Fowles: “Hope” is the Thing with (Blue Jay) Feathers

Michael Saunders
Photo credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anything the last few weeks of baseball have taught us, it’s that you just never know with this glorious, terrible, beautiful, infuriating game. Sure, you can guess. You can rely on the math, surround yourself with stats, and use the past to make predictions about the future. You can deal in odds and chances. You can say who is looking good and who is looking bad, who is hot and who is not.  But in the end, the game is always so unpredictable and infuriatingly inexplicable. It rarely does what you expect it to do, and it definitely refuses to do what you tell it to.

Mostly, it just asks you to hope.

Baseball offers you just enough examples where hoping pays off to push you to keep the faith, even when, like right now, it’s really, really hard. As much as we are all yearning for the relaxing pleasure of victorious blow outs and long division leads, it’s hard not to admit that the game is actually at its very best and most exhilarating when the unlikeliest things happen. Devon Travis’s walk off single in the ninth inning of a May 2016 game against the Red Sox. A rally and a win on a wild pitch in the bottom of the twelfth in a July game against the Padres. A September ninth inning catch from Kevin Pillar to end a close, tense game. A need to believe in the power of baseball hope is the reason we keep returning to Joe Carter’s 1993 home run, and keep re-watching that now legendary seventh inning from last season. (I actually can’t think of a moment in my life where I’ve had a higher concentration of conviction than I did in those fifty-three minutes.)

Sometimes I think that maybe it is the game of baseball that taught how to hope. It’s given me enough instances of the unbelievable coming to fruition to always keep a tiny flame alive for a positive outcome. I’m admittedly not very good at wishful thinking and blind optimism in the rest of my life (in fact, I can be pretty dire at times), but for some reason, when the Jays lose seven out of their last ten games during this time of some of the most meaningful baseball we’ve ever seen, I really do truly, deeply need to expect they’ll bounce back in time. Even when it’s two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I’ll stand there, hands clasped, eagerly waiting for a comeback. Sometimes I’m even kind of disgusted with myself for this trusting impulse; the way I keep buying tickets and keep tuning in even though I feel like I’m sad, frustrated, and demoralized most of the time. Maybe it’s loyalty and maybe it’s stupidity, but over the years I’ve grown to accept that it’s just part of this relationship I have with the game. I just keep hoping and hoping and hoping until the hard numbers inform me it really is time to quit.

When I was watching yesterday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays I’ll admit there was a moment I started to hate baseball. I wondered why I devote so much of my work and leisure time to something that has such a capacity to disappoint, why so much of my happiness is reliant on an outcome I have absolutely no control over. I hated baseball in the same way we can get temporarily angry at the people we unconditionally love. The game infuriates us, and even inflicts moments of unintentional emotional cruelty, but we all know we’ll just forgive it, come back again tomorrow, and be grateful for the opportunity. 

I see a lot of people declaring that this is the end of the season, and I understand that it’s a very human impulse to say things are done before they’re actually done. It’s a natural form of self preservation, a way to brace yourself before a potentially nasty fall, to prepare yourself for heartbreak before you even get the “it’s over” call, to assume you didn’t get something you really wanted before that rejection letter comes in the mail. It feels better to be pleasantly surprised by good news than to be devastated by bad. But the question I keep coming back to is why do that with baseball? Why choose pessimism in the place you probably go to avoid it in the rest of your life? Why give up now when we really are so very close?

The evenings are a little colder in Toronto now. I’ve pulled out some sweaters from the back of the drawer, along with those longer sleeved Jays tees to wear to the last remaining days at our ballpark. (Barring October, there’s only seven. Seven regular season home games.) Even though baseball is wounding me so consistently lately, there is one thing I know for sure—its absence will hurt me more. I know that a mere week into November I’ll be yearning for those nine innings all over again. I’ll be counting down the days until I can be at some tiny Florida ballpark during some meaningless spring game where the sun is shining, the beer is cold, and the score doesn’t matter. And just like this game can change on a dime, so will my feelings for it. I’ll forget this particular September pain come April, just like I’ve forgotten the agony of every season before when we were at the bottom of the division, begging for at least a few meaningful games.  

After yesterday’s demoralizing loss, an injured Josh Donaldson briefly touched on the necessity of hope. “We still control our own destiny,” he said. “We believe in each other.” If John Gibbons is indeed right, and we are at rock bottom, we have to admit that the only way up is to have a little optimistic faith that the Blue Jays of only a month ago will return to us, and that just as things so shockingly fell apart, they can come right back together again. We can develop all sorts of theories as to why this collapse happened, dole out blame and share our completely valid disappointment. And then we can wake up another day and give baseball another chance to surprise us.