A few months back, during a typically cold and wet northwest evening, my children and I were watching the Olympics together. We had come for the aerial competition, with its gaudy flips and hangtime, but stuck around for four-man bobsledding. The kids, after composing themselves from the thrill of just how fast those men were going down that death-defying coaster of ice, would unfailingly ask me after every run whether the team had done good or bad.
For them, see, there was no difference. There was only pure, blinding, thrilling speed. Saying “well that team went four hundredths of a second faster than the team before them, so they feel like the years of ceaseless toil, financial sacrifice, and effort have been rewarded, while those other guys feel as though the ground has come up and swallowed them whole” just doesn’t resonate with them, and more’s the better for that I suppose.
The only way it could be explained to them was when, through the magic of television, the broadcast superimposed multiple runs on top of each other, similar to that famous Yu Darvish gif you’ve all seen. Here now was a simple thing to see, easily understood. One team was, just, ahead of all the rest. My kids had fewer questions after that.
For anyone watching the first two and a half games of this Astros series, sans context, it would be easy to think these teams are nearly equally matched. The Mariners rotation, which I have taken ample opportunity to savage on multiple occasions, was largely effective against a terrific Houston offense. The Mariner bats, facing a comically talented rotation, were scraping out just enough runs. Through two games, and six innings, the teams were at a stalemate.
And then, they weren’t. Mike Leake seemingly kept throwing the same pitches, at the same velocity, in the same places he had the previous six innings, but now they weren’t being missed. They were getting hit, and hard. Nick Vincent had the same experience. Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger were misplaying balls and suddenly the Astros were better than the Mariners, and by quite a bit.
The baseball season will do that. Every team is good. Every player is an amazing blend of athleticism, skill, and work ethic. Sure, just like bobsledding you’ll have some poor group form an underfunded country, in baseball’s case we’ll say the Reds, who even a moment’s glance says does not belong out there. But by and large it feels like the margins are so close, the difference between victory and defeat so small as to be nearly invisible at times. The nature of the sport is such that can very easily fool yourself into thinking a baseball season is just millions of coin flips, with randomness the One True God.
But just because the baseline is otherworldly excellence, does not mean it’s also the ceiling. All these players are so good, and so talented. But the win/loss record superimposes two teams’ journey down the same path. Over that journey, one always separates itself from the rest, even if it’s only by hundredths of a second. There’s always a winner, so there’s always a loser.