The start of each baseball season brings hope and optimism. Managers point out that everyone begins with the same record and the same opportunities to win.
Despite the disparity in team payrolls, there is truth in what the managers say. Small market franchises like the Minnesota Twins and the Florida Marlins consistently put entertaining teams on the field which may not always win, but usually compete.
As the season progresses, reality sets in. Many teams considered contenders are proven otherwise. Such was the case this season with the Seattle Mariners. Expected to win their division at the beginning of the year, they emerged slowly from the gate and never fully recovered. By the end of the regular season, they had traded their best pitcher, Cliff Lee, to a divisional rival, the Texas Rangers (a surprise winner of the American League West) and finished with the worst record in the league, twenty-nine games out of first place.
The post-season likewise begins with hope and optimism for those who survive the grueling 162-game regular season schedule. I am sure that the Cincinnati Reds, the best hitting team in the National League during the regular season and winners of the National League Central, did not expect to be to be swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, their bats all but silenced. I am also confident that, despite past playoff failures, the Minnesota Twins expected that this season would be different and they would get revenge against their post-season rivals, the defending champions New York Yankees. Yet the results this season were the same: the Twins were swept by the Yankees and knocked out of the playoffs yet again.
The reality is that only one team can emerge victorious at the end of the year. All others suffer disappointment of varying degrees.
Perhaps nothing captures the disappointment inherent in the game like Ernest L. Thayer’s classic poem, Casey at the Bat. First published anonymously on June 3, 1888 by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, the poem has become symptomatic of the optimism and ultimate heartbreak that baseball can bring.
Casey at the Bat
Ernest L. Thayer
The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.