Last night I watched the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers take turns beating the b’jeezus out of each other in the exercise in mutual mayhem called football. Over the course of three hours-plus, there was blood, sweat and tears of epic proportions, including a broken nose sustained by the Pittsburgh quarterback; right there on HD you could easily see that it had been displaced toward the side his face as blood flowed down to his chin.
It was nasty in the extreme, and certainly lived up to its pre-game hype: these guys did not like each other and played accordingly. In the end of the low-scoring game, the winning team prevailed by a mere three points. It was hard-fought, from beginning to end.
And when the final whistle was blown, you know what these bitter adversaries did? They congratulated each other in mid-field on a game gamely played. With hand-shakes and hugs. With smiles and easy conversations. Like old friends who understood that the whole endeavor was, in fact, a game.
You see the same thing in hockey games, hardly known for its gentle ways. Same thing with basketball and other sports. Professionals do it, little kids do it.
But not — no, never — major league baseball players. You know: the guys who earn — well, are paid — in the neighborhood of 10 mega bucks a year to make four or five catches in the outfield per game, while failing in the batter’s box 70 percent of the time. Those guys. In a game — that, make no mistake, I dearly love — where actual contact is incidental, and for the most part, discouraged. In a game where, typically, only half the suited up team participates in a given contest, yet gets paid anyhow.
And then sulk in the dugout should their opponents prevail.
You’ve seen it and so have I, too many times.
Final game of the World Series, in baseball, the absolute pinnacle of the season. The last out is made and the winners converge on the pitcher’s mound and attempt to smother the hapless guy at the bottom of the pile. And do the vanquished even mildly mosey out to congratulate the mass of humanity and gloves and caps? Nope. They’re in the dugout, smashing water coolers, torching bats or just sitting on the bench in tears and staring out at nothing. Demonstrating to the television audience, in the manner of nine-year-olds, that they really wanted to win. That it hurts to lose.
It gets worse in the post-game. In the winner’s locker room, madness takes over, with champagne and plastic drapes and general whooping. But for the losers, a funereal-looking representative — usually not the manager, who is falling on his sword in his office — quietly acknowledges that the opponents played a fine series and also quietly congratulates their fine play.
My stars. Wouldn’t you just once love to see the also-rans come piling into the jubilant locker room and join in with the fun? Wouldn’t you love to see them do a little champagne showering as well? To see them celebrate just being in baseball’s greatest show, putting their skills on display against an accomplished opponent, as well as picking up an impressive check of their own? To enjoy being a part of The Game?
Don’t hold your breath. I’m guessing that being able to express disappointment for an audience of millions is just too delicious to miss. Or maybe it’s one of those fabled traditions that refuses to die a classy death. But it’s sad, and not a little stunning. It’s as though consensual celebration is not permitted. It’s as though a little wallowing in self-pity is encouraged. (Poor old Billy Buckner was not only chastised for his well-lamented error in the 1986 World Series, he was never allowed to forget it, to the point he was expected to do his own Hail Marys ad infinitum.) In baseball, losers are obliged to suffer. Baseball, it turns out, has become the game of the hanging head, now because it’s expected.
So is that why we call it the national pastime?