Dear brethren in Atlanta and Boston,
We’ve been where you are. We know how you feel.
Braves fans, on Aug. 25 your team led the Giants by 9 1/2 and were given 99.2% odds of making the playoffs. Sox fans, on Sept. 3 you were up by nine games on the Rays, with playoff odds of 99.6%. You both now know that doesn’t mean bulletproof. (Numbers — and a good read — from here.) You’ll never forget these things, just like any of us Mets fans will always wince at the formulation “seven up with 17 to go.”
Hopefully by now the hangover is fading and you did not, in fact, take out last night’s disaster on your kids, pets, spouse, friends or co-workers. Hopefully you punched neither walls nor windows, are uninjured and still have a clean arrest record. Assuming this is so, let us tell you what’s going to happen next.
October baseball is going to seem like it was expressly designed for your torment. Try to resist this feeling — before you know it, it will be winter and there will be no baseball and you’ll be faintly irritated that you didn’t see any of the games played by the [INSERT TEAM HERE] on their way to a World Series title. But be advised that rooting fervently against the Cardinals or Rays won’t make you feel better. If your tormentors are ousted, you will just get madder at your own team for having failed to do what some other band of 25 schmoes managed to accomplish.
With the season truly over, you’ll sulk for a bit, but gradually things will get better.
Until spring training.
In February everyone will dredge the collapse up all over again. It will be a pain in the ass and a distraction to your team, and then eventually it will stop and you will play the 2012 season. At which point you will be at a crossroads.
If you make the postseason in 2012 or at least play generally sound and admirable ball, the collapse of 2011 will become a blip. You will never forget it — it will be lurking in the dark, waiting to ambush you at 3 a.m. or while you’re doing something else, and all of a sudden you’ll realize you’ve been seething about Carl Crawford not making the catch or Craig Kimbrel walking guys or the Astros doing nothing or the Yankees not fielding a big-league lineup in St. Petersburg. But the team will move on, and the memory will pop up like some obscene jack-in-the-box less and less often, pushed back in the collective consciousness by other seasons.
It’s if you collapse again in 2012 — or play poorly enough down the stretch for someone to utter the word — that you’ll have real problems.
This is where dots turn into lines and people start constructing narratives. The columnists and talk-radio baboons will do it. So will the dumber, more reactionary fans that we’re all stuck with. This narrative can then metastasize, until it becomes a self-reinforcing part of every move, every bad stretch and every damn thing. It can become a lazy rationale for why completely unrelated things happen, and eventually this stupid fantasy can become a psychological issue for players, agents, front-office folks and everybody else. Then, well, you really do have a mess. You’ll turn over the roster completely and have baffled newcomers from AAA forced to run a gantlet of microphones wielded by reporters and pundits who will ask them questions about culture and attitude and little black clouds that follow a franchise around.
Trust us on that one. We know.
Should that come to pass, all you can do is resist. We are all of us storytelling monkeys, who construct tales from facts that may or may not fit together because that is how we make sense of a world that is sometimes senseless. This is utterly irrational, but it’s not particularly a surprise that we do it. For being a sports fan is itself irrational — it’s crazy to give 25 callow millionaires power over your emotional well-being, yet that’s what we all do for six months of the year.
But while granting the irrational its place — for sports would be no fun without it — you can’t let it run roughshod over everything. You know better. So resist the narrative. The 2011 Red Sox weren’t chokers. Neither were the 2011 Braves. Choking is a story we tell when confronted with a run of injuries, failures and bad luck — an ill-timed statistical valley that happens to coincide with someone else’s perfectly timed statistical peak. Those teams that were sound, successful and lucky? They had intestinal fortitude, or knew how to win, or were gritty, or wanted it more. Sure they did. At least that’s what everybody will say.
Collapses happen. They befell other teams long ago, but have receded sufficiently for the choker label to be shed. Well, mostly — yell “1964″ at a Phillies fan of a certain age and he’ll belt you. (And, OK, no Bosox celebration ever lingers on 1978 for long.) The Rays’ turn is coming, at a date and time yet to be written. Same for the Cardinals. And the Orioles, and the Phillies, and us again, and everybody else. It was your turn was all. Heck, at least you had company.
When it happens to the next team and fan base, be glad it wasn’t you. But remember everyone winds up on the wrong side of the decimal point sometimes. And so spare whatever sympathy you can muster.
Unless it happens to the Yankees. Because they’ll deserve it.