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On Yu Darvish, and Scapegoating

Baseball history is littered with scapegoats who "lost" a game for their team, eliciting feelings of betrayal from fans. But it's never that simple.

by Rachael McDaniel
Jun 28 2018, 5:45pm

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This past week saw Yu Darvish return to Dodger Stadium for the first time since Game 7 of last year's World Series. That game, of course, was probably the worst moment of Darvish’s career: a disastrous five-out, five-earned run outing that, in combination with a profoundly ineffectual showing from the Dodgers lineup, put the nail in the coffin of the Dodgers’ hopes of their first title since 1988. It was a genuinely devastating loss, and for Darvish in particular, it was the icing on a particularly horrible week for him—beginning with his equally disastrous first World Series start in Game 3, which was followed immediately by the firestorm surrounding Yuli Gurriel’s racist gesture.

Repeating World Series appearances, even for a team as deep and as wealthy as the Dodgers, is hardly a sure thing. Just look at the Cubs: everyone was speculating they were poised to become the next baseball dynasty and Los Angeles knocked them out in the NLCS before taking on the Astros last year. After dispatching with Chicago, the Dodgers built a 3-2 lead against Houston in the Series. As the team with the best home record in all of baseball, they brought the winner-take-all game to their turf. This was the Dodgers’ best chance, possibly the only chance they’d have in a while, and it was gone. And amid the sting of loss, the thing that stood out the most for Dodgers fans seeking answers was Darvish’s god-awful line. Two starts. Ten outs recorded. Nine runs. If you were looking for someone to blame for the loss: well, there he was.

Though Darvish accepted the blame, though he expressed his appreciation for the Dodgers organization and a desire to come back in his impending free agency, the unspoken truth hung heavy in his words. He wasn’t going to be back. Not just because he didn’t fit into the front office’s plans to stay under the luxury tax threshold, but because nobody would want him to stay.

The appeal of professional sports is built on something of a contradiction. We love sports because they’re an escape—entertaining, fundamentally meaningless games for kids played by adults on an extremely large and well-funded stage. But we also love them because they are more than that. As much as it all really is just a game, the emotional stakes are real for players and fans alike. Players feel the real disappointment of their own failures to perform. And fans, who unlike players have no effect on a game and no ability to change its outcome, experience a disappointment which has nowhere to go but outward. Fans can’t look at their own mistakes and fix them for next time, because they are not the ones who made the mistakes—even though the team might be so integral to their identity that it feels, on some level, as though they personally have failed.

But the frustration is still real, and it needs to be dealt with somehow. Someone has to shoulder the burden of disappointment, and the target of ire is very often a player on the fans’ own team—one who failed in an obvious, inexcusable way. These characters are fixtures in baseball history, all the way back to Fred Merkle and his immortal boner in 1908. The 1925 Washington Senators blew their 3-1 World Series lead, with blame falling on MVP shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh and his eight errors. There was the ball between Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986, the pitch Mitch Williams threw to Joe Carter in 1993, an entire group of Red Sox players and their fried chicken in September of 2011. And, of course, there was Steve Bartman in 2003, who was perhaps even more vilified for the fact that he wasn’t a player.

But though the Cubs would have had a better chance of winning if Moises Alou had recorded an out on that foul ball, Bartman did not lose that game for the Cubs. He did not single-handedly score the eight runs they gave up in that inning. It’s not that the players we hold in such contempt weren’t culpable in the losses we remember them for—it’s that the level of blame assigned to them is almost always disproportionate to their baseball crimes. No one deserves to have to move their families out of a city, or to field an onslaught of social media death threats, because they contributed however significantly to a World Series loss.

Because no matter how significant a player’s failure might be, losing a series is always a team effort. Consider the Dodgers of yesteryear: if Darvish had pitched well in either or both of his starts, the Dodgers might have won. But they might have won Game 7 anyway if they hadn’t gone 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Maybe if Cody Bellinger hadn’t made his first-inning error, Darvish would have settled down. Maybe they wouldn’t even have needed a Game 7 if Clayton Kershaw had been able to hold down a four-run lead in Game 5, or if Kenley Jansen hadn’t blown the save in Game 2. All had their part to play in the Dodgers’ World Series failure, just as in every World Series before.

There are occasions where the villainously good performance of some player on the opposing team takes precedence over scapegoating someone on your own team—in the way, for example, fans of the Texas Rangers came to view Jose Bautista after the bat flip game in 2015. That animosity never has quite the same bite, though, as fans have for the scapegoats of their own team. Your enemies are supposed to be your enemies. To have a player on your team fail when they weren’t supposed to—especially if they’re a player you know to be capable of more—is something emotionally tantamount to a betrayal, even though in reality it isn’t.

At some point, though, you have to let go of the bitterness.

And the animosity some people hold for Yu Darvish’s betrayal, as the pitcher the Dodgers acquired specifically to pitch in the postseason, is still evident almost a year later. Searching “Yu Darvish Dodgers” on any social media platform exposes what is clearly still a fresh wound. He wasn’t a Dodger long enough to have any buffer of forgiveness, and he departed immediately after his failure for a rival, erasing any chance for redemption.

Fans have a right to be mad, sure. Losing feels shitty, especially losing a series that seemed winnable, and Darvish played a big part in that loss. At some point, though, you have to let go of the bitterness. You’re a fan of a baseball team that lost. It doesn’t feel good, but your life has gone and will go on. Darvish has done his public penance tour, and still seems to be processing the fact that he failed the team that gave him his love of baseball back. And while it might be momentarily satisfying to heckle him, whether online or in real life, it’s worth remembering that the people playing this children’s game for your entertainment are real people, with emotions and lives that extend beyond their performance on the field. Baseball is fun, after all.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.