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The worst part of baseball is baseball ... but it's worth it

Baseball is the best and the worst thing, and the playoffs are the greatest reminder of this.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The worst part of baseball is baseball.

Last year, I followed my Kansas City Royals through one of the most fantastic postseasons in baseball history. Or at least, I believe the run had historical significance. I was born in 1985 and had never seen my team in the playoffs. I hadn’t followed playoff baseball in general. For almost 30 years, being a Royals fan meant summer nights, burnt end sandwiches and the indescribable pride of being the best at being the worst. Baseball, in this time, was an excuse to be social, like inviting friends over to watch the Oscars. The people you want to win won’t, so you eat and drink and maybe pay attention for the finale.

In those three decades, I never bothered to get the game, because it seemed my team barely got it themselves. But after last year’s run -- which I can confidently say was the best in history, as someone who knows little of that history -- I’ve spent much of my time and money in 2015 watching the team, learning the players and the sport. Now I know points are called runs, I grasp what a ground-rule double has to do with the ground rules and I know when Alex Rios bats in the bottom of the ninth, it’s perfectly normal to feel a little anxious.

For the first time in my life, I actually watch baseball when I watch a baseball game. And what a time to finally "get it," as the Royals begin their second postseason in as many years. So, why do I feel like I’ve made a mistake?

Some people described the 2014 Royals as magical. I experienced that magic as if it were literal. When Alex Gordon whacked a 95 mph fastball or Jarrod Dyson stole third base, my mind melted, trying to rationalize their superhuman powers. Either this team, which I had only known as lovable losers, had performed black magic to reach the World Series -- an eye of newt, hair of a witch and a puff of Salvador Perez’s Victoria’s Secret perfume -- or they had been touched by the divine. Maybe all of those rosaries I’d done as a boy, begging God for a Bo Jackson home run, had gotten lost in the mail and He was finally answering my prayers.

Watching baseball without an understanding of baseball was an act of faith. As a fan of the game, though, baseball has become science. It’s slow, frustrating, requires plenty of experimentation and rarely produces the intended results.


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I still can’t fully comprehend sabermetrics, but that hasn’t prevented the thousands of stats that appear over even the most tedious of games from worming into my brain, waiting to be plucked and used to predict the future. I find myself mumbling nonsense. "Lorenzo Cain has an on-base percentage of .337 and he hasn’t been on-base in three at-bats, so he is absolutely due to get on-base. But that’s also not how averages and statistics work and oh, wait, his thumb’s hurt. Maybe all of his numbers are meaningless and this is the beginning of a downward spiral, not just for our MVP but for a team that has been built around him. Oh no, this is it, this is the end, we’re doomed."

At best, every at-bat feels like an advanced trigonometry equation that will predict the odds we get a hit. At worst, a fly to outfield in early August is a catalyst for my darkest doomsday theories involving Josh Donaldson and the Mark of the Beast.

This mountain of data is meaninglessly mushed into the limited confines of my brain. I’m not bright enough to apply the numbers, not that they can really be applied by me, a guy with a year’s worth of baseball knowledge, sitting in his underpants on his patio watching a baseball game on his iPhone. It’s barely useful for the managers, because the numbers don’t guarantee a thing. The unexpected happens. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and even Alex Rios hits a walkoff once a season.

If you’re wondering why I’m picking on Rios, I figure if I talk like he’s a chump, then he can’t actually be a chump. The worse I treat him, the more likely he’ll bound through the next month, defying the odds, becoming a World Series MVP. Insanity! I have no control! Yet superstition is so available, how can I resist? It’s like I’m grasping for the faith, but my brain spits back the cold science: a .287 on-base percentage, a step down from a .321 career average. But then again, Rios is well rested and has shown a statistical upswing in September, though he’s had some back pain. But reports from the clubhouse called it a minor strain, unless they’re lying and it’s a major strain or worse. What if he needs a spinal tap to extract some sort of mysterious ringworm, and oh God, we’re doomed!

In baseball, knowledge is a burden. Last year, I understood the Angels were good and the Orioles were fine. That they had both won more than 95 games, while the Royals had only made it to 89, didn’t mean much of anything. This year, the Royals have 95 wins and the best record in the American League, and yet, I also know the homer-loving Astros have an advantage in the little league grounds they call Minute Maid Park. And I know the Blue Jays have the ability to get in our heads like a pick axe through the eye socket. In 2014, I was talking about World Series tickets the morning of the Wild Card game. In 2015, with an unquestionably better team, I just hope we’re still in this thing come Monday.

I see my reflection in the glow of ESPN and I am unhappy with what I find. I am an addict, a person who once loved something so much. Today, every hit is a little less magical than the last. I realize the only things that will bring me that ecstasy are More, Better and Now. I used to be grateful for a cool summer night at Kauffman Stadium. Now, I search Google every couple hours for some analysis that tells me what I want to hear: "This is the year the Royals win the Commissioner’s Trophy ..." -- or what I used to call it, the World Series Gold Thing Award -- "... and we have the data to prove it."

I would say it’s not worth it, but it is. It’s so, so, so painful, and maddening, and worth it.

One other thing happened this year. My cousins, Ohio-born Royals fans, a paradox unto themselves, and I have kept a daily text message chain going since spring training, over the regular season and now into the playoffs. We’ve always been close, as cousins go, but now it’s different: we have our own language. We make dumb jokes and boneheaded predictions that never pan out quite like we expect, because it’s baseball, dummy. If the Royals have proven anything, it’s that you can’t predict baseball -- especially when your manager is Ned Yost.

Last year, baseball was divine and indescribable, leaving me surrounded by acolytes, but alone with my feelings. This year, I am not alone. If the worst thing about baseball is baseball, then the best thing about baseball is the unshakable sense of mutually assured self-destruction.

Like they say, misery loves company. And nobody knows that better than a baseball fan.