(FORWARD: Sean is going to hate that I wrote this. But he’ll never tell this story, so I’ll have to.)
Sean went to bed late last night. He watched three DVR’ed episodes of The Simpsons to take his mind off things.
He’d gotten a nasty tweet from some anonymous fan who said that he blamed Sean for “losing” the Wild Card game against the Kansas City Royals a few days prior.
That’s not really anything new to any athlete who has a Twitter account. After every mediocre-to-poor outing he pitches, he gets a series of tweets from armchair “pitching coaches” on Twitter.
Get a change-up bro! Why didn’t you throw it faster? Your hair is weird! Why’d you throw a slider on an 0-2 count, loser! I hate your beard! You should be sent down to the minor leagues! You should be sent back to little league! I hope you tear your ACL! My mom didn’t hug me enough when I was a kid!
Whatever. Those are easy to ignore. I mean, after a bad outing, nobody gets angrier at Sean than Sean. If you think his performance disappointed you, imagine how disappointed Sean is. Angry tweets can’t tell him anything new. He wants to win more than anyone. He’s still one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. But he’s human.
Being a relief pitcher is a pretty thankless job. Just take the ball and for god’s sake don’t. let. anything. happen.
But there are plenty of seemingly thankless jobs out there in sports. Relief pitcher is just one of them. How about being a late-inning defensive substitution? Pay attention and don’t drop anything. Or try being a long snapper in football. You don’t even know their name until they screw up.
It’s the job he signed up for. And it’s the job he’s thankful to even have.
He was drafted as a power hitting first baseman for the Oakland Athletics in 2007. He was once considered a top hitting prospect.
But then the injuries came. Three seasons worth of them. After three years of this, he felt like maybe the end of his road in baseball was on a minor league training table.
He started looking up college courses again so he could go back to school and finish up his degree at the University of Virginia. Maybe he could get a regular job. He’d devoted his entire childhood and adolescence to baseball, so he never had a chance to have a normal job, but what choice did he have?
But then the Oakland Athletics came to him and asked him if he wanted to start throwing in case his right wrist never healed properly. It was something to help him pass the time and stay sane. If you go to enough doctors/trainers/healers, eventually you’ll start to see yourself as broken. They didn’t want that.
The wrist never did fully heal, but throwing went better than anybody expected.
The A’s sent a scout to watch him throw a few live batting practices, and it went well enough that by the end of that day, Sean was a pitcher.
Fast forward a few months (19 minor league innings pitched, to be exact) to early June 2012, and he made his major league debut. The first batter he faced was Nelson Cruz. He struck him out. Then he struck out the next two guys too; Yorvi Torrealba, and Mike Napoli.
He’s had ups and downs as a pitcher since then. Part of it had to do with the fact that pitching was so new to him. He never really failed on a professional level as a pitcher, so he never learned how to recover from failure. He had to learn to do that on the job.
It’s best to suck when nobody’s watching. Sean didn’t have that luxury.
Early in the 2014 season, he was offered an extension contract with the A’s. He wasn’t the closer at the time, so of course there was a lot of talk about why on earth any team would offer any extension to a lefty set up man.
Many wanted to know who got the best end of this deal. Was Sean ripping the team off? Was the team ripping Sean off? Who wins in this deal?
I’ll tell you who wins in this deal: the fans. The day he signed his contract (an unprecedented one for a reliever), he met up with his friend Dereck, a lifelong A’s fan who’d been stationed at a US Army base in Afghanistan.
Sean had sent Dereck care packages and notes and fostered a real friendship with Dereck without ever having met him in person. Now he keeps Dereck’s hat in his locker. If you see him talking to the media after games you can spot the camouflage hat behind him. It’s a bit of a talisman for him, but more than that it’s a reminder that there are people out there whose vocational margin for error is so much thinner.
And that is not lost on Sean, who grew up in a military family. Whose father won a bronze star for his service in the Air Force during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Whose not-too-distant cousin was General Jimmy Doolittle; the man who launched the successful Doolittle Raid in World War II off the shores of nearby Alameda.
Who, as a child, lived at Castle Air Force Base, close enough to the Oakland Coliseum (which, incidentally, is just off Doolittle Drive in Oakland) that they had season tickets to A’s games.
