"In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, ‘Is it good, friend?'
‘It is bitter - bitter,' he answered;
‘But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.'"
--Stephen Crane's "In the Desert"
Baseball is an amazing game, a game that is simultaneously a battle of wits and a battle of strength and ability, and it is a game that appeals to people of all ages, genders, and creeds. And for the people who follow baseball, it can be a bit of a lifestyle, something that can provide daily relief from everyday stresses and something to bond over with friends, family, and strangers alike. Whatever is going on in a person's life, they can always lend some hoping and dreaming to baseball. And in return baseball is cruel more often than not.
That isn't surprising- success in baseball is almost entirely defined by one goal, winning the World Series, and each season, obviously, only one team can achieve that goal. For most, the return for devoting hundreds or even thousands of hours following the baseball season is feelings of heartbreak or a dull nothingness. Bitterness. It can take days, or weeks, or months, for that to go away, and then slowly and surely the feelings of hope and the dreams of winning the World Series return.
This season, the way that the A's have played have caused those feelings of hope to drain away sooner than usual. Whenever it appeared that the team was going to turn a corner and hit their stride, a losing streak filled with poor fundamental baseball and gluts of injuries would follow. Whatever levels of talent the team had, its inconsistencies and questionable approaches at the plate were suppressing it. Watching the team lose by ten or give away winnable games was frustrating. A game would end and feelings of bitterness would prevail- the team SHOULD be better, they were SQUANDERING the season, and they were a WASTE of time and energy to root for.
And then a game like today's happens.
For the first three innings, Jesse Hahn was as close to perfect as a pitcher could be. Easily throwing 95 miles an hour with superb command of his offspeed pitches, Hahn was absolutely the best version of himself early on. Following a leadoff single to Kinsler, Hahn induced a double play and retired the next eight batters in a row through a combination of strikeouts and groundballs. Hahn was pitching efficiently and finally missing bats.
But in the fourth, out of nowhere, the wheels started to fall off. The impeccable control that Hahn displayed in the first three innings was gone, and it took a heads up play and excellent throw by Josh Phegley on a wild pitch to allow Hahn to escape the inning unscathed. On another wild pitch, in the fifth inning, Hahn inexplicably failed to cover home plate and allowed a run to score. Hahn's sixth inning began with a four pitch walk to Cabrera followed by a first pitch home run to Victor Martinez. In Hahn's final three innings, he walked four and allowed four hits, had two wild pitches and surrendered three runs. Martinez's home run got the Tiger's back in the game, and after the top of the sixth inning was over it was easy to allow some of those bitter feelings to start to simmer.
The A's offense got off on the wrong foot. Going up against Matt Boyd, the first four A's batters all helplessly struck out. Considering how terribly the offense had been sputtering all season, it appeared that it would just be another one of those games. The bitterness was prevalent.
And then Billy Butler strode up to the plate and simply tore the cover off of the baseball to hit his first home run of the season over the high wall in left field. As he joyously jaunted around the bases, in that moment it was almost as if a curse that had been hampering the A's offense was lifted, and suddenly the A's started to put up better at bats, and the hits started to trickle in. In the fourth, Danny Valencia gave the offense another jolt by hitting a home run off of the luxury box windows in center field on a pitch level with his shoulders. In the sixth, with the game tied at three, the floodgates finally opened as the offense bailed out Jesse Hahn immediately after he coughed up the lead. The A's started the inning with six hits and a sacrifice fly, and pushed five total runs across the plate before the inning was over- the big blows coming from a two RBI opposite field single from Billy Butler and a Marcus Semien double.
The offense didn't stop there, though! In the seventh, Lowrie and Valencia lead off the inning with back to back singles and then Khris Davis flashed his booming power and homered into the bleachers in left. Phegley and Smolinski doubles would plate one more run later in the inning, and before all was said and done, the A's offense scored 12 runs and racked up 17 hits. The Tigers could not rally against Rodriguez, Rzepcynski, and Neal in the final three innings and the A's won 12-3.
For many, baseball is what keeps our blood pumping through our veins. Baseball fandom isn't something that is forced, it's innate and compulsive for just about everyone. While the reasons behind any one person's fandom can vary, the elation felt after a hard fought victory, the tension felt in the late innings of a tight ballgame, the agony of defeat- these feelings are ultimately what baseball fans keep coming back for. And, as it turns out, quite often those feelings of agony hit harder, last longer, and occur more frequently than those feelings of elation, and can leave the fan bitter. But without strife, without frustration, without loss, those feelings of elation and joy and love have less of an impact, less of a meaning.
Baseball is bitter, but I like it because it is bitter, and because it is baseball.
A's go for the series win tomorrow, and are sending AL ERA leader Rich Hill to the mound to lead them.