Beyond Binary

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

These opening lines from Bart Giamatti’s eponymous essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” are referencing baseball, but they could be–in fact they are–referring to life itself. Our world is transient, and we are mere vapors. The patterns we hold to, the tasks we busy ourselves with, the people to whom we give power to lift or smash our hearts–all of it changes. All of it fades. “Dame Mutability,” as Giamatti calls her, always gets the last word.

This is all highly romanticized, of course–the playground of the desperately self-aware, people with overdeveloped vocabularies and teams that didn’t make the playoffs. I would have to admit guilt in each of those categories.

Still, I find a tremendous amount of comfort in Giamatti’s essay. It seems more applicable and necessary now than it did forty years ago, when Yale first published it. The world has climbed to vast new heights since 1977, in terms of technological advances. Occasionally, we enjoy the view. Most of the time, we just fight for air. The news cycle–“atrocity watch,” one of my friends calls it–is constantly in our faces. No time to process, lest we miss the next big twist. The message notifications on our phones act like drugs, tantalizing us with the prospect of virtual connection while feeding our raging case of FOMO. We live in constant fear of missing out, whether economically or socially or professionally. Our hyper-connectivity has cast our world in binary–black or white, win or lose, fight or flight. We carry this attitude into our politics, our sports, our workouts, our jobs, our friendships.

Alas, even baseball has succumbed to the darker nature of Dame Mutability. Today, on the eve of the playoffs, no one is happy. Sportswriters and bloggers and general managers from teams on the outside of the postseason are doing postmortems, offering reasons and excuses and if-onlys. Their counterparts for playoff teams aren’t reveling in victory, however. They’re too busy wringing their hands, plotting what needs to happen for theirs to bet he last team standing. For most of them, a World Series victory would not bring real joy–only relief. Modern sports fans hate losing more than they enjoy winning, after all.

Not so with me, not this season. My beloved St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have the best year, but they won more than they lost, gave me something to root for, passed the time while I drove or wrote or worked in the shop. They played meaningful games right up to the last day of the season. A bad hop, a better pitch, a ball launched at an angle a few degrees higher or lower–any of these might have changed the outcome of two games in the Cardinals’ favor, sending them to the playoffs and breaking another fanbase’s hearts.

But the season worked out as it did, and not another way. While there may be disappointment in that for Cardinals fans, there’s no real failure. Dame Mutability may break Bart Giamatti’s heart. But at least she acts consistently. It’s her sister–Dame Chance–that can’t be trusted.

And so next year will have to wait. My ritual fall reading of “The Green Fields of the Mind” has grabbed me by the collar and shaken me out of kill-or-be-killed mentality I see all around me. The world may have order, but it doesn’t exist in binary. I don’t have to respond to it as such.

And, for this day at least, I won’t.

Game of Chance

Why on the earth should anyone care about professional baseball?

Good question, and one that can be applied to almost any major college or pro sports event.

In my more rational moments, I know I shouldn’t give my heart to such things–grown men in far-away cities playing a kids’ game for which they get paid millions. What happens there has no impact on my life, and very little impact on the world as a whole. There’s no reason to put any kind of effort or emotion into it.

I'm not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

I’m not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

Except that I do. So do people all over the world, whether it’s the NFL, soccer, cricket, or hockey. Every culture plays competitive games, and every nation that I know of has some sort of pro or semi-pro sports leagues.

So when I’m in front of the TV, screaming at the strike zone and praying Yadier Molina’s injured oblique, I know I’m not alone. That fact makes me both feel better about myself and despair for the human condition.

On the judgmental side, I wonder what would happen if I put the time and energy I throw into baseball into other, more important areas of life. If outcome is directly linked to effort, I should have been able to bring world peace and cure cancer, given the personal attention I’ve sunk into the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then again, professional baseball players pour enormous amounts of energy into their craft. That’s what makes them so good, and so much fun to watch. But the outcome of any single game depends very much on chance. In last night’s NLCS Game 2, the final score was partly due to skill, but also partly due to an unforeseen injury, a weak ground ball hit to exactly the wrong place, and a hard line drive hit to exactly the right place.*

I wonder a lot at the role probability and chance play in our lives, and what that means for the way we live. It’s a disquieting thought on one level. But it’s also a reminder to be gracious, whether we win or lose. The outcome often could have been quite different with just one or two variables reversed.

No one–whether professional sports team or unknown writer–can completely control results. But we can follow good processes, shake off the losses, celebrate the victories, and be kind. Baseball is a mirror the reflects these principles for me. That’s why my heart stays in it. And I hope that, more often than not, I can remember the lessons I’ve learned from it.

“Right” and “wrong” place are, of course, dependent on perspective. I suspect a Giants fan would have those adjectives reversed. As a Cardinal fan, however, I think I got them correct.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.