Who every year buys a truck full of Christmas gifts for underprivileged military families on behalf of Operation Finally Home.
The weekend after he signed the contract, he met with Marcos Garcia, brother of Diego Garcia. Diego was another lifelong A’s fan who was tragically killed by a drunk driver a few months prior. Sean had seen photos of Diego’s funeral; the pallbearers were wearing A’s jerseys. Diego was buried in a Yoenis Cespedes jersey.
He saw that the Athletics meant so much to Diego, and that Diego meant even more to his family and to his community. He had to do something. Sean immediately spoke to the front office about setting up a date for Diego’s family to throw out the first pitch at a game.
Marcos threw out the first pitch on April 19th before the game against the Astros. It was a perfect throw. Right over the plate and into the glove of Yoenis Cespedes himself.
The team also wins in this deal. They get a discount on an All-Star closer locked up for the next five to seven years.
And we win. We have the security of knowing where we’ll live for the next few years; a luxury for any athlete. Much less a relief pitcher. Much less a lefty relief pitcher. Those guys are lucky to get more than one year with any team.
Sean gets to play for his home team. The team he grew up cheering for in the stands of the Oakland Coliseum. He gets to play for some of the guys he idolized on the A’s in the early 90s.
So keep fast forwarding (I’ll stop asking you to fast forward soon, I promise) to last Tuesday. Sean gave up a run in the 9th inning of the AL Wild Card game. It was on a bloop single into right, pinch runner, sacrifice bunt, stolen base, sacrifice fly. A bunch of little things that made a huge difference. It tied the game and brought it into extra innings.
I was sitting in the stands in Kansas City in front of all of my fellow Oakland A’s wives and girlfriends. Did they hate him? Did they blame Sean? Did they blame me by extension? I could feel their eyes on the back of my neck. My stomach turned. The Kansas City fans (wonderful fans, by the way) were ecstatic. It was fucking pandemonium.
It’s hard to watch Sean struggle in a game. It’s rare enough that I don’t worry too much about it. But it’s even harder seeing it happen on the road in such an important game. All the fans around you are screaming and laughing and cheering. Sean is a few hundred feet away. I can see his body language. He’s mad. Or he’s frustrated. But later he’ll be furious at himself. He may never forgive himself. I know that’s coming. I can see how much anguish was packed into his body at that very moment.
And while I know the happy fans around me aren’t cheering for Sean’s pain, per se, they might as well be.
I wanted to throw up.
After the game, I gathered with the rest of the A’s wives and girlfriends in the tunnel outside the locker rooms under Kauffman Stadium. For some reason, the Royals security staff had put us in the same hallway in which the Royals players and their families were celebrating. We were told to wait there until our guys came out so we could get back on our respective one-way flights home.
We were steps away from a celebration we wanted so badly to be a part of.
Some of the wives were on the brink of tears. I felt for Adam Dunn’s wife. This was the first playoff game she’d ever been to as the wife of a player. Adam had played 2,001 games without ever making it to the post season. His 2,002nd game was the AL Wild Card game. And after the game ended, Adam retired.
I felt for some of the other wives who were getting hit with wayward sprays of champagne from the Royals team celebration happening ten feet away from us. Our guys would have to come out to this hallway past the celebration to find us reeking of champagne. Almost as a living, stinking reminder that we came so close to winning that game that we even smelled like we’d won it.
We were told gruffly to move to the side so that media cameras could witness the Royals celebrate their berth in the ALDS for the first time since 1985. Longer than most of us have been alive.
We sat on the floor of the hallway behind some cordons. Babies and small children up well past their bedtimes toddled past us. Some in diapers and nothing else. It was hot down there, and nobody wanted to fly home with a small child who smelled like a tiny alcoholic. So they took the champagne-sprayed clothing off the babies and toddlers and continued to wait.
Eventually the Royals took their celebration back into the clubhouse and we were left in a mostly silent hallway. The only sounds were muffled tears of some of the other A’s WAGs, the unmuffled crying of the hot, tired children, and the one-sided phone conversations many of us were having with various airlines trying to change our flights from Kansas City to Anaheim to Kansas City to our offseason homes.
That’s a phone call I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
After about an hour of this, Sean came out of the clubhouse with the look on his face I’d been expecting.
