When the game isn’t a game anymore, that’s the day, the night, it changes.
A season comes and goes. Maybe it was a month or a week. Could’ve been a single pitch. Might’ve been a lifetime.
When the body says let’s go, when the mind says nuh-uh.
When some dude in the bleachers says you suck, and something inside agrees. When the numbers get big and blurry, when friends wonder what’s up, when teammates leave you be, when the time of your life isn’t the time of your life anymore.
When the perfect day isn’t perfect anymore, somehow, in a way nobody would understand, alone in a stadium of people. When the bat feels good, just fine, and the batting average should lighten the darkness, when the fastball has never been better, when it is mean enough to carry away the troubles in its wake, when it all says let’s go, when the mind says go back.
Those men down there, they have doubts. It’ll end and then they’ll be the men they used to be, or the men they never were, and that’s out there, and that’s coming.
They have sick children and healthy children, they have lonely wives and content wives, they have thick bank accounts and light ones, they’re sure they’re great and they’re not sure they can do this at all.
They are not the numbers assigned to them, not the ones on their backs or the ones cooked up in math class or the ones on a scout’s notepad, much as those can be necessary. They are, perhaps, more accurately, the number of the highway they take home at night, the route on which they obsess over the previous three hours, good and bad, promising and foreboding.
When the options are to stick with it or not quit, only those two. To suck it up or be a man, those two. To show no weakness or report for duty, those two, no hesitation, no mercy, no tears, no damned excuses.
Roberto Osuna is 22 years old. He can throw a baseball 97 mph. Because of that, along with what has been called his poise and maturity and confidence, along with hours and hours of preparation, he pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays. His boss stands in the distance a few nights a week, points in his direction, and Roberto nods and goes to play baseball. That’s the job. It’s a great job. Probably the only one he’s ever wanted, from when he was a little boy in Mexico, and maybe the only job he’ll ever want. He’s good at it. It’ll make him rich. It’ll make him famous.
On Friday night, he said nuh-uh.
Jim Abbott, the former big-league pitcher, once wrote, “ … In this age of statistics and computer-driven analysis … it is real people who play the game. Real people carrying family history, huge expectations, and lifelong dreams along for the ride.”
Roberto Osuna did not pitch on Friday night. The Blue Jays needed him, and he was physically sound, and maybe he was the difference between them winning a baseball game and losing it.
On Saturday morning in Kansas City, he told reporters why he did not pitch the night before.
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “I just feel anxious. I feel like I’m lost a little bit right now. I’m just a little bit lost.
“This has nothing to do with me being on the field. I feel great out there. It’s just when I’m out of baseball, when I’m not on the field that I feel just weird and a little bit lost.
“I wish I knew how to get out of this, but we’re working on it, trying to find ways to see what can make me feel better. But, to be honest, I just don’t know.”
In his third major league season, Osuna has pitched as well – better even – than ever. He hardly ever fails when his boss points and he obeys.
But that’s not the whole game, is it?
There’s a world out there, and there’s a mind trying to keep up, to process it all. There’s a heart that shudders occasionally, because that’s what hearts do. There are feet that fail us, because they get tangled, because that’s part of the journey. Perfect is not a straight line, not from the bullpen to the mound, not from 22 years old to 23, because there is no perfect and there are no straight lines.
There are, however, young men trying desperately to remain steady, to adhere to a code of impassive strength, to do their jobs, to make their money, to make their families proud, to be whatever it is they’re expected to be.
Roberto Osuna is not alone. He should know that.
Especially now, when, maybe, for a pitch or a day or a week or forever, life isn’t quite right, doesn’t quite make sense, and the game isn’t a game any more.