So last night the Dodgers dropped the final game of the NL division series to the Cardinals, who have now blocked the Dodgers two years in a row from attaining their World Series goal. And what I’m reading in today’s paper is about who to blame for the loss. Here is a team that set out to spend whatever it took and do whatever was necessary to get to the championship, and yet they came up short once again. It’s hard not to want to blame somebody in the organization in that situation. If you were willing to do anything to win, and yet you failed to win, there must have been something you did wrong, right?
Certainly there is no shortage of candidates for blame. The ace pitcher who seems to lose control against this particular team at particular moments. The unreliable bullpen. The manager who made some questionable decisions. The general manager who lost some opportunities for better trades. The hitters who never quite seemed to jell as a team. The new owners who somehow failed to put all the pieces together in the right way.
Yet finding the right person to pin the blame for failure can’t be the whole story. Particularly in baseball, an inherently cruel and tragic sport in which failure is pre-ordained. Under the inexorable rules of baseball, one team must always lose. That is true in other sports, but even more true in baseball where ties are not permitted, and the game can continue indefinitely until somebody finally loses. That means that no matter how well both teams play, no matter whether they have done everything humanly possible to insure victory, one team is going to lose anyway.
Baseball is designed to test the limits of human endurance in other ways. A pitched ball travels too fast for the batter to actually see where it is going in time to adjust their swing. Batters basically have to guess where the ball is going in order to hit it, which is why every hit in a baseball game seems miraculous. The game is so long that pitchers hardly ever finish a complete game. Most of the time, they must be removed when they reach their physical limits. So even the best batters repeatedly strike out, and the best pitchers have to be taken out. Everyone reaches the point of failure, as if by design. Furthermore, in baseball, even the best teams only win about 60% of their games over the course of a season, and the worst teams still win about 40% of the time. You do not see the long undefeated streaks that you sometimes see in football or basketball. No matter how well you play baseball, you still have to accept a lot of losing.
If the game is set up for failure, then blaming yourself for failure can only tell part of the story. Sure, there are always mistakes that you can point to to explain a defeat, and sure the team that makes the fewest mistakes will usually win. But taking the game last night as an example, there were also numerous breaks that could have easily worked out differently. Say Justin Turner who came in as a pinch hitter in the 9th inning, had hit a home run instead of striking out. One slight adjustment of the wrist in a single second could have changed the result. And then everyone on the team would be a hero and we wouldn’t be looking for anyone to blame. Instead we’d be talking about how Clayton Kershaw pitched a hell of a game on short rest, and we’d say that allowing one tiny little three run homer in the 7th inning only showed that Kershaw held the Cardinals to a small enough lead that the Dodger hitters were easily able to overcome it.
I heard Orioles manager Buck Showalter interviewed on the radio this morning saying some wise things about baseball. He said that managers sometimes make unquestionably correct decisions that turn out to be disastrous. And sometimes they make very bad decisions that somehow work out. Yet fans are so results-oriented that they judge the quality of the decision by the outcome of the game, even though the game’s score does not perfectly reflect the quality of the decisions or the quality of the play. I’m not saying the result is all luck. But I am saying that shit happens in baseball, and in life as well, and you can’t blame yourself for all of it.