The Minnesota Twins lost on Wednesday to the Houston Astros, ending their post-season almost before it even began.
The loss had me feeling deflated, disappointed, disheartened. Far more so than in previous years (we have gotten pretty used to the Twins losing in the playings around here), partly because it really seemed that they were set up for a run deep in October, but also mostly because 2020 is different.
Lots of us are staring down a long, hard, lonely, desolate winter. But the Twins were going to be a bright spot. Something fun to distract us, something fun to talk about, just something to make us feel good about anything. But it was stripped of us and yesterday afternoon when I turned off the game after the final out was recorded I felt an almost unbearable sense of melancholy. From hope to absolute nothingness in just 24 hours. And I thought of my poor old mother, a diehard Twins fan, who has so little right now already. The loss felt real. I don’t mean the Twins loss, but the loss of hope, even if that hope took the form of 24 guys who probably couldn’t find Minnesota on a map five years ago.
That’s the power of sports, of course. The power to make us believe that we are a part of something greater than ourselves, and while nothing is working out for us, maybe this will work out, will bring us some little sparks of joy, even if we well know that that joy is fleeting. Even if the Twins would had won everything, we still would have turned the tv off after the final out, and faced down a long winter. But it would have been a fun month, and there were would have been some great memories to savor.
Alas, not this year. Maybe next.
Yesterday after the loss I did that one thing that all of us do when we ache in ways we can’t control, I went outside. I am not sure why we all do this. Or why we think it will make us feel better. But we all do it. I went out onto the porch and sighed and stared off into the distance, the brown and yellow leaves and the low sun and the early rush hour traffic.
I thought about other Twins’ playoff exits, of course, because that’s what I always do this time of year. Baseball is funny in that way: it’s always fall when the season ends. Even this year, this year that was so different in so many ways. And I thought about how my relationship with those memories has changed over the years. In 2003 — and I know I have written about this far too many times and I apologize — the Twins lost to the Yankees on a Sunday afternoon to end their season. It was a real drubbing, the game wasn’t in doubt after the fourth or fifth inning. Earlier that fall — maybe even just a month earlier — my wife and I had closed on our first home. We turned the game off midway through and took a walk through our new neighborhood to the lake four blocks away. It was warm, but fall was coming. It was melancholy and sad and sweet and new. My memories of that walk are of course now tainted by time, loss, distance. I like to think I know what I was feeling that afternoon. But I was also very young, and maybe even a little tipsy. I really don’t know. But over the years it has solidified into my memory, a fixed point in time, in a time, of a time: when I was a newlywed and the world was opening up and my marriage was, for a brief moment or two, a happy one.
Later the hard years would come. And after that the really hard years. That walk took place in 2003, a month after we had sat and drank beers while sitting on the washer and dryer in our new house in the basement, after a dinner of fast food on the dining room floor because we didn’t have any furniture. It was my wife’s first house ever. She had grown up in apartments above pharmacies in small towns. The happiness was real. I might have idealized it before my divorce, just as I do now, after it, but I don’t think that matters. I remember being happy, and so I was happy.
We signed our divorce papers 15 years later on a gray June day in a government building. We both said goodbye to our home separately on a gray April day two years later. And as I was biking away for the last time, the memories were so thick I had to brush them away from my face. And I remembered the last time I had biked away, when I was leaving, when it was over, when she was begging me to stay even though she knew I was already gone, and I looked back and I saw our old dog in the front window, staring at me as I rode off down the road. And that was that.
I think about the years she spent in that house alone after I left but before we sold it. With our dog and our things. Alone. The thought sometimes overwhelms me with sadness. A sadness that used to steal entire days, but now always makes off with just an hour or two before it drifts away. Then our old dog died and she was in the home alone surrounded by all that was lost, and cannot be brought back.
The memories change. They drift in the wind and come back to us different. But they are still memories, so they are still real, cutting through our lives. The memories we have chosen to hold onto are the ones that changed us forever. They are the ones that we carry along, they are the salt into the wounds that just won’t heal. I will never forget that walk on that day the Twins lost now 17 years ago, and therefore I will never forget the pain that followed.
This is what I thought about on Wednesday. Standing on the porch. The apartment silent after the noise of the game.
And I am not alone. I know this. I might feel things deeper than some, but I know I was not the only one last week who thought of dead dogs, dead brothers, old moms, as the last strike was called in the bottom the ninth. We mourn collectively not merely a team and a dream of a championship, but also times gone by, and we wonder where we will be when we are here again. That’s the power of sports. And the power of baseball in particular. Thanks to the harshness of its loss: leaving you empty, naked, facing a long winter.
Cricket is the same, of course. In England the last gasps of summer see also the last gasps of cricket until the cold rains come. I think back to just a few weeks ago as Somerset fell just short. This is an old club, nearly 150 years old. And they have their fan base just as any other team does. And Somerset cricket is surely hardcoded into some DNAs, a generational support. They also have never won a County Championship. The years keep slipping by. Fans grow old. Fans die. And then they were so close, and then it was gone, and then came winter.
Not every Somerset fan of course walked outside and tripped and fell down a chasm of memory and time, but many did, surely. When our teams lose and the leaves turn brown, it’s an almost perfect recipe for memory, melancholy, and the oppressive but very real thought that it is all just passing us by, that all that existed before is gone, and all that exists ahead is more loss.
For Cricinfo, Paul Edwards wrote a few days ago that “(m)any people who love cricket hope to see something in the season’s final match that they can take with them into winter.” He writes of perfect cover drives, flashes of brilliance, a final afternoon in the sun. Most autumns, I would agree with him: sometimes there is just enough cricket, enough baseball, to sustain us through the winter. Sometimes there isn’t.
We all — every single one of us — are processing loss, all the time. It is the very nature of being human. But then on days like this past Wednesday, we are reminded once more that we are doing so. Processing, but also losing. Losing time, losing memory, losing what’s left. Years collapse into sand. Strike three is called. Winter arrives. With nothing to sustain us. A memory is sparked, of an afternoon when you were young and the sun was out and the shadows long, and the trees green and brown and tired, and you wonder where that’s all gone, before you remember that it never left. It’s always been there. It’s a part of you. It’s your structure. It’s what you build your days around. Days that form a house that now stands empty.
In spring hope will return. And together, god willing, we will do it all again, as the memories of loss and sadness and autumn afternoons disappear for a time, maybe, but only to deepen their imprints, reinforce their infrastructure, before reminding us once again — thanks to a called strike in an empty stadium on a September day — that they are with us forever. That they are us. That we are them. We have built a house for them inside, and we cannot leave. And all that we can hope is that a late innings rally keeps those wolves at the door a day or two longer. But no matter what sooner or later they will smash in the door, rip into our frail skin, and remind us again the strength of their jaws.
This is the power of sport. To pick us up and place us down somewhere else. There are days when I think of it as a gift. And there are days when I do not. But it brings memories like cannon fire, because those losses are always in the fall, when all we know is loss and decay, when we cannot see the green that will come, cannot even imagine it. We grieve collectively, always, all the time. And then we move on. We look out the window, and wait for spring.