetic to the pitcher.
6 2/3s innings into this game and my mind was in that same Zen state. Javier Baez wasn’t an implicit threat, but then, that is kind of how baseball works. Everyone can be, and is, a threat. I had given him a changeup on the first pitch of the at-bat, one of my favorite calls to make. Starting a batter with a straight off-speed pitch was a deliciously devious tactic I employed frequently. The bottom-of-the-order batter would be expecting Wacha to aim to power through the 7 spot. Fast stuff first, off-speed second, movement last. He lurched for that first pitch changeup hard, his bat only getting halfway through the zone before realizing that he had assumed incorrectly. Strike one.
A slider on the inner half and two low and away two-seamers later, Wacha was in a comfortable place to throw anything he wanted. It was the bottom of the line up after all, power through. One of the things I love about MLB: The Show 18, is its ability to unearth these deep-seated emotions that I hold so close to my heart from my years in the dirt, sweating through a mask absorbing every ray of the summer sun. It was a close game, 3-1 Cardinals up at home, and Busch Stadium reacted appropriately. The crowd’s murmur became a steadily growing buzz. The vibration motors in the Dualshock 4 began to pulse, Wacha’s heart beating in my palms, my own heart matching the tempo. Fastball, four-seam, high and in. Time to see if Baez is prepared for me to elevate on him. But it was Wacha who wasn’t prepared.
Six plus innings and 80 pitches made his accuracy dodgy at times, and this pitch, rather than being high and tight, came across the plate in a far more hittable location and Baez stung a ball into the left-center alleyway. The runner on first, whom I had blocked from my mind, was running on contact and though his speed rating wasn’t high, I had no chance at cutting him down at home. As Baez trotted in to second base I cussed under my breath, it was only a double, and with two outs it would be manageable. The Cubs unorthodox lineup structure meant that their pitcher would be up next, and Hendricks had been throwing a good game. Surely they wouldn’t pinch hit for him. Ben Zobrist stepped out of the dugout.
I played MLB: The Show 17 extensively,
completing an entire season with the Cardinals, winning the World Series, and running away with several awards. We just didn’t lose. Finishing the season with 137 wins, it took my wife looking over my shoulder at the TV, pointing out that, “maybe you should play on harder difficulty,” for me to realize I wasn’t being real with myself. Baseball is a game about losing. Its the only sport where losing 70 games is still a good year. A good batter gets on base little more that three out of ten times. Imagine a quarterback who only completes three out of ten passes being the cornerstone of your offense. But that was what I had loved about baseball when I played. You’re 1-4 batting today and you struck out twice, but you get to go back at it tomorrow, and the next day.
I played for extremely bad teams throughout high school. Summer ball was a bit different, but my freshman and sophomore Varsity team won ten games all together. It didn’t phase me at all. Get back out there tomorrow. It was an invaluable philosophical experience for teenage me. Baseball taught me that I was going to lose, a lot, but that the most important part of those losses would be picking myself up the next day, the next at-bat, the next inning, and trying again. Learning from failure. Embracing shortcomings as lessons.
Zobrist is an above average hitter with runners in scoring position (RISP), and I have a bad history of being unable to get him out. Wacha was 83 pitches into the game, losing accuracy and velocity, and found himself with a runner in scoring position, the tying run. In any real world situation, this is where the manager steps out of the dugout, taps his arm, and a pitcher who had been warming in the bullpen begins the jog in from right field. I had been too confident in Wacha, and my dugout sat silent. I took a moment to get a righty and a lefty in motion and I sent the pitching coach to the mound, at once buying time for my relievers to shake the dust off, and giving myself a moment to focus. It was late in the ballgame, but I still had the lead.
Every kid dreams of getting to the Bigs and briefly, in my personal baseball career, it looked like that may be possible. I was good. I remember attending a Phillies camp my senior year. Later that summer I spotted their head scout at a few other camps I attended.
When I went to college it quickly came unglued. I had played varsity ball all four years of high school, and as a result of performing well on varsity as a freshman, I never really had to work for my position again. My college coach didn’t know that, not that it should have mattered anyway. The sudden realization that I had been skating by did weird things to me. I bounced off of my new coach’s doctrine and found myself celebrating my first spring break without baseball my sophomore year. I turned to writing and video games, two things that were mainstays in the offseason. I was good at games and I was only getting better at writing. I swiftly carved out a new routine.
Mound visits only fill your reliever’s readiness gauge half way. So unless you want to gamble with pitcher who hasn’t fully warmed up, you have to survive another batter. So I took a deep breath and faced Zobrist with as much confidence as I could muster. He got a curveball first. Pinch hitters rarely swing first pitch, but if they haven’t had a whole game to gauge you, they are never going to swing at a first pitch curveball. Usually.
I still haven’t really recovered from baseball’s swift retreat from my life. It was like a good friend moved away. I promised I would keep in touch, that I would visit frequently, but in the years that followed “life took over.” Thats what I told myself. Deep down I was hurt and confused. I played it off to friends and family, claiming writing was something I could do until the day I died, and that a career in baseball was a long shot anyway. To this day I’m not sure how many of them saw through that. Im not sure I want to know.
