A fan's heights: First game of the American League Division Series between the Oakland Athletics my team and the Boston Red Sox. Ace vs ace: their Pedro Martinez vs. our Tim Hudson, the starters with the A.L.'s best earned run averages. We go up 3-2 on Pedro, despite Hudson's sudden and obvious arm strain. Hudson toughs it through another inning, then leaves in the 7th with a man on first. Ricardo Rincon takes over, promptly surrenders a two-run homer, and we're behind 4-3. We rally to tie in the bottom of the 9th. In the top of the 12th, Eric Chavez stops a screeching drive on the left side and scrambles to tag out a Sox runner sliding into third, preserving the tie. In the bottom of the inning, the A's load the bases for catcher Ramon Hernandez, who stuns the baseball world by tapping a bunt toward third. He reaches first safely, Chavez scores, A's win. THEEEEEE A's win!!! In a TIME office in New York, at 2:45 Thursday morning, a solitary fan exults, communing with the A's diaspora, savoring the purest euphoria.
A fan's depths: Last game of the A.L.D.S. The series is tied, two games apiece, and the Sox are ahead in the fifth and deciding game. Again it's 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Two Oakland players on base, nobody out. A bunt gets the runners to second and third, and the Sox walk another A's-man to load the bases with just one out. Now could someone please squib a grounder through the infield? Hit a fly ball? Work out a walk? Bunt, maybe? But it was not to be. (Two inside pitches called strike three, game over, A's lose.)
Moreover, most A's fans knew it was not to be. Anyway, I did. Six times in the past three post-seasons, the A's had faced a clinching game and failed to put away the opposition. The three losses to Boston put it at nine a record, another futile record to add to the many over the past century. Indeed, after the A's had won Game 2, and needed to win one more to advance to the League Championship Series, my mood was morose and foreboding. They have us just where they want us, I thought. Those final three games were one long slow-motion shot of the executioner raising his axe and bringing it down, mercilessly, inexorably, on our hopes.
Every true sports fan is a manic depressive. When our team wins, we're in heaven; when they lose, we reaches for a kitchen knife and stares meditatively at our radial artery. And there is usually more agony than ecstasy. Susan Sontag defined science fiction as "the imagination of disaster"; she might have been describing the mind of a sports fan. We try to live by the old Ukrainian proverb "Expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed" but for that ray of hope with which we lash ourselves each spring, then see .glimmer turn to tumor as the season plods downward for six months.
Even if our team plays above .500, it will likely not make the post-season. If it reaches the playoffs, it has a seven-in-eight chance of not winning the World Series. Given that 29 of the 30 major-league teams will lose their last important game, the season-ending misery average for baseball fans is a robust .967. And that angst is acute. Ask Yankees fans which Series they recall more poignantly any of the four championships from 1996 to 2000, or the seventh-game, bottom-of-the-ninth loss to Arizona in 2001 and odds are they will groan and acknowledge it's the dinks off Mariano Rivera that replay on the SportsCenter of a fan's private hell.
Having lived in New York for 38 years, I am also a Yankees fan; they're my Team B, the one I can follow most closely, the one I know most about, the one I root for, except when they play the A's. And like many other Yankees fans, I twinge at the memory of the 1995 American League championship series between the Yanks and the Seattle Mariners. I had watched every game, read everything I could find in the New York papers, listened avidly to the sports talk station. Then the Yankees lost the series' fifth and deciding game in extra innings; and like a conservative Jew on Yom Kippur I turned off the TV, kept away from the radio, boycotted newspapers, refused to talk about the playoffs or the World Series that followed. I was not in denial (I knew they'd lost); I was in refusal. The mourning would come later. Mourning becomes a sports fan. And I don't mean Alonzo.
In the can-never-be-too-often-quoted words of manager Sparky Anderson, "Losing hurts worse than winning feels good." Of course, this has application beyond baseball. But baseball will do. As much as I relish the three consecutive championships the A's conjured up in the 70s how gloriously funny was that moment in 1973 when the A's signaled to intentionally walk Johnny Bench on a 3-2 count, then got him out on a called strike three, ending a Cincinnati Reds scoring threat the joy of those memories can't compare in intensity to ... I'm forcing myself to type this ... Dennis Eckersley's surrendering of a game-tying-and-winning homer to the crippled Kirk Gibson in Game One of the 1988 Series (we subsequently folded), or to the third game of the 2001 playoffs, when Derek Jeter did ... that thing ... and Jeremy Giambi ... well, it hurt. Still does. Even if, that time, my Team B beat my Team A.
I've never lived in or near Oakland, which is 2,500 miles from me. I have seen them play exactly once on the Oakland Coliseum's pretty green checkerboard lawn in 1990, when I did a TIME story on the A's, who were then approaching their third consecutive World Series. (For me, visiting there was like a devout Catholic getting an assignment to cover Lourdes.)