I made my first drink in the second inning of the second game of the 2016 World Series.
My Cubbies were up 1-0 against the Cleveland Indians, playing 350 miles east of sweet home Chicago, and playoff hero Javy Baez had just gotten a soft base knock. What very well could have been a run-of-the-mill groundout took a funny bounce on a tricky play for the third baseman, and Javy hustled his way to a single. Luck seemed to be on our side. We had a runner on base with no outs and our first lead of the young series.
Suddenly, I was nervous.
To be blunt, this makes no sense. Just one night prior, the Cubs were in a frustrating nail-biter where we couldn’t scrape together a single run, but trailed by just two or three for most of the game. By any measure, I should’ve been sweating it out, replenishing my fluids with dehydrating rye whiskey; boosted by the mind-altering powers of alcohol that can steady your hand or make you crazy. (Gin, you are my green fairy.) Yet I remained calm and collected.
…until the Cubs had a lead.
So why the sudden nerves? I’m sure the “lovable losers” label handed to a team so riddled with postseason disappointment factors in, as do other psychological factors specific to a fan who identifies far too deeply with Billy Beane’s famous line from “Moneyball.” But more than anything, it’s because baseball, above all other live sports, makes no fucking sense. It’s entirely unpredictable. It adheres to little logic even within its own rules, and — as someone who is conditioned to appreciate narrative structure thanks to thousands of hours of scripted TV viewing every year — it defies everything TV fans have come to know and love about the medium.
In other words, I’d entered the seventh circle of hell. And that made me nervous.
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Along with any other TV fan who subjects themselves totally and completely to a sports team, watching your team in the World Series is an experience in anguish unlike any other. And when the final out is played, I’ll either have ascended to the heavens, akin with the angels for as long as my frail wings will hold me up, or I’ll remain trapped in a perpetuating cycle of pain, listening as the devil chortles at my doomed dare to dream.
To be clear, this is unlike any other television viewing experience, and that’s the problem. Episodic narratives about heroes making big plays in key moments are decided after the game ends, rather than broken and crafted months, if not years, before we’re allowed to see them. The World Series will be a TV season unto itself, and we won’t know if any episode was good or bad until it’s all over. The Cubs may win a thrilling game, but that memory is forever tainted if they lose the last one.
In comparison, if a TV finale is subpar (say, “The Night Of”) or even god-awful (“The Affair”), a remarkable individual episode that came before can still be cherished. Sure, it may be slightly tainted by the knowledge of what’s coming, but it can be seen again, loved and respected for its individual arc. If you came across “The Night Of” premiere on cable one night, you’d be able to enjoy its intricacies all over again. When “The Affair” Season 2 came across my desk, I tried out a few episodes. The experience in previous episodes made up for a final slip-up.
Not baseball. Not in the World Series. And especially not with the Cubs. The perennial “next year” team broke a 71-year drought from even appearing in the World Series this miraculous season, and they haven’t won the whole shebang since 1908. Losing is unacceptable, as just the thought of starting over and waiting through another seven agonizing months for another shot at breaking the streak makes me want to crawl into bed and not get out until October 2017.
Expectations for scripted television can compare, but only to a lesser degree. Fans eagerly anticipating “The Leftovers” Season 3 have to wait a bit longer than usual, and that anticipation could drive expectations up. It certainly has for this viewer, even when the idea of topping Season 2 is as unimaginable as a Cubs World Series trophy. Similarly, Chicagoans got a taste of glory last season, as the 2015 club fought its way into the National League Championship Series, thus driving expectations sky high for this year’s team. For both, the wait between seasons felt longer than it really was, and the payoff needed to make up for it.
Yet “The Leftovers” Season 2 is perfect. Even if Damon Lindelof reveals the whole thing was an “Alien” prequel, nothing can change the fact he wrote an incomparable season of television. If this Chicago Cubs team fails to win a World Series this year, next year or before the core group departs, we’ll see 2016 similarly to 2003: a missed opportunity at best, a flat-out tragedy at worst.
If I sound like a whiner, hopeless and hellbent on complaining even before the series swings definitively one way or the other, let it be known I’m en route to Chicago as you read this. An L.A. citizen, I simply couldn’t miss my lifelong team play their first World Series game at Wrigley Field in not just my lifetime, but my mother’s and many more fans older than I. (Ma Travers is among the most devout Cubs fans.) Others may simply say, “If watching is so painful, turn off the TV!” But clearly those folks have never loved something bigger than themselves. Watching is not a choice. It’s an experience. Believing is not a choice. It’s a calling.
Neither of these statements apply to any scripted series, as much as I’d like to argue for “The Leftovers,” “Mad Men,” “Veep” and more of Peak TV’s top tier shows. Watching the World Series as a fan — of the Cubs or the Indians — is far removed from watching TV shows, just as watching baseball is different as a neutral party.
I had five whiskies in four hours to get through Wednesday night’s Game 2 win. Today, I’m happy. But who knows what comes next.