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Rays 3, O's 0: An Ode to a Below Average Team

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This team is out of playoff contention and is fighting for a draft pick. Let's see if we can glean any meaning from these meaningless games.

Cliff McBride

When Cal was a child he showed no interest in astronomy, to the muted astonishment of his friends. As other children slowly developed all the common interests that younger elementary school boys all seemed to share (e.g. dinosaurs, racecars, weird squishy bugs) he completely refused to give a damn about stars and planets. Cal didn't seem to share that vague but ever-present sense of awe that media has insisted is hard-wired into every human brain since a monkey rubbed two sticks together and burned down a forest. This was never a problem for Cal, because no one cared about it, because it's not a big deal, because sometimes people don't take an interest in things and it's not something to worry about. What parents and teachers didn't seem to understand was that Cal loved and appreciated the night sky more than any person he knew, and was completely incapable of expressing that awe in a way that wouldn't leave him a nervous wreck.

For his birthday one year his parents bought him a space simulator. They were good parents; they bought all the parenting books and for the most part were attentive to his needs. They set playdates and were part of the Baltimore PTA, and made orange scones for every meeting. The scones were always the first things to be eaten. The simulator promised a life-like trip through the solar system, and nearby solar systems, and an abbreviated version of the Milky Way galaxy. It was named Redshift, after the astronomical phenomenon wherein celestial objects travel so quickly away from the observer that they almost catch up to light, and the light they themselves emit has an unusually long wavelength, leading to a dark red hue. In short, space is expanding so quickly that it distorts the fastest thing in the universe. The ground beneath your feet is not static. It is hurtling at unnatural speeds: you are standing on a bonafide projectile launched 13.8 billion years ago.

Cal played the simulator and ate it up. Even at a young age he adored the minutiae, and would spend an hour in one solar system, looking at every moon and asteroid he could, before double clicking on a separate system and slowly zooming there via an ethereal disembodied spaceship. He loved it.

One day he was alone in the house while his parents went to Piggly Wiggly's to grab eggs, flour, and oranges for the next PTA meeting. Cal often stayed home alone; he was a "responsible young man" as his mother would say, and it was true. Cal turned on the game as heavy rain rattled the windows and made his way through solar systems, cataloging and exploring moons. He never knew if these were real systems, but it didn't really matter to him. He liked the idea these possibly made-up moons and stars might actually exist in some infinitely huge universe (Cal was still young enough to believe the universe was literally infinite).

KKKKKKKRACK

Cal jerked his whole body and turned around, throwing half of the material by the desktop computer on the ground. "Thunder," he internalized, his heart racing. Where did the lightning strike? Was it in the neighborhood? That'd be so cool! Cal saw he had knocked the mouse onto the ground and picked it back up. He looked at the screen.

It is difficult to boil down into relatable terms the scope of what Cal saw. This is partly because what he saw was literally impossible. Cal had spent a week or two playing this game, legitimizing what it gave to him as real. He had begun to appreciate the size of planets, and stars, but also the size of nothingness that lays between the stars: the unknown. It was incredible, and almost unbelievable, but he ate it up with the ferocity of childhood. When Cal knocked the mouse over, it accidentally clicked and dragged on part of the map and moved it as fast as gravity and friction would allow. Looking at the screen, all he saw was hundreds of star systems flying past his screen at supernatural speeds. Faster than light. Faster than the speed limit of the universe. In the blink of an eye, he flew to another arm of the galaxy. He had spent days methodically looking at moons and stars, and in a mere three seconds he had dashed past thousands more. The sheer scope of the galaxy (not even the uncountable number of galaxies he knew to be within the entire universe) was too much for him. He gasped and shut his eyes. All he could hear was the patter of rain on the window and the scream of his own heart.

Cal didn't want to open his eyes. He knew if he did, he'd see the stars, all flying at him faster than any human being could understand, could really understand, and it would break him. He crawled, eyes wide shut, out of the back room where his parents kept the old desktop, and into his bedroom. His parents found him there, eyes still closed, shivering in the summer air.

