Pandemic life provides a lot of time to think and my mind is filled with metaphors lately, like the time I wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic felt like mile two of a marathon. We all have so far to go with social distancing, watching out for each other, and adjusting to the new ways we work, learn and play while we hope for a vaccine to return things to normal.
Another metaphor jumped out at me earlier today while I was watching a preview of tonight’s episode of “Off the Mound” with Ryan Dempster and Jon Lester. Specifically, this discussion about Game Five of the 2016 World Series and the emotion of elimination games struck me as timely:
I don’t know about you all, but the anxiety, hope and fear I felt at the start of Game Five of the 2016 World Series wasn’t all that different from the knot I wake up with in my stomach these days. Don’t get me wrong, a World Series Championship and a global pandemic are radically different stakes and trust me, I am not trying to equate the two. Baseball, even World Series curse-breaking baseball, is not a life or death issue. But I imagine I’m not the only one who spent most of that week wracked with apprehension that only deepened as the Cubs found themselves facing elimination down three games to one against the Indians.
As Lester talks about the emotions he felt going into Game 5, he captured an environment of 41,711 fans who all waited their whole lives to see the Cubs win a World Series game at Wrigley Field. That doesn’t even include those of us in the overflow crowd in and around the ballpark that day. Every neighborhood bar was standing room only with fans praying and hoping beyond hope that the dream of a Cubs World Series win was not over. The crowds spilled into the streets, watching the historic marquee hopefully. The energy of hundreds of thousands of fans desperately wanting the same thing is something I’ll never forget:
What really jumped out at me in this interview, however, is the moment of calm Lester and David Ross experienced amidst immense pressure. Specifically, this exchange:
I just remember that feeling of warming up and going through that and it was a blur, and then walking onto the field and I just remember Rossy and I — I have this routine of when we’re walking in, we talk to the catcher like, “Hey, here’s the signs we want to do on second, here’s the signs with nobody on…” because usually you’re throwing a fastball the first pitch of the game, second pitch of the game. Then he cuts me off and he’s like, ‘I love you, man’ and I’m like, ‘I love you, too’ and it kind of threw me off from everything, just because that might’ve been his last start. So now all that stuff started coming into my mind.
Then we get to the first batter and it’s like, man, I had such an ease about being on the mound, you know? It’s like I’ve prepared, I’m ready, and then it was like punchy, punchy, punchy, and me and Rossy are looking at each other walking off the mound and we’re like, ‘It’s game over.’”
In baseball there is nothing like an elimination game in the World Series, but the players who reach that moment have worked their entire lives to perform under that kind of pressure. Few pitchers have met that moment as well as Lester. The ability to excel in an environment with stakes like elimination, the energy of hundreds of thousands of fans, and perhaps the final game of a teammate’s career doesn’t happen on accident. It’s comforting to me that as I was clenching my sweaty palms together in prayer and hope at Murphy’s Bleachers for nine innings, Lester and Ross both knew they had this one.
We’re still in the first inning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we all do our part to stop the spread and stave off anxiety it is comforting to know there are experts and doctors out there who have spent their whole lives preparing for this moment. Even in my most anxious moments I firmly believe they’ve got this. It may take a while before things look normal again, and I’m sure we’ll all have moments of doubt and sadness along the way, but the experts have prepared for this and we will emerge on the other side.
In the meantime, it’s important to take a break from the onslaught of coronavirus news and remember the things we love that we are hoping to enjoy when the pandemic ends. This exchange between Dempster and Lester isn’t merely a metaphor, post-season Cubs baseball is a pretty good example of something I can’t wait to experience again. You won’t want to miss this interview and you can catch the entire exchange tonight on “Off the Mound” at 7 p.m. on Marquee Sports Network.