The greatest quality about Sean is that he’s accountable. Hell, he’s won awards from the A’s beat writers for being such a great interview; one of the good guys.
Growing up in a strict military family, he learned to cop to his mistakes and to learn from them.
But he’s too accountable. If it were up to him, he’d shoulder all the blame. He does, and he did.
Twitter probably broke from all the nasty tweets people sent him that night. I got several too. People telling me I was dating a loser. Wishing death upon him.
I shut my phone off after I changed my flight. I asked Sean to do the same. Not tonight.
For the last week, we’ve watched the playoffs unfold. They’ve been fun to watch. Like, REALLY fun. But I know that Sean still blamed himself.
Last night we watched the Royals clinch a berth in the ALCS. It was amazing. They have an incredible team, and I hope they win it all.
I finally saw Sean smile after nearly a week. Seeing him enjoying watching another team win made me think he was finally better. He’d gotten past it. We could officially begin the offseason.
Then he got a tweet. Just one tweet. Someone said, in so many words, that he hoped Sean was being eaten up inside about how he lost the game for the A’s.
This was different than all the other nasty tweets he’d gotten before. I don’t know why, but it was. Probably because he actually was being eaten up inside. It was like someone had suddenly pulled a shower curtain back on his soul. And it was cold.
He gave me a look that seemed to ask, “is this what people think? Do the fans all hate me now? Did I let them down? Did I lose it for them?”
Of course he didn’t, but try telling that to him after his brain had already convinced him that he had. All he needed was one moron on Twitter to validate his thinking.
He got very quiet. His face looked more pained than it did when he first came out of the Kansas City locker room a few nights before.
I’m a very protective person, so a big part of me wanted to hurl someone into a goddamned well and leave them there forever. How dare they tell Sean what he’s already convinced himself?
He went to bed upset. That quiet kind of upset, which is the worst kind of upset.
I woke up early this morning to work. Let Sean sleep.
I suddenly got dozens of notifications on my phone. Some A’s fans had seen the ugly tweet from an anonymous “fan” to Sean and decided they didn’t agree with it.
Together they all tweeted wonderful messages of encouragement for him. They even got #SeanDoolittleAppreciationDay trending. What a seemingly small silly thing that meant so much.
Some shared funny pictures of Sean, many thanked him, and many more made it abundantly clear that the anonymous moron didn’t speak for their fan base.
The best part was seeing how many people realized that he does care. How many people get the opportunity to play for their favorite childhood team? Of course he wants them to win. And of course he hates it when they lose. That kid cheering on Rickey Henderson in the stands? He has a direct hand in helping his favorite team win. He is part of their fan base.
And what a wonderful fan base it is.
This morning felt like a cross between that last scene in A Christmas Carol and that last scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.
I was nearly speechless. I ran into the bedroom and shook Sean awake.
Sean, wake up! Something wonderful has happened!
– Did the Angels and Tigers get swept?
Well, yes… but that’s not what I meant… look, you’re trending on Twitter!
Sean sat up with a start and grabbed his phone to see what I meant. A look of happy disbelief washed over his face. They didn’t all hate him. They didn’t all blame him. Nobody was going to hunt him down and hurt him. Nobody wished he felt the anguish he’d already felt.
In fact, they… they love him.
Sean leaned out of our ninth floor window and yelled down to the San Francisco street below.
– You there boy, what day is this?
A group of hoodie-wearing tech bros on their way to work looked up. They wondered which one of them Sean was yelling to.
“Why it’s Sean Doolittle Appreciation Day, sir,” one tech bro yelled skyward, “and while I’ve got your attention, can you contribute to my startup’s Kicksta–
Sean slammed the window shut and smiled to himself. He hadn’t dreamt it.
– Eireann, go run to the store and buy the biggest roast goose you can find!
Are you sure you want goose? It’s so fatty. Besides, I don’t eat meat and I have no idea how to cook goose. I don’t think it’ll fit in our oven. Also I think I’ll have to go to Chinatown to find goose meat, and that’s a schlep. Are you really set on goose?
– Ugh okay fine, just order a pizza. No weird veggies on it. This is going to be the best Sean Doolittle Appreciation Day ever!
Sean, this is the first Sean Doolittle Apprecia–
Shutup, Eireann, let me have this.
You’re right. Sorry. God bless us, everyone.