Saturday, September 5, 2015

How Bad Can It Get?

How Bad Can It Get?
An examination of sports -- both physical and digital -- and life

November, 1989*

One grey, late-autumn afternoon I decided I wanted to play football outside. Understandably, my dad didn’t want to throw the ol’ ball around with me. There weren’t many kids in my neighborhood, and being a loner, I wasn’t about to go round people up for a game they may or may not want to play.

So I went outside in my neon orange ski coat and threw passes to myself.

Like most Wisconsin boys, I imagined myself playing for the Green Bay Packers. With me pretending to be Don Majkowski, I caught his passes and broke tackles, scored touchdowns and won ballgames. I got high-fives on the sideline from Sterling Sharpe and Tim Harris. Everything was great.

I lobbed a throw high and far so I could make a long running grab for another touchdown. The ball never made it to my hands, because in all my eight-year-old determination to make that catch, I forgot to look up.

I ran full speed, head first into the metal laundry pole in our back yard.

I had to be knocked out cold, at least for a few seconds. All I remember is that when I tried to stand up, I immediately fell down. I stayed on the ground for a few minutes, the world spinning above me. Finally, I struggled to my feet again and made the walk around the building and up two flights of stairs to my apartment. My parents were mortified at the size of the size of the welt on my forehead.

Maybe I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure my parents did: A Green Bay Packer -- or any other professional football team -- I was not meant to be.

*May or may not be an entirely accurate date. I was under 10 years old, it was cold, there was no snow on the ground that day. So I say Nov. 1989.


I imagine I’m not alone in this, but I find myself daydreaming about being people I couldn’t possibly be. In my mind I can be a John McClane-style action hero, or a rock star, or a sports hero, whether or not I lack the toughness, charisma, or talent to be any of those things.

Modern video games bring these dreams to life, with minimal effort - especially in the realm of sports.

One might ask why not just play the actual sport instead of the video game version of it?

It’s pretty simple, really: If I had to stand in against a 90 MPH fastball, I’d piss my pants. (And so would you.) If I took it down a few notches to bar-league softball, I would more than likely share the field with post-college jocks who slam cheap beers before the game and “slay” pussy afterwards. Also, they still wear baseball socks, which is weird.

I play video game sports because I am aware of my own athletic limitations, and more importantly they allow me to chase greatness. No one grows up wanting to be Craig Counsell -- two World Series rings and Manager of his favorite boyhood team notwithstanding -- they want to be the MVP.

Starting in the late 90s, video game sports brought that dream closer to reality than ever before. You could attach more than just a name to your character; your guy could have whatever height and weight you wanted. You could rate him a 99 in every attribute if you wanted. Suddenly spindly, girl-armed 5’10” 160lb me was transformed into a strapping he-man of 6’5” and 240lbs with superhuman running and catching abilities.

In the next decade, you could add your face and body type to the mix, making for the most realistic representation of your better self. There aren’t too many things more fun than seeing yourself on the field or court as the star quarterback or shooting guard or center fielder.


June, 1996

There was a kid who lived across the street from me a couple of years younger than I was. Occasionally, we would play basketball. On this day, he just wanted to play catch.

He stood on his side of the street, and I on mine. Being a hotshot soon-to-be freshman in high school, I took it easy throwing the baseball to him. Not wanting to be treated like someone’s kid brother (and maybe wanting to show me up), he whipped the ball back at me. We started throwing it back at one another as hard as we could. It was actually fun for a few minutes.

Until I disobeyed the oldest adage in the game, that is. (That would be “keep your eye on the ball”, for those of you playing at home.)

I nonchalantly stuck out my glove to catch this kid’s latest fastball. The only problem is that my glove wasn’t in the right place. My face was. The impact spun me around, broke my front tooth, and split my lip wide open. A pool of blood formed on the sidewalk.

I went inside to stop the bleeding as best I could, ending up holding an icepack to my lip the rest of the afternoon. The kid’s dad came to check on me, but I assured him I was all right.

When my mom got home, she shrieked “OHMYGOD!” when she saw me. I didn’t know the severity of my injury, and maybe she didn’t either because the doctor’s office told her to take me to the emergency room.

Under a blindingly bright light on an examination table, with a towel over my eyes and a needle in my lip for the three stitches I was about to get, I mentally crossed off “starting centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers” on my “potential jobs” list.


Baseball didn’t become America’s pastime because it’s pastoral or a reminder of a quieter, simpler time. Nor did it become the national pastime because “chicks dig the long ball” or because there are few things more enjoyable than an afternoon at the ballpark with an ice cold Miller Lite and a hot dog.

Baseball became America’s pastime because it is a game based on failure and one’s reaction to said failure. Failure is a fact of American life: failed jobs, failed relationships, failed wars -- there have been a lot of those lately -- and failed businesses. But we as a nation have it so ingrained in our psyche that we’re supposed to keep getting up after those failures, much like there’s always tomorrow for a baseball player. We grind for a better life tomorrow, even if there might not be one.

(Conversely, football became America’s pastime because it features two teams literally beating the life out of one another for the profit of old white men and the amusement of the fat, undereducated, beer-swilling masses. (Or, as they are colloquially known, Raiders fans) What that says about our nation is another story for another day)

It should be without surprise, then, that I am drawn to the video game MLB: The Show, the “Road to the Show” mode in particular. In that mode, you create a player and try to make him into a hall of famer. It is different from other career modes in other major sports games because you’re not a member of the pro team to begin with. You start in the dregs of the minor leagues at the AA level. You grind. You work your way up through the system. You are Ragged Dick in spikes.

