Sunday, January 16, 2005

Disbelieving Doug and the One-Eyed Jack
By Bryan Koch

I have a tendency to shuffle cards when I get nervous.

There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. It all began in 1995, when the Yankees and Mariners played the first meaningful playoff series I can fully remember. The problem was that in my clumsy, misguided ten year-old body, I had difficulties accomplishing even the most unsophisticated of tasks. Lacing my shoes without having to retie them moments later, getting a fitted sheet to stay on a mattress, roller blading, acknowledging a girl’s presence without completely mortifying myself; these were entirely alien concepts. So it should come as no surprise that no one was going to mistake me for a Vegas dealer when it came to card shuffling.

It was an extraordinary division series. I remember listening to David Cone surrender the Game 5 lead, wincing as Mariners crowded the bases in the eleventh inning against Jack Mcdowell. But I didn’t see much of it. No, visually, I only recall an ace of hearts, a three of diamonds, a ten of clubs. See, in defiance of my inability to properly shuffle cards, I was cradling the deck with one hand, and flipping each card onto the floor, one at a time, with the other. When I was through with the deck, I’d briskly sweep them all back into my palm and start the cycle again.
Can you believe this guy was even on the hall of fame ballot?
Eight of clubs, four of hearts, king of spades. The game went on, but all I could bear to watch was fifty-two cards, four suits, two colors, one card at a time.

Back then, I was the purest of the sports heartbreaker virgins. All of the attention I had paid to the team, all the time I had spent circumspectly examining each and every box score, memorizing league leaders so I could keep up in conversation with the adults; I had no idea it could all possibly go for naught. No one had told me that it was, ultimately, in fact probable that my most ambitious dreams would be crushed; that these devastating defeats would manifest themselves once again the following season, perhaps in slightly altered form, around 97% of the time for every fan of every team in America, and that this would happen every year so long as professional sports were being played. While I was certainly awkward, I wasn’t dim-witted, and I well understood that every team but one was destined for failure. But I didn’t know it. And that nuance, it turns out, makes all the difference.

So when Edgar Martinez came to bat in the eleventh with Ken Griffey Jr. standing on first base, and Joey Cora on third, I wasn’t even acutely aware of how emotionally ravaging a postseason malfunction could be. The sports heartbreaker was an unspeakable, indescribable villain, and it was slowly, methodically swooping in for the kill. Still, brilliantly naïve, I sat in my sweatpants on the living room floor, calmly tossing out cards. Six of diamonds, ace of diamonds, queen of clubs. I knew I felt antsy, but I couldn’t discern what had stolen my appetite, my homeostasis, or my care for anything else in the world but the game.

As it turns out, my apprehension had some sort of premonitory power. Martinez doubled. I heard the adults behind me groan and I knew something had gone awry, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude until I forced myself to look up, just in time to witness Griffey reach home plate. Suddenly, people were chattering about next year, talking about how some of the faces I’d grown to love might never play in pinstripes again. They dismissed men who had quickly become my heroes because their contracts were up, whatever that meant. Some whispered that Don Mattingly had suited up for the last time. Frantically, I appealed to my half-emptied deck and flipped the top card to the ground: Jack of spades.

I quickly convinced myself that because only one of Jack’s eyes was visible, he must have been winking at me with the other one. Otherwise, the cardmakers would have shown his whole face, right? Jack’s winking somehow signaled to me that this cruel twist of fate was a scam, a ploy designed to test the faith of the Yankee faithful. Everyone else was in on it.

So I sat, patiently waiting for the players to run back out for the twelfth inning. When that didn’t happen, I remained unruffled and stayed put, expecting the post-game crew to break into relentless laughter at any moment, giving away the conspiracy.
Calm down, guys. You're about to get crushed by Cleveland.
When the late local news came on, I waited for the sports reporter to tell me that the Yankees had won. He said they lost. Apparently the schemers had even gotten to him.

I didn’t actually expect any of this happen. Nor was I clueless when the inevitable banter about the off-season broke out. I had been told before that baseball was a business, and that Cone and Key and Mattingly and all those great ballplayers were getting paid. I just didn’t want to believe it. I’d been watching the team for three seasons, and I’d been through this whole process. Still, somehow, I didn’t really believe the Yankees had lost. It just seemed illogical.

