Monday, September 19, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Yes, I'm late. But this time, with sort of good reason. I was all ready to put aside some time to write a eulogy for the Giants 2011 season, but then they (and the Braves and DBacks) didn't quite cooperate. So I can't quite do that.

Instead, I'll just think about what it's been like for Giants fans -- and Rays fans, and Angels fans, and Cardinals fans -- this September. Odds are, none of the chasers are going to catch anyone. I haven't even bothered checking Clay Davenport's playoffs odds for a while; it just seems too improbable. And yet, it's nice to sort of play meaningful games in September, even if you can't really believe that it's at all realistic to hope for a happy ending. Or at least you keep trying to tell yourself that it's not realistic, and you should absolutely not use up any of your scarce supply of hope. And you know that's true, but you also know all about the 1964 Cardinals and the 1987 Tigers and, certainly, the 1951 Giants, and all the others.

See, the real secret of baseball, the thing that Bud Selig just doesn't seem to understand, is that pennant races work really, really well. There's nothing like it in the other sports. The baseball calendar just works incredibly well: the spring start, with all the hopes and silliness of what two or even six weeks means, and then the long summer months where the teams and players sort themselves out, and some seasons fall to injuries or aging or whatever, and it just goes on forever...and then suddenly in September five games out might as well be fifty, except it's really not because if and if and if and if.

The day-to-dayness of it all means so many different things, too. In April and May (and March), it's all about getting used to the team, and the rest of the division, and the rest of the league and the other league (and, for many of us, our new roto team, which has its own rhythms to learn). In July and August, the games all bleed together, sometimes. And then in September, if it's one of those years, it's just always there, every day, every game just killing you. Kruk & Kuip were right, but not just for this team. It's always torture.

Oh, the postseason is great too, in its own way, but baseball, to me, the real essence of baseball, is pennant races. It's the one thing that baseball has that the other sports don't have. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why MLB doesn't promote the hell out of September baseball, and revise the sport to make sure that it works as well as it can.


  1. I was born after the LCS format was adopted, but to hear folks talk, the pennant races were a lot more compelling pre-1969. My personal impression is that the races got a whole lot less interesting post-divisional series, 1995. This may be because there are fewer close races, though I suspect it is because we like (or hate) a particular version of a professional team in proportion to its probability of winning a championship. With each additional playoff round, there is less WS implication for a particular 'pennant' race. So the Cardinals and Giants attempting to chase down the Braves is somewhat interesting, but if either succeeds, they still have to likely make it past the Phils, and maybe the Yankees, to win a championship. Anything is possible in a short series, but it feels like an NL Wild Card team is a particularly long way from a championship.

    The best recent illustration of this dynamic comes from the NFL last year. The Bears broke with convention in week 16 by playing their starters against their rival the Packers, though the Bears had nothing to gain or lose playoff-wise, while the last playoff spot was on the line for the Packers.

    As a former cheesehead and lifelong Packer fan, that game was fairly interesting because we hate the Bears and the playoffs were on the line, but I think none of us imagined that a SB championship was hanging in the balance. Its just too remote to anticipate three road playoff wins (which the Packers needed just to make the SB), so the SB wasn't a part of the narrative of that game.

    Similarly, the WS is a remote aspect of the narrative of any pennant race in baseball today, which may diminish the interest relative to earlier, smaller playoff formats.

  2. I continue to be amazed by the fact that they play 162 games and something, every year, comes down to the last weekend, or even the last day.


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