I’ve been playing The Show on and off since 2010, and though they’ve tweaked the system in mostly positive ways, the grind remains the same. You take your cuts or throw your innings, hoping that promotion comes soon. Sometimes you meet your goals, but sometimes you find yourself in the midst of a 2-for-24 slump with no end in sight. Sometimes you get benched and then finally demoted for disobeying your manager, which WAS FUCKING BULLSHIT BECAUSE WHO HAS THE STEAL SIGN ON ONLY ON A 0-0 COUNT??

But you put the uniform on (or hold the controller, I guess) the next day, and try again. The Show, as a series, captures all of this perfectly. The 2015 version of the game manages not just to capture that feeling, but also, somehow, to mirror life itself.

(You can stop here if you don't want to read about video game dorkery)


April 2015 - October 2018

I named my character Superfluous “Soup” Smith because I was tired of naming characters after myself. “Superfluous” may be ridiculous, but considering there are educated people giving their children last names as first names, I don’t think adjectives are that far off. Plus, I could make the announcers call him “Soup,” which is baseball-y enough. (Of course, Jeff Suppan’s nickname was Soup, and we all know how that turned out.) “Smith” is just a throwaway name that makes for alliteration and the announcer’s ability, to, well, announce his name.

Straight outta Milwaukee, 21-year-old Soup Smith is 6’ tall and 225 pounds (my actual height and weight!) and plays center field. He has a beer belly, because I have a beer belly. He is a speed and defense guy, though he will also come to have power. Soup got drafted in second round by the Angels (yes, the same Angels who employ Mike Trout, best CF in the game).

I decided to try to new dynamic difficulty mode, which started on “Rookie” and went from “just a guy” to “hot shit prospect” in the span of a month. I ended up hitting .404 with 3 HR and 25 RBI at AA before a promotion to AAA. In the meantime, I had turned up the difficulty to “All-Star.” This was a bad decision, gamewise, but is also the reason this piece of writing exists.

Soup was sent to AAA where he held his own for a while and then struggled. Eventually he was traded to the Blue Jays, for whom he continued to struggle at their AAA level. He broke his arm, which ended his season. This is where I went “oh, I guess he’ll have another season at AAA then.” But I was wrong. He was invited to spring training and made the team despite his (my) awfulness.

At this point I don’t need to go into too much detail about Soup Smith’s career. He struggled for the Blue Jays and was then traded to the San Francisco Giants, where he also struggled. He was sent down not once but twice to AAA in his three years with the Giants before getting traded back to the Blue Jays. My attributes were getting better, but my actual numbers said otherwise. This is not unlike having a Bachelor’s degree in English but shuffling boxes in a hot warehouse for a living. I don’t think he (I) hit better than .220 in any given year.


October, 2019

My last year with the Blue Jays seemed like it would be a turning point. As mostly a bench player, I hit .270 (career high) with 5 HR and 27 RBI. I signed a $747,000 contract before the 2019 season began, thinking maybe I had finally made it. No more demotions, no more embarrassments. Just a fine career from a kid who had a hard time at first but made it work.

I started off all right, maybe not hitting home runs but hitting for a decent average, and more importantly taking my walks. My on base percentage was 100 points higher than my batting average! I had arrived!

(Remember when I said baseball mirrored American life? This is where I remind you I got married in 2013, but fired from my job three weeks later. Then I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease three months after that. I still don’t have a full time job. Hey Life? Fuck you.)

The good times did not last, and I entered a god-awful series of slumps. Slumps happen in life and in baseball, but the (digital) Blue Jays management exacerbated the problem. Instead of moving me down in the order, or benching me, or even demoting me to AAA one more time, they stood pat. They trotted me out there every day in center field, batting third or fourth in the order.

As I endured a 2-for-40 dry spell, both myself and Superfluous Smith wondered “How bad can it get?” (Seriously, his demeanor walking to the plate for every futile at-bat nearly broke my heart. The way he held his bat behind him said “get me out of here!”)

Video games have their own internal logic, and The Show’s make sense here. Smith is technically an 84 overall, the best player on a bad team, statistics be damned. Yet, its own logic tells me I’m playing at a 72 level. I still have a minor league option left, but they did nothing. They hung me out to dry, one awful strikeout or weak groundout at a time.

I wonder if the fact that modern video games, in general, are just easier has anything to do with it. From the very beginning of my struggling, I wondered if the end game could possibly be a release from a team without catching on somewhere else. Washing out of the league at 25 is not a desirable outcome -- you’re supposed to be a hall of famer -- but an entirely possible outcome… at least in real life.

I kept waiting for an axe to fall that never did. I kept starting. I kept striking out. Every line drive that found a fielders’ glove and every long fly that died at the warning track wears on me, a pestering winter greyness that never seems to end.

The 2019 season stats were bleak: .195 AVG 8HR 44RBI. My slash line was .195/.241/.300 (average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage). The strikeout to walk ratio of 126-30 was great… if you’re a pitcher.

I’m not sure what will happen to me -- though I can guess. I probably won’t start the season at AAA like I should, and I almost certainly will not be released. Throughout all the awfulness, I did not change my look, my bat, my glove, or my at-bat music. (“Big Poppa” by Notorious BIG, if you were wondering) More importantly, I did not turn down the difficulty.

There may be difficulty sliders in modern video games, but there aren’t any in real life. Believe you me, I WANT to be that guy that hits .300 with 40 homers because I know I’m not the guy who’s going to make $100,000 a year with a nice house and car.

I struggle in games because I struggle in life. There’s nothing noble about it, but there is something real. I wake up every day with metaphorical welts on my forehead, another battle notched on my belt. But I’ll keep hacking away at every at-bat, fearing the unknown but hoping for a better tomorrow. I don’t know any other way.