' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Baseball

Monday, October 23, 2023

Some Drivel On...Baseball

Meet this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs, the same as last year’s Major League Baseball playoffs. In 2022, the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 101-win Atlanta Braves were eliminated from the postseason by teams with inferior records who only qualified as wildcards. in 2023, the 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 104-win Atlanta Braves and 101-win Baltimore Orioles were all eliminated from the postseason by teams with inferior records who only qualified as wildcards. If once upon a time, the Dodgers and Braves and Orioles and Astros might have met in respective best-of-seven series to determine who won the pennant and advanced to the World Series, MLB’s decision to remake the game with three divisions rather than one and thus add a single wild card team to a 4-team playoff put us on the road to where we are now. That is, a 12-team playoff with 6 wild cards, transforming the hallowed Fall Classic from a certification of regular season results, so to speak, into the finale of the MLB October Jamboree.

The reasons for this are clear. TV revenue, of course, which is as much the Spirit of the Game as anything these days, and TV revenue correlates directly to entertainment. “Are you not entertained?” Joe Posnanski asked of this new playoff format on his blog without necessarily criticizing that format even as his repurposing of the famous “Gladiator” quote made clear the format’s point. Really, it’s March Madness for baseball, and who wouldn’t want that? March Madness is fun! But then, the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Division I Basketball Tournaments are manifestly not designed to determine the best teams over the course of a four-month season but, merely, reveal which teams are left standing at the end of a three-week tournament. “Purdue’s the heavy preseason favorite,” went a recent laugh out loud Athletic headline, “but postseason is the real question,” virtually betraying college basketball’s entire four-month regular season as preliminary. But baseball, as Posnanski has written elsewhere, “is America’s only every-day game.” “Each inning of baseball's slow, searching time span,” Roger Angell wrote famously in The Interior Stadium, “each game of its long season is essential to the disclosure of its truths.”

Now you could interpret Angell’s encapsulation as David Roth did for Defector in attempting to put the gatekeepers in their place, that “the randomness built into the game…the weird hops and hot streaks and fluke caroms” essentially epitomize what baseball turns into in the month of October. “The regular season is the orderly part, October is the opposite; both are important, and the story of the season would not be complete without either,” Roth writes. It is not dissimilar to the argument mounted by Robert O’Connell for The Atlantic, that “After the slowness of the summer, (the wildcard) reintroduces everyone to the craziness of the fall. Time quickens; desperation festers.” O’Connell, though, is more apt to admit the contrived nature of the current playoff system, which Roth elides, never mentioning that for well over 100 years of its existence, the baseball season was in so many ways an “anticlimax,” to borrow another Posnanski word. In fact, in The Interior Stadium, Angell essentially proffers the same argument as Roth, though he notes how such manic swings and terrible reversals are built into the game itself regardless of postseason or regular season, the two closer in spirit than all this radical restructuring would otherwise suggest. 

Indeed, I am not necessarily arguing against baseball’s postseason as it has come to exist so much as I am explaining how I have come to the realization that what I appreciate most about baseball, nay, why I enjoy it at all has metamorphosed over the years as much as the sport’s playoff format. When I was a kid, only the playoffs really interested me, the regular season too much of a slog. That makes a sort of scientific sense, I suppose, because when you’re younger, your attention span tends to be shorter, and the immediacy of playoff baseball naturally lends itself to hyperactive mindset more than what O’Connell deemed the “drowsy daily pace” of the regular season. In writing about his Opening Day experience as an 11-year-old, when he was convinced one game of his beloved hometown Cleveland club would provide the key to the whole season, Posnanski noted that he was too young “to appreciate the length of a baseball season, the drone of 162 games, the numbing effects of tomorrow after tomorrow.” 

I live in Chicago where the Northside Cubs spent this season locked in a playoff chase while the Southside White Sox spent their season going from bad to worse to miserable. I found the latter more compelling. Maybe that’s because in entering middle age and discovering it’s where life truly becomes a grind, all about metaphorically, if not literally on occasion, putting one foot in front of the other, I have developed a newfound appreciation for the grind of the baseball season, of those numbing effects of tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, where the old axiom of having something to play for becomes less practical than existential. If every burgeoning baseball player dreams of stepping to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 with the bases loaded and two outs, what burgeoning baseball player dreams of rolling out of bed in a Ramada in Kansas City on a Wednesday in September to wrap up a three game road series you’ve already technically lost during a season that long ago went to the birds? Out, out, brief candle!

The Sox began September by losing 4-2, 10-0, 3-2, 12-1, and 7-6 on an end-of-game, bases-loaded balk. If you lost a game on a walk-off balk in October, it would always be remembered. As it was, the unlikely White Sox balk-off was washed away in the daily baseball tide, which means when they won 6-4 the following day, it wasn’t about redemption. It wasn’t even rememberable; I don’t remember anything about it right now. Like so many of the days of our lives, it was not a game to be remembered, just lived and then forgotten.

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