“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same”

The one thing the above lines teach us, is that Rudyard Kipling knew jack about sports fandom. Because, having sat through both in the past week, I have become painfully aware of the difference. Wednesday and Thursday night saw the Diamondbacks lose World Series games in heartbreaking fashion, not once but twice, in virtually the same way. Comments I made previously, specifically, “How people like our 22-year old Korean pitcher, Kim, will cope, I dread to think,” seemed like the work of Nostradamus. For in both games, he (and by extension, we) needed just one more out to defeat the Yankees; instead, a home run yanked the fluffy shag-pile carpet of victory from under our feet, replacing it with the hard and chilly lino which is defeat.

“There is no loneliness greater than the loneliness of a failure.”
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983

The second one in particular was heart-breaking. Just ask Chris, who felt like a baseball widow that evening as I struggled to contend with feelings of unfairness, loss and disappointment which… Well, Bill Shankly once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much, much more important than that,” and the same goes for baseball. Uncomfortable though it is to say it, I felt more upset than I was over the World Trade Center attack.

Yet just when all seems lost… Last night, we crushed the Yankees 15-2 – merely setting a new record for World Series hits, and handing the foe their worst loss in 294 post-season games – and all is once again right with the world. It’s three apiece, and we head tonight towards the deciding seventh, with everything on the line. I just hope I have enough adrenalin to cope.

Why does fandom – and sports fandom in particular, since few other kinds can match the tremendous roller-coaster of emotions – exert such a terrible toll, making you care less about the deaths of 5000 people, than a white ball going over a fence? It’s a sense of direct connectness, perhaps; every day since March, the guys on the team have been a part of my life. I know Luis Gonzales has triplets. I know Matt Williams likes Rush. I know Craig Counsell’s nickname is “Rudy”. These are things I don’t know about our next-door neighbours.

Sports is the ultimate unscripted soap-opera. Perhaps Kipling had a point; in any season (especially one with 179 games in total), there will be ups and downs, wins and losses, injuries, triumphs, mistakes and everything else you can imagine. It’s a true microcosm of life, and we live it through the players. Their success becomes ours; their failures become ours too. At one point, I found myself wondering if moving from the office to the living-room to watch the final moments had caused the defeat somehow, in an inexplicable butterfly-in-the-Amazon way.

They’ve done studies into this (your tax money at work in a useful cause, for once), and one suggestion is that it recreates the emotions from back when humanity lived in tribes. “Our sports heroes are our warriors,” said psychology professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State. And studies have shown that testosterone levels rise after a victory and fall after a defeat by over 25% – Chris will testify to this one, since I think my line on Thursday night was, “I just want to be held…” 🙂

Just a few short hours to go; for the moment, anything is possible. In my best dream, I see Kim back on the mound, successfully getting the final out this time, and being carried off on the shoulders of his team-mates as the stadium erupts. Where else is such redemption possible? But whatever happens, it’s going to take me a while to get to sleep tonight.

[And verily, in the bottom of the 9th innings, Arizona were losing 1-2, and they did swing mightily and scored two runs. And there was much joy in Phoenix, and much gnashing of teeth and weeping and wailing in New York. Kim never did get to pitch though…]