When I was a kid playing sports, adults told me that it didn’t matter if I won or lost. I did a tremendous job taking this to heart. I dogged it on sprints, turned in REAL mediocre performances day after day, and basically stopped thinking about whatever game I was playing the second I left the field. “Eh, whatever,” was the call of my athletic career, my demon’s yawp, deep from the bottom of my lungs. In retrospect, this was probably not the best thing I could have done with my time on the field. There was a second half of that saying that I did a pretty spectacular job of ignoring, though: “It’s the way you play the game."
There were lessons to be learned from devoting oneself to the pursuit of a certain kind of personal excellence that sports can manifest, and I cast them off and mostly didn’t give a shit. Instead of gassing myself out on the field, I loafed. Instead of devoting myself to understanding the nuances of The Game, I did what occurred to me up top and shrugged my shoulders when it didn’t work out. Instead of devoting myself to TRAINING, I kicked back in my room and read a giant fucking pile of Peanuts anthologies I bought at a garage sale.
Last week, @Peanuts50YrsAgo, a fabulous Twitter account that posts the edition of Charles Schulz’s sprawling comic strip masterwork that was originally published 50 years ago that day, told a sports story that is the opposite of my own. A tale of failure that is not yanked out from the root, as mine was, but instead allowed to take hold and sprawl and reach out towards the sun, a hideous, life-annihilating monstrosity that is the manifestation of a dystopian application of a particular sort of self confidence and desire that I will call the Athlete Mindset.
The story begins with our hero, Charlie Brown, standing on the baseball mound, the site of so many of his most profound failures. For those not familiar, in his ill-defined neighborhood team’s structure, Charlie is, seemingly because he is the only person who wants it, his team’s manager and pitcher. He is not very good at either task, getting lit up in strip after strip, for year after year, occasionally suffering the pure indignity of a line drive hitting him and knocking all of his clothes off, while the rest of his teammates—including his dog, the consensus best player—just kind of don't give a shit. There's a very simple reason for this grim outlook: you don't make the finest work of comic art of the latter half of the 20th century by writing a comic where the main character gets what he wants, you do it by distilling your tremendous depression into a daily comic strip aimed, presumably, at children.
Anyway, Charlie looks out and sees “The Little Red-Haired Girl,” a girl never once seen by the readership, who is the object of all his romantic desires and dreams. She is watching his baseball game, and he sits there, alone on that mound, and just dreads.
One presumes that Charlie is going to be embarrassed in his customary manner, a line drive stripping him to his skivvies, becoming the object of Lucy’s ridicule. But Schulz must have been feeling particularly ornery that week, because the fate he manages to cook up for the pen-and-paper manifestation of all the worst things we imagine about ourselves is EVEN FUCKING WORSE.
Instead, Schroeder, game-managing catcher and dispassionate, the technically-gifted artist that he is, asks what is going on. Charlie Brown tells him the subject of his distant, tormented affection is in the stands. Schroeder, who knows his man is just, like, entirely too in his head to really make it happen—whether that's pitching, or talking to that girl, or ANYTHING, really—walks away while Charlie Brown makes a whole world of his own success in his head. It lasts exactly one panel.
Charlie Brown, apparently playing in a league without balk rules, immediately seizes up and cannot throw. He shakes and proceeds to have what is, for all intents and purposes, a panic attack. Lucy also calls him a dog, which, I mean, he is a blockhead and it’s hard to act like he doesn’t deserve it, on some level.
Charlie Brown’s best friend, Linus, feeling for his man, guides him off the field and takes him home, where he gets into bed and continues freaking the hell out, trying to use his vision of a better world to coax himself out of his lengthy panic episode.
For those who are not intimately familiar with anxiety disorders, this does not work. Ever. Generally, you are supposed to accept the worst case scenario, accept that it could probably happen, and try to move on from there, devoting yourself to doing your best and hoping it turns out okay. Unfortunately, Charlie Brown hasn’t been told this, yet. God hopes he was, eventually.
Three hours later, presumably, Charlie Brown feels better and heads back to the field, where he is informed that the game went on without him—probably a good move, considering he was having a debilitating anxiety episode—that Linus pitched, very well, and his team, which never manages to win for some reason or another, has won in his absence. AND THEN, just to add insult to injury, The Red-Haired Girl got up, ran to the mound, and gave Linus a big hug on account of his tremendous athletic prowess, the very dream scenario Charlie envisioned for himself before reality burst that bubble.
Charlie is relentless, though. Just likeC.J. McCollum has spent the entire summer displaying the purity of the Athlete Mindset by aggressively reminding everyone that he is, in fact, not a loser just because he doesn't play for the Warriors and quite frankly WANTS TO WIN THE RIGHT WAY, Charlie Brown will die on this hill, which is more of a mound, but whatever. He fucking refuses to get off that thing even though, clearly, Linus or Snoopy or whoever the fuck is dramatically superior at pitching than he is. He refuses to stop declaring himself the manager, desiring control of everything, even though no one listens to him and Lucy, his teammate, seems to be playing almost entirely to belittle him. He ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT try a game that isn’t baseball, because the subject of those rambling dreams in his head is baseball, and he figures that, goddammit, all he needs to do is POWER THROUGH and he can MAKE MANIFEST THE VICTORIES OF HIS DREAMS.
This works, when you have talent! High level athletes are psychos in this exact way, creating fantasies about themselves and bleeding and dying to make those fantasies reality, managing to climb mountains of money to look out on the horizon and survey the vast kingdoms of their victories, one right after another, while still never being satisfied.
What Schulz creates in Charlie Brown’s baseball career is a pure neurotic flip of that dream, a nightmare where a young man is given pure Athlete Mindset, a need to succeed on his own terms and a craving for success and the love that comes along with success, that is COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY impossible due to a combination of his pure lack of physical or tactical talent and the immense neurosis growing out of that need.
His is the story of the kid Max Scherzer struck out looking time after time in high school, the poor, committed sap Allen Iverson dominated when he was 12, the myriad high schoolers who dreamed of quarterback glory only to watch Matt Ryan steal it away from them, the kids who might have the same ambition and drive and craving for glory of even the fringiest European NBA Prospect, but who quite simply didn’t have the talent or the mental gifts to come even close to making it happen. It wasn’t me, of course, and thank God for that. That shit is a curse more than it’s a blessing, unless you’re walking around with the tools to make your dreams come true. Without those tools, you'd probably lose your shirt, too.