A Baseball Team Crosses the Desert on Foot

No one thought that the Arizona Diamondbacks were going to contend for their division this year. It’s been nearly a decade since any team other than the Dodgers took that title; the buzz factor, the splashy acquisitions, newly belonged to the Padres; and it didn’t take too long before the Giants proved themselves formidable contenders, too. The Rockies were, as expected, back in the rearview mirror, another star bitterly departed, their GM resigned, reports of organizational dysfunction hovering around them. What, then, of the Diamondbacks? To linger — to play spoiler, maybe. To continue onward, even if only because they have to. “#RattleOn” — that’s their hashtag. One imagines the heat, a bone-deep drought, a sound — low to the ground and strange — carrying out into the unfurling darkness until you can hear it no longer. The sound is a warning, or an object of childish entertainment, or a sigh whose meaning remains frustratingly unclear. It persists even after it’s gone.

Last week, the Diamondbacks lost seven games in a row. Six of those games were on the road. The Diamondbacks have, in fact, lost 19 consecutive road games. The record for most consecutive road losses is 22 — a mark achieved once by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1943, and later by none other than the New York Mets in 1963. No team has ever lost exactly 21 road games in a row — an entirely different Philadelphia Athletics team lost 20 straight in 1916. And there, the next name down the list: the 2021 Arizona Diamondbacks, winners of just under a third of the games they’ve played.

The Diamondbacks lost in Oakland. Ketel Marte crashed into the Coliseum, making an incredible catch — and then the ball disappeared from his glove when his back was turned. The final score was 4-0, anyway. They were unable to scratch a run across against Sean Manaea, just as they’d only managed two in seven innings off Chris Bassitt the day before. Before that, they lost in Milwaukee — a tie carried into the eighth lost and never recovered; mostly, deficits whose heights couldn’t be scaled, no matter how slight. They were swept in LA by the Dodgers; in Denver, by the lowly Rockies; in Queens by the Mets and in Miami by the Marlins. Their last road win was on April 25. They swept the doubleheader in Atlanta, 5-0 and 7-0. They were, at that point, exactly .500.

The 1943 Athletics played in an era of much longer road trips. The majority of their consecutive road losses came in one terrifying skid: the first 18 games of 26 on the road. For fans, and for players, each passing game on the road must have brought a new sense of dread — there was no telling, once they were free falling, exactly how far the team was from finally, blessedly hitting the bottom. They were buffeted in Cleveland, in St. Louis, in Detroit, in Chicago. Their final stretch of losses involved four consecutive days with double-headers. On the third day — what would be the final full day of their historic losing streak — they were walked off after taking the lead in the top of the ninth in the first game. In the second, they lost 7-0. The losing streak lasted through the first game of the next doubleheader until finally — finally — they managed to combine competent pitching and hitting in a single game, beating the White Sox 8-1. (They lost four in a row after that, just to stay true to form.)

The Cushing Daily Citizen, Cushing, Oklahoma, August 24, 1943

The 1963 Mets, losers of 22 straight road games, finished the season with a record of 51-111. Their road losing streak began as a 3-5 road trip — the five losses being the five final games in a row. Upon returning to New York, they washed some of the bad taste away with a 4-2 home stand. The final game of that home stand was a thriller, a 14-inning comeback turned standoff with the Cubs, the rubber match of the series. When the Cubs, held scoreless for the eight preceding innings, finally scored two in the top of the 14th, the Mets answered with four runs to win it, walking it off on a two-out grand slam from Tim Harkness. There were just over 8,000 ticketed fans at the Polo Grounds that hot Wednesday afternoon, and it was surely one of the best days they possibly could have chosen to watch the Mets that year. Even though the win only brought the Mets’ win-loss record to 29-45, it had to have been one of those times when watching a losing team feels all the more rewarding.

The Mets embarked on a seven-game road trip the next day. They lost all seven games. At least, one might have thought, they could return home to the Polo Grounds, to the friendlier faces, and fare better, as they had after their last road disaster. Instead, they lost the first eight games of the home stand. And when they once again ventured out of New York, they endured 10 straight losses before they could find another win.

Daily News, New York, New York, July 29, 1963

That’s the problem when you are struggling so profoundly. Even when the conditions around you change, it is impossible to erase the effects that prolonged struggle has on your mind and your body. Stress endured while at the workplace, fear while out in a hostile environment — no experience can simply be left at the door when you return to a place of ostensible safety and comfort, no matter how practiced you are at leaving the past behind and embracing the present moment. A burden, once carried, is still felt in the body long after the weight has lifted. You can try your best to leave the past in the past, but it lives on inside you.

Professional athletes, of course, are some of the world’s greatest practitioners of the skill of forgetting: Under the dual magnification of competition and public investment, to keep the flame of each failure burning after it happens would be to doom oneself to paralysis. There is only forward motion, only vision for the successes of the future. The Diamondbacks, back at Chase Field this weekend, tried to make the change. They fired their hitting coach and assistant hitting coach; they returned, once more, to the place where they have recorded most of their wins this season, their temperature-controlled oasis in the summer heat. They came back to tie the first of the three games against the Angels, 5-5, after an early deficit. They lost on a run scored in the top of the 10th. In the second game, it was them who blew the early lead, giving up four runs in the eighth and ninth innings to lose 8-7. Yesterday, they were simply blown out. They have four starting pitchers on the Injured List, none of whom seem particularly close to a return. Even their companions in games lost on the road have now left them: The Rangers, in barraging the Dodgers on Saturday, ended their own losing streak at 16.

And now they return to the road once again, off to San Francisco to challenge the team that leads their division, a team with fully double their win total — a team that has lost only nine games at home so far this season. All losing streaks have ended at some point, even the historically long ones; that, at least, is a comfort. The road ahead, across the desert, does not look any easier.

There is nowhere else to go, though, nothing else in sight. The Diamondbacks rattle on.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Just spectacular writing. Thank you, RJ.