I quickly latched onto gaming. I had been playing for years and I was pretty good at everything I played. I still had that mindset of practice from baseball and so most things came, if not naturally, through persistence. Within a year I had built a pocket of comfort: genres I was good at, friends I played well with, game modes I excelled in. It was all very clinical. But as I carved out this spot for myself it began to mirror baseball, and unbeknownst to me, it became a place from which I drew a strong, false confidence. I always won here, and I preferred that to years of losing in baseball. But always winning isn’t how life works. Not in the slightest.
The ball that Zobrist hit cleared the infield before the camera could even switch. I knew the sound of those hits. A hot and furious hiss of leather that moved past you in the blink of an eye. Few people know what it feels like to have their lives flash before their eyes. All third basemen know that feeling well. Baez moved to third and Zobrist triumphantly stepped to first. The Show 18’s list of improvements included more fleshed out player emotions, and when Zobrist reached first he turned to his dugout and pounded his fist against his chest, roaring to his teammates, rallying the troops. I seethed. Wacha’s confidence was shot. He had only thrown one pitch to Zobrist and as Ian Happ walked to the plate my hand was forced. I called in my righty, forcing Happ, a switch hitter, to hit from the left side. His weaker side. Luke Gregerson a lanky right-hander took the mound, mostly warm, with one job: shut it down. The problem with that job? He was in a tense situation and hadn’t had the chance to fully ready himself. In four pitches the bases were loaded.
Depression came in the months following baseball’s exodus. I wrote it off as nostalgia and sadness for a long time, a result of a large lifestyle change. As my depression developed, I dove deeper into games and their ability to make me feel powerful, like I could control everything that happened. I had somehow lost control of my life, but at least I could control this. That desire for control seeped everywhere. It impacted my relationships, my grades, my health. I could only get that control from games, so I lived in my Xbox and PlayStation.
I decided this year that I would play MLB: The Show 18 with the adaptive difficulty on. Rather than finding a place that was tough enough to make me feel like I was just really good at the game, I allowed the game to tell me where the line was. A line where difficulty and reality met. When I lost games in The Show 17, I would become so angry that I couldn’t play for days. I often would back out to the home screen, kill the game, and try again. I think, deep down, my reaction troubled me initially, but I didn’t dwell on that thought. I played games to feel good dammit. I didn’t play them to lose. I would tell myself.
That last sentence struck me, already off-balance emotionally, and as I tumbled down that staircase of memory each step punched a thought out it my mind. Baseball is a game about losing.
Albert Almora Jr. stepped in with the bases loaded, two outs in the sixth inning. Gregerson was warm now, but hadn’t thrown a strike yet, so that initial reassurance came with a good dose of worry. Almora already had two hits, the only player who had done so, and while it could be argued he lacked home run strength, it wouldn’t take a round tripper to do significant damage. After four straight balls, he was taking first pitch, so I took advantage of that and pegged a mid nineties fastball in the lower half of the zone, strike one. I never throw two fastballs in a row to a leadoff hitter, so next came a change. Straight and low, Almora checked his swing, fooled, but the pitch missed low. I followed that up with a slider away, hoping to get him to make weak contact. He was seeing the ball well today and took the pitch for ball two. “What wouldn’t he expect next?” I asked myself, as the crowds anxiety passed to me. He had an advantageous count, a pitcher in a tight spot, and I had just missed with my only two off-speed pitches. I doubled up on the slider, hoping he wouldn’t guess that I would return with it.
Almora reminded me, everyone is a threat.
The ball he hit left my left fielder standing in one place, turning his body only so he could follow the parabolic trajectory to its landing place three rows deeper than the Cubs bullpen. In moments my 3-1 lead had turned to a 3-6 deficit. The Cubs fans in the crowd rejoiced, their dugout erupted. Gregerson stood with his hands on his hips, head bowed. It was one of those no-doubter home runs that you, as a pitcher, don’t even turn to look at.
I immediately went to kill the game but caught myself. I returned to the game and watched the replay suite that follows a home run. This is real. I thought. Sometimes shit hits the fan.
As I finished up the game, unable to claw back at the Cubs lead, I mulled over my feelings. As the difficulty bar adjusted overhead I realized that The Show 18 was reteaching me a valuable lesson I had forgotten. Loss happens, failure happens. But that’s just one mistake in a long season of opportunity. Wash your jersey, put up your cleats, and get some rest, because you are going to have to dust it all off tomorrow and go at it again. It would be dishonest leave out that, after saving and turning everything off in my living room, I sat in the dark and cried.
It was like that old friend called, out of the blue. “Hey motherfucker!” They yelled, “Just wanted to let you know I moved back in town. We’re getting coffee tomorrow. Peace.” A smile cracked my face open, I took a deep breath, and I remembered what it meant to lose and learn.
The next day I came back to my franchise and put the Cubs in ground, where they belong.