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Why Is Waiting Through MLB’s Slow Offseason So Hard? We Asked an Expert

A social psychologist who specializes in waiting weighs in on MLB's offseason, which, uh, involves plenty of waiting.

MLB’s free agency has been open for a month and a half. But you could be forgiven for feeling as if it hadn’t really started yet.

This is increasingly the norm. Over the last few years, there have been fewer signings in November and December, and more in January and February (and even into March). As St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak put it earlier this month, “January is the new December.” The offseason has always been a time for waiting—you only sit around the hot stove, after all, when you don’t have anywhere else to be—but waiting has increasingly started to feel like the whole game.

This winter, however, is a strange time for waiting. To wait productively, it’s good to have a predictable cadence of activity, plus faith that whatever you’re waiting for will actually happen, even if it takes a while. But those conditions are not exactly in play right now. The rhythm of last season was disrupted by the pandemic, with lingering uncertainty about next season, too. The sports calendar as a whole has been scrambled. And the way you experience the passage of time in general might have been thrown out of whack this year without access to some typical routines of daily life.

So for an outside perspective on the weirdness of this offseason, there's no better expert to seek than a social psychologist who specializes in waiting.

“Waiting is not something we do well naturally,” says Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside who studies how people wait. “It’s not meant to be comfortable from an adaptive perspective.”

The laboratory that Sweeny runs is called the Life Events Lab, studying how humans handle periods of uncertainty, like patients waiting to learn the results of a biopsy or law students waiting to hear if they passed the bar exam. Baseball fans desperate to know if their team will land Trevor Bauer aren’t quite in the same category as those folks. But there are some qualities common to any form of waiting, Sweeny says, slow baseball offseasons included.

“It’s combining two difficult existential states—one is not knowing what’s coming, and the other is not having control over what’s coming,” Sweeny says. “In the case of the examples that we’re talking about here, the first piece is not nearly as much of an issue, so really what we’re dealing with is, ‘I can’t control this. I can’t make this thing happen that I want to have happen. I can’t determine the timeline.’”

The struggle, in other words, is not what we’re waiting for. No, you don’t know if your team will shore up its bullpen, but you know that some clubs are likelier to make certain moves than others, and that it should be sorted out by the time the season starts. Instead, the struggle here is in the period of waiting itself—a window where fans have no opportunity to do anything about whatever may or may not be coming to them.

MLB fan waiting outside ballpark

But offseason waits are not created equal. This year, due to pandemic delays, the MLB and NBA offseasons had some significant overlap for the first time in modern history. It offered a clear example of a phenomenon that was already familiar to anyone who follows both leagues: These offseasons present very different types of waiting. When free agency opens in the NBA, everything happens very quickly, sometimes at literally the first possible moment. When free agency opens in MLB … something might happen in a week, it might happen in a month, it might happen in February.

These differences represent various “dimensions” of waiting, Sweeny says. To count down to a specific day—like the first day of free agency in the NBA—is a different experience from waiting for an action without a specific timeline. The latter, unsurprisingly, offers more room for frustration and distress.

On top of that dynamic, any dimension of waiting might be more difficult than usual right now, thanks to the unusual circumstances. The last few months have introduced a “surreal” experience of time for many people, Sweeny noted. March might feel both like yesterday and like a decade ago. Without many of the events that people typically use as memory markers—vacations, social gatherings, any changes to the texture of daily life—it’s harder to feel like you have a handle on just how fast time is passing. And within the sports world, the usual beats that fans count on to keep time, like the basic structure of the seasons, had to shift significantly this year.

“Unquestionably, time is passing in a very strange way, and I think that’s largely because of that lack of structure,” Sweeny says. “And for sports fans, there’s this one additional layer of the lack of structure, which is that usually you have this kind of predictable seasonal pattern of what you’re doing with your free time, and that’s not as predictively present right now.”

So how do you go about handling the wait? The simplest thing to do is just not think about it—which, of course, is easier said than done. Sweeny recommends pursuing what’s known as a “flow state,” or an activity that allows you to get in the zone with “a state of really exquisite distraction.” That might be running, or reading, or playing music; it differs for everyone. But you’re more likely to find it in any of the aforementioned activities than by refreshing MLB Trade Rumors.

“Not to make this too grand, but if you think evolutionarily, not knowing what’s coming and not being able to control your fate—those are not great states in terms of maximizing your likelihood of survival,” says Sweeny. “We can’t be sure about evolutionary processes, but our best guess here is that we evolved a very adaptive kind of alarm system that says, ‘Hey, look out, something’s uncertain. You should probably try to figure that out.’”

Which is not to say that your life is at risk because you don’t know the of landing spot of J.T. Realmuto. But it can’t hurt to try not to think about it. After all, you might be waiting for a while.