Calvin grew up. He graduated high school and moved to Florida. He had a friend, a girlfriend, a fiance, and a wife: all the same person. They had a son, whom Calvin desperately wanted to name Calvin Jr., but who was eventually named Mark by his wife, who ended up signing the proper forms while Calvin was downstairs eating chicken parmesan at the hospital cafeteria. Calvin didn't really mind. He strangely didn't care what his firstborn son was named, but he never told his wife, for fear that she'd get the wrong idea. So he lobbied for a son named after his childhood baseball hero, knowing that it would never be approved, and his wife would pick the name she wanted the most. He was magnanimous, in a way.

Mark developed a love for baseball much faster than Calvin did, specifically for the local Tampa Bay Rays. Mark played a bit of coach pitch kids' ball with his friends in '13, but loved going to games that year with his dad, who had long since abandoned his childhood Orioles and focused on rooting for what was right in front of him. Calvin even got tickets to a playoff game against the Boston Red Sox that year, and was treated to a Jose Lobaton walk-off. After, he picked up his son and stayed until the ushers were practically shoving him out the door. It was the best memory he remembered having with Mark.

This year, though, Calvin was finding himself falling out of love with the team. Spoiled by years of consistent success, Calvin felt abandoned this year. Struggling to approach .500, this year's Rays seemed to find ways to lose games. When the pitching was good, the offense couldn't come up with anything. When the offense was working, the defense seemed to let them down. Timely hits never came, and big producers were left fighting for scraps. He couldn't remember a worse year for the team since before The Great Exorcism.

Mark's enthusiasm never faltered, though. When he heard his dad bought tickets to Friday's game he ran upstairs, grabbed his glove, and did an odd little break dance thing on the tile of the kitchen. He always did that when he was happy. After school his mom drove him to the stadium and met up with Calvin (who was just getting off work) at Tropicana Field. Young Mark wanted to catch fly balls in the stands but Calvin had to work a little longer than usual and they missed their chance.

Mark, being six years old, didn't really know a lot about the team, but he knew Evan Longoria, and cheered loudly when the announcer voiced the lineup. Calvin, on the other hand, had grown fairly pessimistic about the year. When the name "Alex Cobb" echoed like thunder throughout the dome he only thought about how Cobb had some of the worst run support in baseball this year, and how he didn't see how the offense was going to be much better next year.

To his credit, Calvin was indeed right. The team made a try for the scoreboard in the second inning. Wil Myers (a name Mark recognized) was able to single up the middle. Calvin silently chuckled to himself, as he was well-aware of Myers’ struggles, and his lackadaisical attitude towards the game. Mark tugged on his father’s shirt and asked if he knew who that player was because, Mark did, oh boy did Mark know. Calvin feigned ignorance, and Mark promptly launched into a long improvisational speech about Wil Myers’ athletic abilities (some of which were actually humanly possible). His outpouring of ideas and questions about Myers lasted throughout the whole inning, totally undeterred by the offensive failure of the team to drive in a run after the O’s Chen walked the bases loaded. Mark didn't mind. As soon as he saw the on-screen cap shuffle he stopped mid-sentence to focus with an intensity usually reserved for major surgery.

Mark liked the fact that the stadium was in a dome. He knew that his dad had made some off-hand comments about how "real baseball is played outside" and called the Trop a "baseball warehouse" but Mark couldn't see his point. Last year his dad took him to see Wicked at the Straz Center and Mark loved it. But even more than the musical itself, Mark loved the moments just before it began. The anticipation. The atmosphere. He relished sitting in his seat, surrounded by people, straining to get a good view of the stage. He squirmed when the lights dimmed but once the orchestra started playing he was mesmerized. Mark felt like he was in a locked box, but one that promised excitement and wonder instead of dread. At the baseball stadium, Mark felt the same way. The atmosphere was identical, except that wondrous feeling he loved so much didn't go away when the game started. This baseball felt theatrical, but it was a theatricality where the outcome was not already predetermined by stage directions. The show was an ever-changing one, with no two outcomes exactly the same, where unpredictability was an inherent, integral feature, not a function of human error. Mark, a six year old, did not put pen to paper and write this out, but his feelings, though indescribable to him, were nevertheless real.

