It’s almost unfair to be a fan of a professional sports team. There’s no reciprocity involved, no give and take, no mutual understanding. It’s just me, this sad bundle of humanity watching helplessly with bug-eyed desperation as better, stronger men fight among themselves for a trophy that marks one group, ultimately, as the particular odd group of mortals who happened to get their stuff together at the right time to beat another suddenly lesser odd group of mortals.
A baseball season is an inevitably complicated thing. Even the best teams will have awful games where they look –for three or four hours—like everything that came before was luck, or a ruse, or maybe the result of a strange baseball conspiracy.
These outlier games happen for many reasons, if they even happen for any reason at all. It often feels like starting pitching is the root cause: Shaun Marcum was drilled three games in a row in the postseason after making a case for ace status up through September… and Dave Bush almost threw a no hitter. Three times.
Or, maybe, the core of the lineup starts to collectively mistake the batter’s box for the tee end of a driving range, big bats magically reduced to the size of a novelty pen.
It would be easy, then, to write off the Brewers’ mini-implosion in the NLCS with one of many clichés. The Cardinals were on the upswing, the Brewers weren’t. The Cardinals have been there before, the Brewers haven’t. Nyjer Morgan’s antics made God mad at us, and Albert Pujols wears a gold cross around his saintly neck. (I guess he doesn’t actually wear a gold cross, but it’s easy to imagine one there.)
We project a sense of inevitability onto a finished season only because that’s the way it played out, so anything you can say that frames it compellingly is likely to stick. These judgments are always made retrospectively because up until your team has played its last game, there are just feelings or predictions and none of them are definitively true.
Hence, during the NLDS –sometime around the second grand slam against a Brewers starter in the space of two games– I thought, “Well, at least I’m going to get to watch them lose Game 5 in person.”
I’m kind of a negative person. Hence, trying to find the silver lining on a cloud that doesn’t exist yet.
As it turns out, there was an actual game to be played, and my depressive sad sack moping had nothing to do with it, beyond framing my experience of it. The 10th inning walkoff end to that game turned out to be one of the more purely joyful moments I’ve ever experienced, sports-related or not. It was triumphant, and it felt unbelievably important, even though the Brewers hadn’t actually won anything yet.
All of this is to say that we choose what a team means to us, and by extension what a season means. If I had walked into Game 5 expecting a blowout –or assuming it—I may have left disappointed, perhaps a bit concerned. Instead, I came to it with a little bit of dread, and slightly more hope, and left whooping like an idiot.
Similarly, I came to this season expecting another disappointment. The Brewers looked a little like Lehman Brothers, just another over-leveraged, big risk monster doomed by circumstances and crazy management. But I’d argue now that anyone who calls this season anything less than a success has a fundamentally flawed understanding of what the Milwaukee Brewers have become: an oft-frustrating, but winning baseball team.
That said, I’ve taken something of a break from my near-obsessed consumption of Brewers-related journalism, in part because I sometimes hate sports journalism. Not because there’s anything flawed or corrupt about it –although there might be, and probably is– but because it so frequently sacrifices what is compelling and beautiful on the altar of winning. (I am still the king of metaphors!)
Sports journalism has become the province of persons who are almost embarrassed to cheer for personalities over talent, talent over results, or ecstatic truth over wins and profit. Those who still value the beauty of it usually fail to do so articulately, or err on the side of viciousness and sarcasm. Not that I’m a stranger to viciousness or sarcasm, but I do think the prevalence of those traits has forced a kind of mass retreat to oft-flawed analytics, even if analytics should be a means to enjoyment, not an end in themselves.
I think it’s important to frame this season detached from its results because this team is going to look pretty similar next year, and however much folks might be inclined to dismantle a “loser,” that’s obviously insane. The Brewers were simply an incredibly fun, hugely likable team that failed to win a pennant or a championship; but we risk turning them into the period on a poorly written sentence, an afterthought to a season now ultimately highlighted by some other, stodgier Central Time Zone squad.
The real, important truth of all this is that the Brewers were an experiment that mostly worked, a mixture of great top-of-the-roster hitting, mostly good-to-great pitching, and barely adequate fielding. Melvin looked at the market, figured that teams were paying too much for elite fielding, and decided not to pay for it. Yeah, Grienke and Marcum looked less than elite in the playoffs. Did you enjoy watching them the rest of the season? I know I did. Are you looking forward to watching them next season? I know I am.
My family has had partial season tickets for as long as I can remember, but it didn’t occur to me until a few weeks ago that this represents an investment in a team’s future, a sort of gamble that the hours spent swilling overpriced beer and fried garbage will result in a net emotional gain.
It’s an investment, too, in the chance that once in a while that team will make the postseason, and you’ll get first crack at a chance to see that team play games of an oversized, historical importance, and maybe even win a few. I don’t feel ripped off.