Sometime after midnight, as the delirious twelfth of October gave way to the dismal thirteenth, with the bases loaded, with two out, with two strikes, a pitch left Drew Storen’s hand. Unfeeling robotic eyes would record it for posterity as a sinker, traveling at 94 miles an hour. Elsewhere in Nationals Park, perhaps forty-five thousand pairs of eyes watched it intently. The air throbbed with their shouting, as if they believed they could clear a path for it safely through the strike zone and into the waiting mitt of Kurt Suzuki.
The Cardinals Daniel Descalso swung his bat. Somewhere in front of the plate, the bat struck the ball, which now rebounded to shortstop Ian Desmond. It skipped on the infield dirt and struck his glove.
Forty-five thousand pairs of eyes already saw the end: Desmond would knock this baseball down, flip it to a waiting Danny Espinosa, and send those forty-five thousand watchers into ecstasy.
But in that instant, the visions diverged. Instead, on the field, the baseball uselessly off Desmond’s glove–too sharply to be fielded properly–and into the outfield. Two runs scored. The Nationals’ advantage vanished.
If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good that your eyes, like those of many of the forty-five thousand watchers at this game, began to fill with tears at that instant. I can offer you no consolation. I wish I had some to offer myself.
I can only offer this thought: Every ball that leaves a pitcher’s hand–as that pitch left Storen’s–is little more than a roll of the dice. Innumerable, unimaginable things have to happen to that baseball. It has to leave the pitcher’s hand cleanly. It must travel the distance to the plate, through an ocean of air (and sometimes other things) . Once it reaches its destination, it has to hit something. If that something is a player’s bat, it strikes that bat in a particular way, spinning in yet another direction. To come to rest in a fielder’s mitt, it may bounce one or more times.
Every step along the way introduces a little bit of randomness; a little roll of the dice.
We don’t live our lives as hostages to Fortune, though. The pitcher has a good idea, roughly, of where his pitch will end up; a fielder, observing the ball, will have as good an idea of where to field it, and so forth. These ideas are not innate; they are learned by practice and observation–by seeing the patterns in a thousand thousand repetitions of the phenomenon.
But every so often, just enough randomness comes along. Maybe the ball doesn’t leave your hand clearly. Maybe the ball strikes a pebble. Maybe it’s cold, or maybe it’s too hot, or maybe it rained too much or not at all. Something you didn’t expect will change the path of that ball. You should have gotten it; you didn’t.
These variations are measurable and unique. Each little quirk is like one voice, telling a story. Over time–over a pitch sequence, an inning, a ball game, a series, a season, a career– the changes seem smaller and smaller, until each individual voice fades into the loud background hum of forty-five thousand people finding their seats, buying a hot dog, filling out a score card, and milling about before a ballgame.
That pitch, this game, this series: all of them together tell a certain story about the 2012 Nationals, and it isn’t a pretty one to hear. But looking back on a 2012 season that saw the Nationals amass 98 wins–best in all baseball–and play brilliant baseball almost every night? All of those moments together, telling their stories sound like a crowd in thunderous, rapturous applause.
So before you get down on the Nats for losing this series, step back. If you get far enough away, you will hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the howling of an umpire calling a third strike. You will hear the fireworks going bang zoom, and Charlie Slowes telling you about it; of F.P. Santangelo informing you of the death of a no-hitter; of the stranger in the next row cheering.
In all of that wall of sound, there will be a small, sad voice, describing the flight of that wayward pitch from Drew Storen’s hand.
Which would you rather hear?