Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” As was so often the case, he had a point—and it’s as true for baseball as anything.
Tuesday’s All-Star Game was a celebratory moment for the sport. It was a day for Shohei Ohtani, the first player to ever start the game on the mound while leading off. It was a day for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the youngest MVP in All-Star Game history. It was even a day for little Charlie Freeman, as he got to meet his hero, Fernando Tatis Jr., and looked damn good doing it.
In a perfect world, it would’ve been Ronald Acuña Jr.’s day, too. The 23-year-old Atlanta superstar received more votes than any other outfielder, including Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He was set to start in centerfield for the National League, and he probably would’ve led off against Ohtani. As substitutes go, Tatis was no slouch—but for Atlanta fans like myself, and baseball enjoyers everywhere, Acuña’s absence was deeply felt.
He wasn’t the only absent star, of course. Trout, the second-leading American League vote-getter, missed the game due to the calf injury that’s held him out since mid-May. MLB released a list of seven other selections who were sitting out due to injury on Saturday, including Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Mookie Betts, and Buster Posey. The list was released just hours before Acuña tore his ACL in Miami, ending his season after three electric months. It also failed to include stars like Tyler Glasnow, Shane Bieber, and Byron Buxton, who got out to All-Star-caliber starts this season before being waylaid by various maladies. A perfect world, it never was.
Injuries are a constant antagonist for professional athletes, and they happen for lots of reasons. Just look at Atlanta this year: Acuña went down giving it his all on a diving catch attempt; Huascar Ynoa, the team’s early breakout star, got in a fight with a bench; Mike Soroka went through a twisting emotional hell of rehab and mixed diagnoses coming off last year’s crushing Achilles injury, and just when the tendon appeared nearly healed, he tore it again walking into the clubhouse. They say Lady Luck smiles on everyone in time, but some folks just can’t seem to catch a break.
As fans, watching our favorite players get injured is never easy. It’s a funny kind of pain. Most of us have never met these people in our lives, but we feel like we know them. We watch them every day on TV, and we experience their joys in real-time. We see the smiles on their faces when they make big plays. We see the joy they share with their teammates, and try as we might to rationalize, we can’t help but imagine ourselves a part of that exchange. When the smiles fade, replaced by grimaces of pain, we feel that too.
That brings me to last Saturday. As soon as Acuña went down, I got a terrible feeling in my gut. Losing your favorite player to a far-away invisible threat is always a difficult thing to process, but I did it in time—and you can, too.
Based on my experience, I put together a stage-by-stage guide of the injury grief process (complete with GIFs!) for fans like myself who are struggling to cope with such a loss. I hope you find it helpful.
Stage One: Shock
“Please say sike.”
It starts with disbelief. They’re moving in slow motion. You see Freddie Freeman, first on the scene, motioning to the trainer before the play is even over. You completely forget that there is a runner circling the bases to score. Jeff Francouer is dutifully explaining that if he had landed on the grass, y’know, it wouldn’t be so bad, but you don’t even hear it. No, this can’t be happening. Not like this. You wait for him to stand up and shake it off, give a wave to the crowd, anything. You get nothing. It feels like a nightmare, only you can’t wake up.
During this stage, you may experience a sudden loss of focus. Whatever you were doing before flies right out the window. You may have to retrieve it later, and, of course, repair the window. But that’s not important right now, because how can you be okay if he’s not okay and if he’s not okay then when will you ever be okay and—
Slow down, take a deep breath. Collect yourself. Stage two begins shortly.
- Ears ringing
- A wet patch on the carpet at your feet, probably from the drink you were holding. Hopefully.
Stage Two: Denial
“It can’t be that bad…”
You’re sitting on your couch now, already two White Claws into the latest episode of Loki. You know it looked bad, but you’re telling yourself it’s not that serious. Could be a misdiagnosis. He’ll be back. He has to be. And even if it is as bad as they say, he could still return in October. Kirk Gibson did it with both legs injured, you remind yourself for the third time. One teensy weensy ACL is nothing. And modern medicine! They work miracles these days. Why, I bet he’ll be rehabbing by September.
The important thing here is that you don’t get carried away. Rationalization is a natural defense process, but you have to keep it within reason. Otherwise, you’ll start rambling incoherently about how Kris Medlen was once more valuable than Clayton Kershaw and before you know it, they’ll cart you off to the looney bin. I recommend drinking plenty of water.
- Nervous laughter
- Profuse sweating
- Annoyed and/or confused roommate asking about the stain in the carpet
Stage Three: Guilt
“Dear Tiny Baseball Jesus, what have I done??”
