No one likes to lose, baseball players perhaps least of all. We’ve all heard ballplayers talk about the necessity of putting losses behind them, but I bet some disappointments stick in the backs of their minds. I sometimes wake up at 3am feeling badly about things I did in middle school; I imagine giving up seven runs in two innings could have a similar effect to when I was nasty to Charissa in French 2 because Laura was mean to me, and I wasn’t sure how feelings worked quite yet. Ghosts haunt their haunts at the oddest times.
But losing is also part of baseball, like spit and dust and strikeouts. Twelve teams have losing records this year. Baseball’s losingest team by win percentage, the Orioles, have as many wins (36) as the Red Sox (the winningest team) have losses. That’s a lot of losing! That’s losing days in a row. That’s losing weeks at a time. That’s the sort of losing you have to get used to if you’re going to carry on living. Which got me thinking about the best ways to lose. Losing stinks, sure, and baseball players hate doing it, but how can you lose and grin and bear it and avoid revisiting it at 3am on a Tuesday night? There are a great many ways to lose, but I believe I have arrived at the best five.
Beaten by God
Giancarlo Stanton hits a 453-foot walk-off homer.
The Mariners’ mistake was asking Ryan Cook to face God. There are whole books in the Bible dedicated to the various ways in which the Ryan Cooks of the world don’t prevail when forced to square off against the divine. And sure, Ryan Cook was angry when Giancarlo Stanton thwacked a dinger to end the game.
Here Cook is, being angry. Aw buddy! You messed up good.
Cook is angry because he is a human person with dignity and a mom who wants to be proud of him, but his teammates remembered scripture.
At one point, the camera pans to show Stanton’s home run from the third-base side, and Jean Segura, seeing the ball travel, turns and leaves the field as if to say, “Yup, time to go back to the hotel.”
He isn’t mad. He isn’t sad! He is just accepting. The showers are waiting. You play again tomorrow.
You were beaten by God. You can’t fight God anymore than you can credibly despise Bambi. We don’t like the idea that we are mortals who will one day die, but there are times it can serve as a pretty convenient excuse.
Well, That’s Just Goofy
Mike Zunino walks (!) before Dee Gordon (!!) hits a go-ahead homer.
We plan for all sorts of things. What is the repetition of the batting cage and fielding grounders if not planning? We plan bit by little bit so that, when we are faced with a situation of which we’re unsure, we feel prepared. But you can’t plan for this. Sure, there is a chance Mike Zunino — and his 5.1% walk rate and .255 OBP — walks. I mean, it has happened. And sure, there is a chance Dee Gordon, with one 2018 home run and 12 in his career, hits a home run. But those things in concert? Back-to-back? In extra innings? Literally Dee Gordon?!
The A’s are trying to overtake the Astros for first place in the AL West, a feat for which we’re all ill-prepared. Despite their recent stumbling, the Mariners aren’t out of it. The A’s would have prefered to win this game! But I’m not totally convinced there weren’t at least five guys on their team who didn’t secretly find this hilarious. I mean, Kyle Seager and Marco Gonzales certainly did.
They are visibly incredulous. Wait, our Dee Gordon?! It has to help take the sting out when a guy’s own teammates can’t help but tease him for doing something great.
The Dominant-But-Not-Perfect Pitcher in a Close Game
Max Scherzer throws a complete-game shutout with 10 Ks.
Sometimes, feeling better starts with lying to yourself. And so I wonder if the absolutely-dominant-but-not-perfect opposing pitching performance, especially when the margin of victory is as tight as it was on April 9 when the Nationals beat the Braves 2-0, doesn’t feel the best of all the ways to lose because it leaves room for some little fibs. You weren’t perfecto’ed or even no-hit. You were dominated, but you were also sort of in it. I mean, they only managed a pair of runs all night. Your guy couldn’t have been terrible.
You lost, but as the specific scenes of the game fade from memory, the closeness of the score leaves room for those fibs we tell ourselves to move forward. You’ll start to believe that actually, it was much closer than it seemed, and wasn’t it really five hits instead of two? (It was not.) You’ll plant your little lies, and eventually they’ll protect you from the worst of it. Like Max Scherzer ’s 10 strikeouts, or his stolen base; surely you’re misremembering that part.
The Rally From Big Deficit Falls Short
The Brewers almost come back against the Phillies.
I don’t think it is possible to underrate how important it is to be able to feel respectable. But hold that thought. First, I should say that the worst kind of loss is the sort that also involves a star player getting injured in such a way that means he’ll be out for a while. You can’t escape that loss; you are going to be asked about it, forced to relive the moment over and over again, because it has relevance that stretches out ahead of it like a slinky into many other moments and days and future losses. That’s the worst kind of loss, I think.
But the second-worst kind is the early blowout, because you’ve been embarrassed, I mean just whooped, and you have to stay at work. You have to stay at work, and do your dumb job, and we are all watching you do your dumb job and feeling bad for you. We’re making that sad little pity face that is supposed to tell you we care, but it just makes you feel lousy. Or worse, we’ve stopped watching you do your dumb job because we feel badly for ourselves, so you’re having to stay at work, feeling lousy for nothing, just literally nothing.
And so, with the second-worst way to lose determined, I think one of the best ways to lose is the rally from a big deficit that falls short, because unlike the early blowout, in which you feel lousy, the almost-rally lets you feel respectable. You can unclench. You almost came back all the way. You hit a three-run home run!
Look how happy you are, Eric Thames!
Look how happy you’ve made this woman, who we’ll assume is named Susan.
Susan feels great. Sure, you were down five runs going into the ninth, and sure, you almost ruined Father’s Day, but you didn’t. You just lost a baseball game, and we’ve already established that happens all the time. When you look back at this one, it look like it was close, and you’ll remember how happy you felt when you lifted that big home run to make it so close, and, most importantly, you’ll forget how close you were to feeling lousy. No pity face for you. Susan, either. You’re too respectable for that.
The Umpires Got You
Every game, just ask the fans.
How you prefer to lose probably says a lot about you. I’d hazard a guess that each of our best ways to lose has a great deal to do with our fears and distancing ourselves from them as much as possible. Embarrassment, pain, a gut punch of disappointment. It’s going to vary some, person to person, but I think we all fear being at fault. Losing, in baseball at least, is a communal affair, and unless we’re wired wrong, we feel just awful when we’ve let people down.
But when we’ve been let down? When it was the umpires that got us on an obviously wrong called strike three to halt a rally? Oh baby, that’s a treat. Suddenly, we have choices. We can be magnanimous. Hey friend, we all make mistakes. We can be righteously furious. The angels are on our side, after all. We can, if we are tired and ready to go home, just be disappointed. In an enterprise (losing) that usually has just one feeling (bad), we suddenly have choices. We are free.
It’s best not to lose, but someone has to. And so I think considering the hows and whats of it has some value. Human feeling has texture, and so do baseball losses. They aren’t all the same, and it does us well to think about the ones that are less-bad, even dignified, because it makes us appreciate them. After all, it sure beats having to feel lousy at work.
Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs, the host of FanGraphs Audio, and the co-co-host of Effectively Wild. Her work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.