The Ballpark at the End of the Universe

The actual fictional book edition of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” according to the inimitable Douglas Adams, “has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

But there is no official Guide to the Baseball Season, and so panicking comes easily.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have lost Jered Weaver for at least four weeks due to a fractured elbow. The Baltimore Orioles are not winning close games. The much-ballyhooed Toronto Blue Jays are not winning in general. Neither are the Milwaukee Brewers, nor the San Diego Padres, nor the Tampa Bay Rays. The Houston Astros are looking just as miserable as everyone thought they might be.

Throughout the country, excluding perhaps Atlanta, Oakland, Boston and Texas, among others, there are brief stirrings of something that could very well be considered “approaching panic”, which are quickly answered by tweets, blog posts, sports talk calls and columns from rational, level-headed folks, explaining rational, level-headed reasons why it’s far too early to raise the alarm, trying their best not to feel like Kevin Bacon at the end of “Animal House.”

Remain calm, Angels fans!

All is well, Blue Jays fans!

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When a baseball team panics, things happen. Try 1988, say, when the Baltimore Orioles fired Cal Ripken, Sr., after the sixth game of the year. Or try this year, when the Toronto Blue Jays broke camp with Jeremy Jeffress in their bullpen, and then designated him for assignment after one out outing. Panic gets contagious in the clubhouse. Players feel it and begin to press. Some perform worse, some rise higher. The team might turn on each other and on their coaching staff, or it might band even closer together and grit its way through the adversity.

A panicking fanbase is a different beast.

Yes, this is far too early in the season to judge a player’s performance, that a week of early struggles may easily give way to a week of success. Yes, players are working hard right now to iron out mechanical flaws, the same as front offices are working hard to erase any roster flaws that pop up during these initial few weeks. To a panicking fan, however, it all looks like the third act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Even with the onset of  “insiders”, fanbases often have no idea of the inner workings of the players’ and front office’s work toward improvement. To a fan’s eye, everything fits into a pattern. An Angels fan remembers last year’s struggling start after signing Albert Pujols and is feeling déjà vu about this year’s start despite the addition of Josh Hamilton. Blue Jays fans may approach each season with a hope toward something better, particularly this year, but that hope rests on the edge of annual disappointment. Romeo and Juliet are both going to end up dead once again, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

The first fans to generally jump off the bandwagon, too, are the impulsive December ticket-buyers, the folks who are the most energized in December by the big free agent signing – and the most disillusioned before the season is barely an hour old.

(Panicking while losing is one thing. A really traumatized fanbase, though, is one that can’t believe in its team’s success even as the team continues winning games while the weather goes from cold to warm to cold again. Hello, Cleveland.)

The players can sense it, too. They know exactly when their fans believe in them, and when their fans are fearing the worst, expecting a collapse. On the positive side of the coin, think of the crowds in Baltimore and Oakland toward the end of the last year, believing each night that their O’s and A’s would find a way to triumph. On the negative side, remember the way that the Rangers fans began freaking out as the season neared the start of October. Or, well, hello again, Cleveland.

Mid-April is still limbo, thankfully: a time when a quick three-game sweep or even a nice pleasant cakewalk is all that’s necessary to convince us that we were smart not to panic.

Not yet, at least.

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