By the fifth inning Calvin was beginning to regret coming to this particular game. Of course, he was happy that his son was having a good time (it really was all about his son) but the on-field offensive showing today was particularly pathetic. He had enjoyed the defensive flair that Brandon Guyer had flashed in the fourth inning, diving for a ball that ended up being around thigh-high.

But other than that, very little had happened since he learned from Mark that Wil Myers doesn't comb his hair so why should he, and that one time Mark’s friend saw Myers and Evan Longoria together at K-Mart, and they were both really super nice, and they showed him their car they both owned that had doors that opened from the top that looked like the one in that one movie Daddy liked to watch, with the lightning and the clock tower and the car that left behind fire tracks, and yes it was too a real story why don’t you ever believe my stories Daddy.

Alex Cobb, he of the little run support, was pitching as well as expected, and the offense was, too, performing exactly as expected. He tried to think back to the last time the team had scored a run, and when he couldn't exactly remember, he checked his phone. Ahh, yes. That’s right. It was the Archer game. The one where the Rays made a bit of a comeback in the later innings, but it was far too little, too late. After last night’s pitiful showing (which Calvin couldn't be bothered to watch, what with the first game of the NFL season to be upset over instead) he was starting to have major doubts about the future of the team. The kind of nagging, pervasive doubts that are only experienced by those who have no control over an outcome, who are knowingly but willingly swept up in something bigger than themselves. He knew next year’s team looked mostly the same, and didn’t really see a way back up, back to the Promised Land of relevance. He remembered the Hit Show, and the 2007 Devil Rays team, and knew that this team wasn’t as bad as those teams, but somehow this year felt worse. These expectations, they can really do you in, because as much fun as contending can be, the off-years, the down years can hurt the most, hurt all the more because you’ve seen the top, you know what the tops of the clouds look like, and the sting of your feet against the grass do nothing but remind you what you’ve lost.

He heard the crowd roar, and looked up. What happened? How long had he been thinking about the past? His son was tugging on his jersey.

"Did you see it? Did you see it?"

He lied and said he did. The big screen again bailed him out, showing a repeat of Wil Myers’ diving stop to snag a sinking liner, saving a run.

His son started up again. Wil Myers doesn’t need to look both ways when he crosses the street because he can probably jump 15 feet high anyway.

In the 7th inning, with no score, time began to ration itself. Minutes felt like grains in an hourglass. Baseball truly became a chess match at this point, and it was Calvin’s favorite part of the sport. A true gentleman's game. Cobb stayed in for the inning, and rewarded Maddon with a clean inning. In the bottom of the inning, David DeJesus drew a one-out walk, but it didn't matter. Calvin could see the end of the inning before it even started. He could see the end of the game, too. Nothing would be accomplished. No one would go home happy. He had been feeling this way about this team for a month now. It was as if he was at the start of a marathon, on a track that stretched out straight until the finish line. An unobstructed view, a literal sprint to the finish. Baseball, this year, had felt like that to him. He had been pessimistic since that awful May, and his pessimism (as most pessimism is) was being rewarded with verisimilitude. The team was dead in the water and was playing zombie baseball.

And yet Calvin couldn't understand why he kept coming back. He was no fair-weather fan, he knew, but it ran deeper than that. There’s no shame on giving up on a season, even when you’re a true die-hard as Calvin considered himself to be. But why did each loss still sting? Why can't he just left himself go and ride on the ebbs and flows of baseball fandom? Why does it feel like I’ve had, and lost, some infinite thing?

