The Agony of Possibility: The 2021 White Sox

What’s pictured above, courtesy of @SoxShowdown, is the exact moment where every possibility converges, and all but one are eliminated at the speed of sound: an obliterating burst and the instant gasping awe of the crowd. And that, in its heart, is baseball.

On this Opening Day for the White Sox (and, I guess, all of baseball), I’ve been thinking about how I treat the game. It’s a weird dualism. I certainly know that every game is a long series of events, and every season is a long series of games. Baseball is the art of accretion and accumulation. You can rarely (though not never) point to one thing and say this is where everything changed. Barring injury, and without any narrative-confirming retrospect, there is rarely a moment where you say “everything from here on out is different.”

I know that. But I never believe it when I am watching the game.

If Tim Anderson starts out with a 3-1 count leading off today, I will already be giddy about the patience of the team and how they are balancing a mature approach with their frantic enthusiasm. A loss makes me ready to write off the season. This goes on all year. A couple of hits in the top of the 7th during a desultory 5-1 loss in the middle of a losing streak has me calculating the comeback, the turn around, filling the calendar with wins toward the playoffs, looking October-ward even while the pitch that ends with a routine 6-4-3 inning killer is screaming toward reality.

But it’s that moment! It’s that moment that the pitch is thrown that matters more than anything. Baseball, more than any sport, lives in the liminal. It lives in the instant of possibility. This is true in a way that can be maddening and frustrating for people who, for understandable reasons, aren’t fans. In every play in football, something happens. That might be a 2-yard carry which brings up 4th and 8, but something happened. There was potential energy that turned into kinetic, even if, as is the case in every goddamn Bears game, it dissipates. And it can do so predictably. There is a certain inevitability to football, a grinding certainty, even when it occasionally chances us with frightening beauty.

In baseball though, when the pitch leaves there is no possible way to know what is going to happen. It could be a triple or a triple play, a pop up or a screaming homerun, a bolt that whispers along the line, a foul ball, or a routine grounder. Or, nothing. Just a ball. Just another pitch where nothing happens.

But of course, it is not nothing. There’s never nothing that happens in baseball. Pitch counts go up. At-bats change. Postures move slightly. It’s not much — we’re not going to say that this is a game of Go, where every move reshapes the universe — but nor is not nothing. And what it does is close the realm of possibility, for that at-bat, that game, this season, just a tiny little bit, the same way that every street down which you want takes away the possibilities of what you’ll see at that moment on any other street. You have something, but it can no longer be anything.

This season, more than maybe any other in recent Sox memory, is filled with the giddy terror of the possible.

  • The rotation could be very good and trending toward unreal. One superstar, two solid to excellent, and a 4th starter — Cease — who if he hits even the midrange of his projections could make this a fearsome lineup.
  • The bullpen is ridiculous. Get a lead and close the goddamn door
  • Even without Eloy, and even with, for now, Billy Hamilton getting at-bats, this team will score some runs.
  • And holy gods, are they fun. Again, losing Eloy takes out a lot of dingers, and a whole lot of goofy joy, but this is still a team that you will enjoy watching

And yet…it’s not hard to read the above and not feel a little bit of panic. Some players who should not be getting a lot of at-bats will. A guy like Leury Garcia is awesome to have, and any team would be lucky to have someone so versatile, but more than 200, 250PAs and something has gone wrong.

There are clearly depth issues, as well as the normal Sox plan of hoping that everything goes exactly to plan, which it already hasn’t, which shows how a lot of the season depends on wishcasting. That kind of sucks. And we still don’t know how Tony La Russa is going to play out. Will he enable this team, or stifle it? My guess is really neither, but I generally think a manager, on the whole, is more likely to do harm than to elevate their team.

And yet…hellfire, it’s Opening Day. There are literally endless possibilities. This team could be a contender, and should give us something fun to watch. They can be there, day after day, as the spring lazes into summer and shudders into fall. They can be there as the days move on by, each one lasting more than a hundred years, each one disappearing before you got a hold of it. Each one so distinct in the moment and then blurring into memory. Each day eventually faded.

But not every day disappears. Not every moment fades. There are things that last. There are moments where a pitch turns around and you know in your heart that it is leaving the park before the sound even fully reaches your mind, when you are out of your seat making an involuntary gasp, when you jump off your couch or grab the fan next to you, when everything that was possible becomes this one thing, this concrete joy, when it all converges, and you know that it could only have happened this way.

And even if that’s not true — nothing is determined, and an eyelash of difference in the swing would have left you in your seat, unaware that you were so close to joy — that doesn’t matter. It happened. Things happen in this game. To be aware of any possibility is to embrace the chance of all possibilities, no matter what street you walk down. The moment is endless.