Pain, Baseball, and Near-Death

Though he sent the Yankees home, even Jose Altuve, the Astros and their fans were sent home unhappy after the World Series. (via Keith Allison)

This one hurt.

Yankees fans such as myself expect our team to win the World Series every year. That’s not to say they should win every single championship, but in any given season we expect this to be the year. Sure, we’d sign up for one guaranteed championship in three years, or five years, but in which seasons is it okay not to win? After 103 regular-season victories and an ALDS sweep of the Twins, it certainly wasn’t this one.

High expectations are a double-edged sword. The Yankees haven’t finished below .500 since 1992, and have collected five World Series trophies since then. They’re 2,523-1,780 with 21 playoff appearances over the last 27 years. Modern Yankees fans have never suffered through a rebuild or any period of prolonged on-field disgrace. In a larger sense, life is pretty good.

But with consistently high expectations comes a high rate of failure, and some failures hurt worse than others. We watched 10 1/2 exasperating innings of a 2-2 deadlock in Game Two of the ALCS, only to be sent to bed at 1 a.m. when Carlos Correa blasted a J.A. Happ offering to lead off the bottom of the 11th. We witnessed rally after rally crumble to dust with a combined 0-13 with 19 left on base in Games Three and Four.

Most insidiously, a Game Five win gave a spark of hope. This hope was nearly stamped out after a 4-2 deficit through eight innings of Game Six, then burst into a conflagration with D.J. LeMahieu’s game-tying home run off Roberto Osuna. It was then extinguished completely a half-inning late when José Altuve sent the Yankees home for good.

The problem with pain is that it’s irrational. No matter how much success the Yankees have enjoyed, the anguish of the moment hurts all the same. Logically, we should be grateful for all of the good times, with so many glorious moments in the regular season and ALDS. We should have fattened up on satisfaction from nearly three decades among baseball’s elite.

But suffering is not relative. When something hurts, it hurts, no matter how much enjoyment came before or how much others around us are suffering. It slashes your soul with venom and malice. It will not be assuaged by all the things for which we should be thankful.

By design, 29 out of 30 fan bases experience pain every season. Even though some fans have more cause for suffering than others, we all feel pain in similarly profound ways. The pain of a Mariners fan after so many consecutive empty Octobers is substantial, but so is the pain of a Dodgers fan after winning 106 games and failing to advance in the postseason. The Mariners fan yearns desperately to feel what the Dodgers fan feels, but that doesn’t lessen the suffering felt in L.A. Even Dodgers fans, who haven’t celebrated a championship since 1988, might love to trade places with Red Sox fans, who missed the playoffs a year after winning the World Series. Yet they, too, experience a different kind of agony.

The dull, throbbing ache of watching the Tigers lose 114 games is difficult to bear, but at least there isn’t a surprise ending. Is this worse than feeling all of that excruciation at once, with a swing of Altuve’s bat? It should be, if we go by win-loss records or any other reasonable measure of success. But emotions don’t adjust for context, so who’s to say?


The irrationality of pain manifests in real life, too. The unique, specific suffering of each fan base makes me think of my brother, Ken: a 33-year-old man on the autism spectrum who hates baseball and nearly died in January when a virus attacked his heart.

On the afternoon of December 31, 2018, he checked into a local hospital for what he thought was a stomach virus. The doctors discovered his heart rate surpassed 170 bpm, and they could not bring it down to a reasonable level. They stopped and restarted his heart using a defibrillator several times, with no success. He was transferred to Yale New Haven Hospital immediately, where they discovered that his heart was functioning at less than 20 percent capacity.

I drove up from New Jersey to see him the next morning. I had trouble finding a parking space, and had to circle the hospital a few times. When I went inside, I found my parents crying in the main lobby. He had just coded, and his organs shut down for five full minutes. He was brought back using CPR, then rushed into surgery. This all happened in the 1o minutes before my arrival. I thought my brother had died, and that I missed the chance to say goodbye because I was looking for a decent parking spot.

He survived one major surgery, then another, then a few more minor ones. His major organs were at risk because he had coded for so long, but he slowly regained brain functioning, then kidneys, lungs, and eventually heart. Over the slow, exhausting weeks to follow, the countless tubes and beeping machines intertwined with his body began to disappear. He could blink his eyes, then squeeze your hand, then nod his head, and finally speak.

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Ken left the hospital in reasonably good health five weeks later. Upon departure, the doctors told us only one percent of patients who come to the hospital in his condition ever leave. He’s fine now, leading a charmed life by the beach in Southern Connecticut, playing guitar and singing children’s songs for preschoolers.

Yet he calls me every day with anxieties. He worries constantly about when he’ll take his next vacation, how much time he gets to spend with his girlfriend, and how many desserts he gets to eat. Such silly troubles seem inconsequential to me. I have a considerably more frenetic life. I work a lot more than he does, and have more obligations. On the scale of things I worry about daily, vacations doesn’t even rate.

There’s a second reason why I don’t understand my brother’s suffering. He lived through the immense, terrible pain of nearly dying earlier this year. How anything related to dessert could matter to someone who barely survived prolonged cardiac failure, I simply fail to grasp.

Anxiety and suffering are funny in that way. It doesn’t matter that the magnitude of my everyday problems are much larger than his. Knowing that other people have more to worry about than he does doesn’t diminish his own concerns. Nor are they alleviated by the fact that he’s extraordinarily lucky just to be alive at all.

I have a bad habit of dismissing his suffering and anxiety, but he experiences them as profoundly as I experience my own, or anyone with more significant problems than me experiences theirs. He’s entitled to his emotions, and when I try to contextualize them, I lessen our connection. I’m sorry for that; I’ll try to be more sympathetic and understanding from now on. After all, I almost lost the opportunity altogether.


As former catcher John Jaso once said, “Such is this game, such is life.” Nearly every fan base will feel suffering this season, just as they do every year. While the fan of a non-playoff team might prefer the suffering of a postseason loss, that doesn’t diminish the pain of an October exit.

In the same way, I can’t wave aside the things causing my brother pain just because they seem less important to me. The whole world suffers, and all of us can find someone who feels worse pain than we do, but that doesn’t reduce our own. All we can do is try to be a little more respectful of what each other feels; be a little kinder to one another to help us all get by. Maybe that means showing a little more empathy for family members — even the ones that drive you crazy. Maybe it just means being kind to people when their baseball team gets eliminated — even if they wear a Yankees hat.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. He is a writer and editor for Beyond the Box Score. Tweets @depstein1983.
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Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

… okay, on full consideration, not complaining about entitled Yankees fans on this one.


Exactly, if you understand family is of utmost importance of, than it doesn’t matter how irrational you may behave as a fan (aside from hurting an opposing fan), thank you for having your heart in the right place.