Still Traveling the Road to the Show, Even After Flunking Out of It

Ten years ago I was demoted in my job at the now-dead Rocky Mountain News. The subject is not something I talk about much, but it happened, and I worked with plenty of people who knew the score. The situation wasn't handled well, by either me or my bosses. Ultimately, it ended my newspaper career.

So you can imagine my thoughts when, 10 years later, I get demoted. In a video game. By a video game.

Never, in a long history of playing MLB The Show's "Road to the Show" career mode, have I been sent back to the minor leagues after making the majors. That is not to say it is impossible. But even as it strives for realism, The Show is also a $60 piece of entertainment software that caters to the sports fantasy of those who buy it. You have to be playing over your head, or deliberately screwing up, to see this occur.

I checked with a few friends and they couldn't recall it happening to them, either. One said he pulled a rehab assignment in the minors, but once they made The Show, they were there for good. I also know no one who has played a career in which he was released, though it may be due to the length of time necessary to see that.

There was a perfect storm of circumstances leading to this. I created my pitcher a little older, as an homage to Kelly Jack Swift, the last 30-game winner of the minor leagues. When you have a player of an advanced age, clubs will move him up more quickly, as his career span is assumed to be shorter. Second, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, a terrible team with a nondescript rotation after Justin Masterson. And third, I was pitching against Hall of Fame difficulty, with some other adjustments making the task tougher.

The game simply failed me up. I blew through Double-A Akron and was called up to Cleveland before I was to start the AAA All Star Game. Now that I think about it, in MLB The Show, I'd never made the majors in my first professional season. But carrying a 97-mph fastball to a start in the International League is nothing like coming in for mop-up duty in the majors, with men on in a game you're already losing. It always seemed to be against big guys like Mike Trout or Prince Fielder, too. I felt as though I'd been set up to fail, another pang with echoes in getting busted down in real life.

This puts you in a downward spiral in a hurry. Your skills improve with training points. Training points are awarded for skillfully getting batters out. I failed two sets of advancement goals and was warned, officially. After flunking the third set it was back to Columbus.

A strange thing happens when you go back to the minors. The game does not give you any advancement goals. (For a pitcher, your innings are also more strictly limited, as if you were rehabilitating after an injury.) Typically these involve improving two attributes and then performing at or better than two statistical measures in the coming two weeks. When I went down to AAA, there was none of that. This is what called up the worst memories of my real-life demotion. To be sanctioned for poor performance is one thing. People screw up all the time. To come to work and have no expectations of you, like it almost doesn't matter if you're there, or what you do when you're there, is a purgatory I never want to re-enter.

This isn't a career path many would choose, of course. After enough warning signs, most gamers would back the difficulty down to something more manageable or, worse, go buy a bunch of Training Points, which I've likened to performance-enhancing drugs, just to keep up.

Yet I think about the most meaningful games I've ever seen, and some of the most striking are the victories by losing or irrelevant teams. In 2003, the year I was busted down in real life, the Detroit Tigers, 49 games out of first, won five of their last six to stop their futility at 119 losses, and avoid the worst record in modern baseball history. I think about the guy who went out to the mound on that last day, Mike Maroth, the first 20-game loser in a generation, who pitched them to victory.

In 1991, Roger Craig, the skipper of a 75-87 San Francisco Giants team, publicly vowed to manage the final series like it was a championship, to knock out the Los Angeles Dodgers and help Atlanta complete a worst-to-first run. The Giants won two of three, and set in motion a playoff that culminated in one of the greatest World Series ever.

Two years before that I saw Orel Hershiser, with a league-leading 15 defeats, throw 169 pitches over 11 innings on the last day of the season to get his record back to .500. No National League pitcher has pitched 11 innings in a game since. Hershiser scattered 14 baserunners and surrendered one run, making the most emphatic statement of competitive character that I have ever witnessed live.

So I bootstrapped myself out of Columbus, blowing away Louisville with eight strikeouts in six shutout innings, and rejoined Cleveland when the rosters expanded to 40 men in September. I was given a fresh set of training goals and, yeah, after dialing back the difficulty a little, I completed them. The Indians weren't going anywhere that season, of course, but I got a spring training invitation and made the club for opening day the next year.

Sports gamers lose all the time, particularly in the career modes where they may have a brilliant game but the rest of the team is terrible. If you're a pitcher, it can be agonizing to shut down a team in the playoffs and then see three consecutive losses in simulation. You can drive yourself crazy, playing for unrestricted free agency and emancipation from a team whose management seems to have no commitment to winning.

But the name of this career mode is "Road to the Show." While the goal, ostensibly, is to become a Hall of Fame performer, success comes in many forms. It's a journey. You don't lose a journey. Even if you break down and get towed back home and start all over.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.