A Stare into the Abyss

Photo Credit: Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

Somewhere along the way each great venture comes to a place where failure changes from being a conceptual abstract to being all too real and much too close.  When and how this arrives is largely irrelevant.  Failure is final.  And, it is readily available.  There is only one cogent question: Does the venture have the wherewithal to avoid it?

The rocky shores of the waters that comprise sports are littered with the detritus of wonderful seasons unmercifully smashed and sunken.  Life comes at you fast.  But, playoff extinction comes much, much faster.  In baseball the change from regular season to post-season is the most radical of any professional sport.  Each regular season game comprises six-tenths of one-percent of the whole.  Enter the Division Round of the playoffs where three strikes means the entire team is out.  These are two different existences.  Every shipwreck story starts with a departure from port in calm waters.  Baseball playoffs skip all of the development chapters and goes straight to violent waves, total darkness, and unmarked rocks.  It happens in a blink.

The participants understand these dynamics better than the devotees who watch them.  We observers make several consistent errors in deciphering the visuals.  The first is that we equate success to effort.  These are not linear functions of each other.  Everyone on the field is trying as hard as possible.  Some will perform well while others will not.  The successful performed better.  But, no additional effort was involved.  The second, repeated endlessly and mindlessly on sports talk radio, is that failure or successes are indicators of moral character.  Hardly.  The annals of sport are full of successful scoundrels and saintly runners-up. In the end, one team simply performs better than the other.  All the ascriptions and rune translations we associate with that are of our own making.

One of the joys of baseball, even in the hyperactive and time-compressed frenzy of the playoffs, is that the game itself comes to us at a digestible pace.  Yet, it can turn on a dime.  The pace allows us to develop data plots and assign trend lines.  You think you know where things are headed.  Often one’s deductive logic is confirmed.  Sometimes it is not.  Baseball is a curious blend of Mathematics and Man.  Countless person-years of effort have been invested into predicting the next outcome based upon the math of the situation.  It would work beautifully every time if the players were the proverbial apples and oranges of our elementary Math books.  Humans are wonderfully messier than that, however.

It didn’t require a PhD in Math to assess the dire straits the Nationals had entered at the start of the eighth-inning last night.   In sixteen innings of baseball they had managed to establish a lead for less than one-half inning.  They had scored one lonely run on a low line-drive home run.  On an evening where the South-South East breeze blew a jet stream to the outfield it had been the Cubs who had hit the pop flies that barely got out to the bleachers.  A juicy bases-loaded chance crashed to splinters on a nasty breaking ball.  With six outs left, failure was all too real and all too close.  Losing the first two games at home would have been a death sentence.  The Nats, in a span of 24-hours, had gone from calm waters to manning the lifeboats.  We have worn out the saying that, “Failure is not an option.”  Nonsense.  Failure is always an option and is frequently taken.  Make no mistake.  Last night the abyss was at hand.

Staring into black emptiness eventually yields a reflection of self.  What does it look like?  It does no good to summons ee cummings and “…rail against the dying light.”  What’s needed is performance.  History is full of battles where the tide turned on great deeds.  We call these people “heroes.”  But, often they were ordinary soldiers who saw a moment with all its implications, correctly interpreted the next move, and executed it.  Then again, in antiquity the heroes were always larger than life.

Enter Bryce Harper.  Against the darkness of the abyss he saw success coming.  And then he delivered it.  The great deed of the day was his…and by extension it is now ours to hold and keep dear.

Early in the Civil War the two armies fought a brutal battle near a church named “The Peaceful One” in Hebrew.  The numbers of casualties were shocking as the young and green armies stumbled through the two-day affair.  From then until the end of the war the battle would give soldiers a point of reference for how precarious a particular action was.  Only the direst of circumstances would earn the ultimate mark of respect: “I was more scared than I was at Shiloh.”

Perils, unforeseen and plentiful wait.  We will see if we ever get more scared than the start of the eighth inning last night.  If we find ourselves there then hold onto one thought; Bryce won’t be scared.  He has already stared into that void.  He knew what to do.  And, in the words of the late Captain Toby Welch of Deale, “I’m here to tell you, he didn’t miss it.  No, Sir.  He did not miss it.”

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