The third day is the worst. You start thinking back on the night it happened, and you realize where it all started: you wore the shirt. How could I be so stupid? You knew that shirt was bad luck because every time you wear it your team loses. You thought this time things might change. You tempted fate. Now a man is injured, and it’s all your fault. Or at least, that’s the way it plays out in your head.
This is an absurd thing to think. The baseball players don’t know who you are, and they care not for your fashion choices. It has no effect on their performance for better or worse. Frankly, the very fact that you devote mental energy to such considerations at your age is embarrassing. But just to play it safe, maybe don’t wear the shirt again for a while. There’s no reason to risk it, really.
- Intense shame
- Projecting your insecurities on others
- A nagging urge to burn your belongings as a peace offering to an angry God
Stage Four: Bargaining
“Please, take my ACL!”
By this point, you’ve processed your shock and understand what’s at stake. No more towering leadoff home runs. No more 40/40 watch. No more blissful days on Twitter spent arguing with people who foolishly believe Juan Soto is better. You’ll realize the totality of what you’re about to lose, and you’ll do anything to get ahead of it. You search for ACL donation charities, only to discover that’s not at all how it works. Your burnt offering has produced no change either. Things are looking grim.
For a brief moment, you may consider rooting for the Mets for a while to earn back some karma. DO NOT do this. Trust me, it’s not worth it. The only spiritual rebirth you’ll gain comes with a headache and an inferiority complex.
- Desperate thoughts
- “Bro, Dom Smith is underrated”
Stage Five: Anger
“Dammit, this is Manfred’s fault somehow!”
Day five rolls around and you start to resent the world. What did we do to deserve this? You may think that your team’s luck really is worse than everyone else’s, and you begin to wonder if it’s all a grand conspiracy by the West Coast Elites. Or possibly the East Coast Elites. It’s one or the other, of that you’re sure. It’s all bulls***, you’ll say confidently. Jazz Chisholm is a sleeper agent. The Dodgers got scared, so they planted a tripwire in the outfield—something like that, yeah.
Again, these thoughts are not to be trusted. You’re speaking out of frustration, that’s all. Put down the lamp! Your roommate is getting concerned, and you can’t afford to ruin another rug. Besides, you’ll need to conserve your energy for stage six.
- Violent thoughts
- Desire to fight anyone who mildly inconveniences you
Stage Six: Depression
“…I deserve this.”
As the white-hot frustration fades, you can expect a major let-down right around day six. This is normal. The veil of depression settles in like like an ace pitcher with three outs under his belt and a big lead—which is to say, pretty quickly. In no time at all, your rage against the whichever-coast elites has faded into a bottomless pit of self-pity and resignation. Throw the season in the bin, we suck anyway. Who wants Charlie Morton? Looking at you, Yankees…
Before you revert to the old rebuild-era apathy, consider for a moment whether you might be overreacting just a tad. Sure, things may look bad, but telling everyone this is the “greatest American tragedy since Kobe died” feels unnecessary. Frankly, it’s not very tasteful, either. You do know Ronald’s not dead, right? Hello?
- Lifeless eyes
- Dejected countenance
- A single tear falling slowly down your cheek, possibly in slow motion for dramatic effect
Stage Seven: Acceptance
“Screw it. Let’s win it for ’em, boys.”
Finally, on the seventh day, your emotional journey will come to rest. The fog of depression lifts, and you see the world for what it is: not perfect, not fair, but not so bad. Perhaps a friend sends you Ronald Acuña’s inspirational Instagram post that reads, “In a year from now, we’ll see who’s really working” with two blowing smoke emojis and three gorilla emojis, and it gets you fired up. Yeah, we will see. It’s gonna be over for those fools when he’s back! You realize he can still wear the panda hat in the dugout. A semblance of inner peace returns.
In the meantime, it’s crucial that you remind yourself how important it is that you park your behind on that couch and watch your team, rain or shine. They need you now more than ever. The division is still very much up for grabs, and—OH SH**, WE GOT JOC PEDERSON! Wait, is he still good? Let me check Fangraphs real quick and see what’s up with those splits this year… and just like that, you’re back in the saddle.
Welcome, friend. You’ve made it through the seven stages of injury grief and emerged on the other side, wiser for the journey. Much like Ronald Acuña Jr., a minor setback has set you up for a major comeback. Good for you.
- Understanding of your new reality
- The pain of adjusted expectations
- Good deals on new rugs. I’d check out Wayfair
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare