What Lies Beyond the Point of Exhaustion

It was the second game of the Twins-Cardinals doubleheader on Tuesday. The Cardinals had lost the first game, but were now already ahead 5-2 in the bottom of the third. The bases were loaded, and Caleb Thielbar, newly into the game, was facing catcher Matt Wieters with two out.

Thielbar quickly got ahead of Wieters, who had been hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance: a 90 mph fastball in the middle of the zone, a 68 mph curveball on the outside corner that Wieters just barely managed to foul off, and it was 0-2, advantage Thielbar. The 0-2 pitch, another fastball in the middle of the zone, was again fouled off by Wieters, sailing off into the right-field stands. No matter. Throw him a better one this time, right? Wieters took a little stroll, adjusting his gloves — maybe taking a breath, maybe pondering what Thielbar might have in store for him on the next pitch. He walked back into the box, cocked the bat, stared out to the mound. Almost the exact same pitch — almost the exact same result. This, it seemed, would be a battle. Another stroll for Wieters: inhale, exhale, the bat held out in front of his face.

This time, Thielbar changed things up — a curveball at the knees. Again, Wieters fouled it off, and again, he stepped away, out of the box, and took a breath. He was, with each pitch, just trying to stay alive, and to stay alive took all of his effort. He had to steal the breaths when he could. Because with each pitch that he fouled off, every successful attempt at fending off the onslaught, Wieters was prolonging the time he would have to spend fighting. The price of staying alive was that the struggle would not end.

And as the plate appearance continued, the struggle became more and more visible. Thielbar only threw three pitches outside the strike zone, all of them within the first nine pitches of what would end up being a 19-pitch at-bat. The rest Wieters had to foul off, the effort showing in his ever more laborious swings and grimaces, the length of his walks outside the zone, the depth of his deep breaths, and the tension in his stance as he returned to await, once again, a pitch that he would have to fight off.

By the seven-minute mark of the ordeal, as the Twins met on the mound to give Thielbar a rest and discuss how to get out of this situation, both Thielbar and Wieters had certainly reached the point of exhaustion. They returned to their positions; a pitch was thrown; Wieters fouled it off. They had no choice but to keep going.

***

The Cardinals returned to play after their COVID-19 outbreak on August 15, almost a month ago. On only one day during the almost-month that has followed did they not play at least one baseball game; on many days, they played two. Yesterday marked their final scheduled off-day until the end of the season. After playing 30 games in 25 days, they must now prepare to play 23 games in 18 days to finish off the year — surely one of the most grueling schedules in the history of modern major league baseball.

The Cardinals, to their credit, have survived the portion of their schedule that has put them most often against the toughest teams in the central divisions — the two Chicago teams, Cleveland, and Minnesota — and emerged from it with a winning record, in playoff position. Their remaining games, aside from a double-header against Detroit today and a weekend series against Cincinnati after that, are all against Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. The former two teams, of course, aren’t good at all, and it might be tempting to write off these games as easy wins. But the latter team, like the Cardinals, is hovering around .500, and those games will likely determine which of them will take the second playoff spot in the NL Central. It is imperative, then, that the Cardinals make the most of their games against weaker opponents. Even the less meaningful games will not be entirely meaningless.

And even the less meaningful games will still be subject to the toll of exhaustion. Since the Cardinals returned to play, there have been only a few isolated cases of COVID-19 among those players and team personnel tested regularly by MLB. The large-scale outbreaks of the kind that shut the Cardinals down seem to have faded out of the public consciousness. But it really wasn’t all that long ago that 10 of the Cardinals’ players and seven staff members tested positive, resulting in trips to the emergency room, lost sleep, fear, isolation, and a deep, lingering uncertainty that left not only the Cardinals’ season, but the 2020 season as a whole, on a knife’s edge.

We know about the physical effects that even mild cases of COVID-19 can have; we know about the mental distress the process of testing, waiting for results, and having to go into self-isolation can cause. The Cardinals experienced all of this. They waited, their future unclear, their teammates and coworkers ill, for two weeks. And then they returned to face a schedule that, even in a normal season, under normal circumstances, would seem harsh. It is relentless, and, almost without exception, it is every single day. When they reach the end of this schedule, the hope will not be for a reprieve, a chance for a long rest after going past the point of exhaustion over and over again. It will be to continue playing until they cannot play any longer.

But this, as Adam Wainwright noted after making the start for the Cardinals on that first day back, is only to be expected, not something the team will treat as an extenuating circumstance. “Each pitch,” Wainwright said, “was all about expecting it to be great and not falling victim to excuses. The team that I was playing with today and the team I was playing against cares nothing about how long we’ve been out or whatever.”

***

The idea of burnout has been in the news a lot lately. Workers are stressed by the intensity of their jobs in the time COVID-19, the difficulty of balancing work with healthcare and childcare, or the everyday burden of unemployment and job-seeking. Parents, at home with their children 24/7, are exhausted; children, understimulated and deprived of their main sources of socialization, bear their stress as well. The elderly and people with health conditions that make COVID-19 deadlier must contend with ever-present anxiety, and the loneliness caused by protecting oneself. At the same time, fires burn throughout the western part of the continent; police brutality appears in the headlines frequently. It is a wonder that anyone isn’t feeling the bone-deep exhaustion and listlessness that characterizes burnout.

But the solutions for burnout that are always proffered by listicles and self-help books — removing oneself from the work that is causing the overwhelming stress; taking time off; switching careers; going to therapy — are so often unrealistic, especially in this era of pandemic and mass unemployment. The solution to burnout is, essentially, to be in a position of such stability that one can choose not to be burned out anymore. And if you have no such choice, when unbearable exhaustion is the reality of survival, then the expectation is that you will simply bear the unbearable. You will wake up every morning, your body telling you that you are unable to go on, and you will go on, regardless. This struggle is often framed as heroic; those who cannot go on, who cannot keep shouldering their burdens, are often framed as weak, wilting victims in contrast. But if so many continue to carry burdens that they simply cannot carry, every single day, it is not that they are shining examples of strong individuals, their humanity flattened into the narrative of the inspirational struggle story. It is a sign that something, on a massive scale, is profoundly wrong with the way our society is operating.

***

Wieters eventually flew out, finally ending what became the third-longest at-bat on record in major league history. He finally got to take a break, take a breath; it was only one plate appearance, not a life-or-death situation. And after the game, which the Cardinals went on to win 6-4, Wieters joked about it: “Sadly,” he said, “I wish I could say that I wasn’t running out of breath, but I was.”





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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jarhead659
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jarhead659

Thanks, Rachael, the context is perfect.