Although he was ostensibly talking to his son, his mind was on this question as DeJesus was stranded on third, and through the 8th. Dimly aware of Brad Boxberger’s team record 93rd strikeout, he ran to the concession stand to grab another hot dog for himself and his son, who still wore a smile so wide that it made his teeth hurt.

As the bottom of the 8th began, Calvin suddenly, almost miraculously, was reminded of the game he played as a child. The computer game with the stars and the planets and vast emptiness of space. Calvin had long since outgrown his juvenile worries. Ever since he had had a child, it was as though his world had snapped into focus He loved Mark more than anything he could possibly have imagined. It is such a cliche to say that your life is completely changed once you have a child, but cliches are cliches for a reason, and it's true not just in a practical way, but in a deeply meaningful, personal way that borders on the spiritual. His goals and meaning in life, as though through a religious epiphany, had become abundantly clear as the other trivial hopes of his were swept away like marker on a whiteboard. Trips around the world and vague, unfocused creative endeavors became insignificant when placed side-by-side to the hardcore reality he now faced, and he adored it. His childhood fears, already largely abandoned, vanished entirely. And yet this thought came almost unbidden to his mind.

He looked over at Mark. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers, who for all Mark knew were gods sent to live among men, hit back-to-back singles to lead off the inning. Mark did not seem to change his mood, and Calvin realized it was not indifference, but it was because Mark had maintained his same state of energy throughout the entire game. He cheered for meaningless two-out singles and he cheered for can-of-corn fly ball outs. He cheered as if each play were the last he would ever see, and all of a sudden Calvin realized why he thought about the space game.

As a child he had seen the world through the haze of youth. It is remarkably easy to lie to a child, and it’s not because they’re gullible, but because they simply don’t know any better. They are creating their own life from the scraps the universe leaves behind, and blindly trusting it because there really is no other way to think, not that early anyway. There is a wobble in reality that is realigned once you reach a certain age. The more you know, the more you realize the world is made up of stone instead of gelatin. It is cold, hard, smooth. Calvin always figured he reacted that strongly because of the shock of the thunderclap, but in fact it was the sudden and unexpected expansion of his universe that elicited it. Calvin experienced, at an earlier age than most, how much territory the unknown really had in our lives, and what it was like to jump headlong from concrete reality into the ether of insecurity and chance. He had jumped into the lake in winter and emerged with a disdain of the water, and avoided the lake come summertime.

He glanced at his son again. Nothing had changed. James Loney had just drawn a 5 pitch walk. Calvin remembered just last week, when this team committed the cardinal sin of loading the bases but scoring no runs, and felt a stab of kneejerk pessimism. It had happened before. It will happen again. He felt as though nothing would come of this opportunity, but he believed otherwise. As Yunel Escobar drew an 0-2 count, on the verge of striking out, Calvin suddenly realized that his son had been wearing his rally cap since the first inning.

Calvin walked out into the street, holding Mark's hand. Jake McGee had entered and promptly struck out the side, earning everyone in the stadium free pizza. He had even thrown the mythical curveball to Adam Jones. It is no easy task to win a game against the best team in the AL East, Calvin told his son. Don’t forget about this game, it was a good one. Mark promised he wouldn’t. The two had lingered inside the stadium until they were among the last to leave, and Calvin was reminded of that playoff game only a year ago, when it seemed like any sort of comeback win was possible. The parking lot was nearly empty. The night sky was dark, mostly void, partially stars. He could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance.

Mark, as if he had already forgotten the excitement of the late-inning win, was skipping and trying to tug away from his father to run up the sidewalk and look at the other colored tiles on the pathway. Calvin let him, and Mark ran up the tiled road, looking only at the ground. Few still remained on the sidewalk, so Calvin let Mark indulge himself. He ran and ran, watching the colored shapes blur past him until they were one shape, one color. Cal looked up into the night sky, and smiled.