I watched the Washington Nationals season end today, on a shitty livecast streaming on my computer.
I like baseball a lot. I enjoy playing it, and watching it. It’s an aesthetically beautiful game, where some parts of the field are precisely defined and others are understood to be irregular; the same is true for other elements of the game. It’s a game of abstractions, where things move between states. Advantage is gained by tiny shifts, but only across a long enough run through a volatile field of probability. Roles are largely isolated, but subtly influence each other, and can work in conjunction. Like all sports, it has that element of objective truth; no matter who you are, whether anyone likes you, or how you market yourself, when you hit the ball over the fence you hit the ball over the fence.
Because baseball moves quickly from state to state, and is static in between, and is so observable, it’s a great thing to enjoy with other people, to experience emotional swings together and align your observations. I watch it with my family; we go to Spring Training now, and watch games together during the season. I follow it with my close friends from home; we used to watch games together, but now we mostly live in different cities, and we’re starting long email chains; they often pass 100 replies in the course of a week or so, less if it’s a big game. When I started working at The Onion, my co-workers would make fun of me for being a fan of the Nationals (who were terrible at the time), so I aimed to convert them by sending e-mail updates about the team.
I used to be very emotionally affected by sports. It faded over the years, as I started to care about other things, but I get back into it whenever something exciting happens. I can’t stay just an observer, and wouldn’t want to. I like to care, to some degree. And baseball never gets me into harmful degrees of caring. I’ve experienced maximal levels of baseball heartbreak, and they didn’t make me vomit pure stomach acid or hate people I liked, or send me into clinical depression. I just got mad for a while and wished things had gone differently for a little bit, and I had a whole bunch of people around me who felt the same way.
Two years ago, in 2012, I had the happiest romantic experience of my life and the most exciting job experience of my life at the same time; the first fell apart in devastating fashion, and the second ended on schedule but was followed up by a void. That same season, The Washington Nationals were the best team in the league, and lost in the first round of the playoffs after being one out away from winning the divisional series. Here’s something I wrote during the regular season, and sent around to my co-workers: (“Nationals Update” is the name for my “publication” – the tone of the emails overall is tongue-in-cheek pro-Nationals propaganda mixed with commitment to weird tangents and peppered with nerdy baseball analysis, but this one was themed particularly to address, by proxy, the problem of heartbreak in general. All members of the “panel” are me, with a different number of initials.)
“Is the 2012 Washington Nationals Season an Elaborate Trap to Destroy
and Disappoint Us?”
Recently, the intuition that this is true has been growing around the
Nationals Update offices.
The most convincing argument for the “trap” theory is that the
Nationals season is a thing, and that things in general are elaborate
traps to destroy and disappoint us (or, more precisely, to destroy us
by way [of] disappointment). In particular, the fact that the Nationals
season is something that the Nationals Update staff cares about has
been taken as a strong sign in support of the theory, with special
concern given to the fact that it ranks increasingly higher among
positive things in the lives of NU community (almost solely because of
higher-ranking things vacating those spots) and thus is moving into
the succession of things that will collapse into ruin. An elaborate
trap would not be planned for something trivial; so as the season
becomes increasingly non-trivial, the chances of it being a trap
Of course, such theories grind against two common parts of the
Nationals Update culture: Nationals optimism, and rational baseball
understanding. It has been argued that the Nationals, ever rising,
will never disappoint us, and will in any case provide us
unquantifiable entertainment, win or lose; indeed, the losing years
are remembered fondly. With increased stakes, however, there has been
some disillusionment with the party line, and concern about whether
Nationals optimism is still necessary, and, indeed, whether it is
safe. The rationalist argument is that baseball is a game naturally
involving lots of chance-dependent aberrations, and that forming any
sort of mystical, superstitious, or determinist narrative is natural
human tendency but does not accurately describe or predict baseball
events. Some of the rationalists even argue that the same line of
reasoning can be applied to life in general.
The question was tested recently with regard to the (trivially,
because it is a sports event being played by other people) traumatic
event of the Nationals being swept by the Atlanta Braves in three
games. The Nats entered the series with a chance to reduce their magic
number to 5; instead it remains at 11, with 16 games to go.
It would seem a favorable situation if not for these fundamental laws
on the working of the world:
“If it concievably could go wrong, but conceivably could go right, it
will go wrong and will be devastating because you will be unable to
properly prepare for it going wrong due the possibility of it going
“If it could not conceivably go wrong, it will go wrong and it will be
completely devastating because you did not even conceive of it going
“If it cannot conceivably go right, it obviously will not go right,
and if it does, you will be completely unprepared to take advantage of
It is with this background in mind that you should read the following
Nationals Update Panel: “Is The 2012 Washington Nationals an Elaborate
Trap Designed to Destroy Us With Disappointment?”
DI: It’s clear that it is. I think the fact that it appears to have
the potential to go well is sufficient evidence that it is a trap, and
I think we all have the gut feeling that it is. The question is, what
can be done about it? If we have the appearance of an enjoyable
season, and there is no duality between appearance and essence,
there’s no compelling reason not to enjoy the season. Granting that it
is a trap, the best possible result it to put the trap out of our mind
to increase our enjoyment of the present, so that we will have a
positive baseball experience and a positive baseball memory to look
DHI: I think the concern that some people have is that wholehearted
enjoyment would intensify the letdown.
I: Exactly. Exactly. And there’s the sense in which it’s a memory trap
too. If the memory of the season becomes something you want to access
when you’re feeling good, but then you inevitably remember how it
ended, it becomes a device for quickly transforming any good mood into
DHI: I really doubt the Nationals have that kind of power over any of us.
DI: But why not let them? Can you imagine a better team to put your trust in?
I: Well let’s consider this; if we can avoid caring about the
Nationals, then do their chances revert back to their natural chances
of winning in baseball terms, which is, what, 80%?
DI: 88% chance of winning NLCS, 82% chance of winning the World Series.
DHI: You’d put the chances of losing in the Series that low?
I: The Nats slaughter the AL. Just destroy them.
DHI: We got swept by the Yankees.
I: Never again. If the Nats play the Yankees, Nats in 5. I think we
lose Jackson’s first start.
DI: Who plays DH?
I: Tyler Moore.
DHI: Tyler Moore against lefties, for sure. Probably Chad Tracy
DI: Not Lombardozzi?
I: God I hope not.
DHI: How do you explain the Braves series?
DI: Small sample size, on the road, Lannan didn’t pitch. ’nuff said.
They’ll be fine.
I: Well, back to my point, can we avoid caring about the Nationals for
their own good? Isn’t that the right thing to do?
DHI: The issue’s been raised before, but it doesn’t have a lot of
merit. The two options are: the Nationals win, in which case we end up
having abandoned the team at the moment of triumph after years of
unsuccessful fandom, and end up feeling guilty and foolish. Or the
Nationals lose, and prove themselves unworthy of our altruistic
gesture, so that we’re not only disappointed by the loss, but we
realize that we’ve missed out on some deluded happiness that we could
have just taken. So there are two unsatisfactory outcomes.
I: But do the satisfactory outcomes really exist as possibilities?
DI: We’re assigning nonzero probability to them, so yeah.
DHI: Fuck it all.
I: We are all doomed.
DI: Only when we truly believe we are doomed can we be free.
DHI: Let’s just keep saying we are doomed until we truly internalize it.