Denial is a common reaction when we’re faced with tragedy, but it’s particularly prevalent among sports fans. Whenever I watch a replay of something gone wrong for my team, I expect the mistake to vanish with the second camera angle; a new, dissenting opinion. The play-by-play guy will scratch his head, shrug his shoulders, and say, “Well, I guess Ewing’s finger-roll found the basket, after all,” or, “Turns out Gonzalez’s blooper found Derek Jeter’s glove, Folks. Chalk up another championship for the Yankees.” It simply has to be fixed. There’s no way that could have happened. It wasn’t part of the plan.

There I sat, a teary-eyed boy on a ragged carpet, crushed for the very first time (Unless you count the fourth-grade Halloween dance… How could she have mixed me up with the other Darth Vader?).
This guy doesn't know his own name.
I looked back down at Jack for confirmation, but he was still winking. Jack was optimistic, if not reliable.

Fast forward ten years, and not much has changed. The Jets are lining up for a go-ahead forty-seven yard field goal with two minutes to play, primed to bring the mighty Steelers to their knees. At some point over the decade, I’ve learned to properly shuffle, but that technique has only sufficed for the first three and a half quarters. I need answers. Evoking even more nostalgia (watching the Jets play a close game is a broken record, ad infinitum), I shuffle the deck, then start slowly, systematically flipping cards onto my girlfriend’s living room carpet (apparently at some point over the last ten years, I’ve also learned to talk to women without throwing up): Five of clubs, six of hearts, ten of clubs.

I imagine the cards serve as some sort of control mirage. As they helplessly flutter to the floor, I link my role in this distraction to my role in the game. Somehow, it pacifies that immeasurably agonizing feeling of helplessness.

Brien’s field goal hits the crossbar with an ominous, hollow “clunk,” and drops forward, although not nearly as rapidly as my heart, or the curses I link to the kicker’s name.

Queen of diamonds, queen of hearts, nine of hearts.

David Barrett intercepts Ben Roethlisberger’s first throw of the ensuing drive, running the ball back into Steeler territory. I momentarily confuse the Jets with another team, one that capitalizes on momentum, and actually believe they might win.
You can't miss two game-winner's in two minutes... right?

Four of spades, two of diamonds, seven of clubs.

With a minute left and two time-outs in hand, Paul Hackett and Herm Edwards inexplicably decide to abruptly halt the execution of any and all plays designed to gain yardage (and theoretically help one’s own team, but I suppose it is just theory). They actually move the ball back two yards, setting up Brien with a forty-three yard shot at redemption.

Jack of diamonds (a close relative of my old friend), four of diamonds, king of hearts.

Brien’s kick veers so far left that it actually sails through the goal posts in the opposite end zone. I quickly consult my rulebook to see if this should have been called good.

Eight of clubs, six of spades, ace of diamonds.

In overtime, Anthony Becht finds himself involved in one more mishap, Paul Hackett discovers another gem in the “Idiot’s Guide to Play-Calling,” and Chad Pennington decides that two yards isn’t as far off from ten as it sounds.

Ace of hearts, six of clubs, five of spades.

When Jeff Reed lines up to attempt a game-winning thirty-three yard kick, only one card remains in my hand. I manage a smirk through the frustration and wonder.

Reed’s kick is good. The Jets are going home until August. Deflated, I toss the card away from the area where the other fifty-one are piled.

Jack is still winking.


Blogger Dub V.2 said...

While I do not now, nor will I ever, understand how a Yankees fan and a Mariners fan can share the same page, I'd have to say that "Disbelieving Doug and the One-Eyed Jack" was an excellent rendering of the other side of that coin. I'd like to hear Geballe's version of that day. See, as a Yankees fan you have many of those moments, but for those of us who love the Mariners we, really, only have Edgar's double. Sure, you could point to the Sonics NBA Finals appearance, but as you say, "every team but one [is] destined for failure". Getting there, for people like us is never enough, and for every getting there moment I have, I can give you one thousand First round exits at the hands of Dikembe and the Nuggets.

12:36 PM  

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