Friday, October 28, 2011

The Fall Classic and 'What Is a Classic?'

I don't think the tenth inning was even halfway over when Joe Buck started referring to Game Six as a classic. I don't know if that's true. A moment after Game One ended, writers praised it as a cerebral masterpiece, but the eagerness to make these games into metaphor and referenda probably overlooks what they've actually been.

Game Six does seem hard to top. This surprising, infuriating series demands a lot of energy even from spectators. In the ninth inning, I yearned for it to end, just to stop the frustration. I suspect the Texas Rangers might feel similarly. It would shock no one if both they and the Cardinals were unequal to the task of playing like they did last night.

Luckily for the Cardinals, they can feel buoyed by a thundering positive crowd and by the fresh memory of overcoming two different two-run leads in deciding innings. The Rangers must confront blowing those leads, blowing Josh Hamilton's redemptive moment, then come back to try it all again under a blanket of hostile noise.

Apart from never being boring, the vindicating story of this series has been the evidence it has provided to fuel dismissals of "Tony E. La Russa: Super Genius." The guys from The Classical banged this drum thoroughly over at Deadspin, while Twitter's provided endless "genius move, there" play-by-play in every game. From swapping out his oldest reliever for his best and sending a hit-and-run with two strikes on Albert Pujols, Big Sexy "They're CheatingLet's Plunk Em'" Tony's seemingly responded to the haters by running at them with a wheelbarrow of evidence.

The whole discussion is silly. Part of what makes the chess-match rhetoric seem nutty on a superficial level is the man La Russa's playing chess against. The masterful gamesmanship story falls apart when the other guy is goofy as hell. I don't dislike Ron Washington, and I think he's subject to too many jokes about standing at the top of the dugout because he wants to snort its rail, but I never have any confidence that he knows what he's doing at any given moment.

The cameras show Washington dancing and fist-pumping when things go well, but often he's caught in these awkward quiet moments, and I'm not sure he knows where he is. If he's playing a chess match, I think it's happening in his imagination. When that fan died while reaching for a ball from Josh Hamilton earlier this season, I think Ron saw Death down on the field. I think he's locked in some tormented chess match we can't even see, brushing at his darker version of a classic Max von Sydow mustache. Baseball's interesting, but he could be stuck in a timeless existential landscape. That kind of distraction would explain batting orders that look like they were assembled by writing players' names on marbles and dropping them onto a box with nine holes bored into the surface.

It would also explain what looks like a strange coaching absenteeism in terms of the Rangers' pitching. Apart from Derek Holland's stunning performance in Game Four, Washington and Mike Maddux might as well have invested the called strike with a tribal level of taboo. "If a Cardinal must get out, he must do so on a ball in play or a swinging strike following two foul-ball strikes. Anything less, and you must disassemble your house and move across the river, to where the howls come from the darkness." Ken Rosenthal asked David Freese at the end of Game Six, "How do you find the resilience to come back time and time again?" If he'd been at all honest, Freese would have said, "Well, the Rangers' pitchers throw 11 balls in a row each inning."

Even the peripherals and weird extraneous drama don't seem to be helping. Buck is his normal self, effervescing like a glass of Alka-Seltzer that's been left out for a day, while Tim McCarver's senescence has evolved past exasperatingly wrong to regretfully familiar and minimally intrusive. It's been seven years since he offered us Brandon Arroyo and Derek Jeter's calm eyes, and five since he made David Eckstein a godhead. McCarver sounds like that dotty great aunt who went from being sagely wrong and huffily moralistic, to simmering for a few years with exotic senility (like that same aunt watching a lot of Lou Dobbs and suddenly using "negro" again in restaurants while baring her teeth at a Dominican waiter), to doing the baseball version of playing solitaire and waiting for the 4:30 episode of Jeopardy! to come on. I yearn for the days when it sounded like his robot brain was operated by Scraps, The Baseball Fundamentals Mouse.

You'd think that someone would rise to the occasion, create some rhetorical flashpoint. Nobody, not even the heftier guys singing patriotic songs, has had the decency to let a tit fall out. And, in a time of crisis, George W. Bush hasn't risen to the occasion, again. He's sat for three games, occasionally happy, occasionally sullen, still doing that moral-oblivion thing where he refuses to seem the slightest bit afraid of God, man or Fate — or, at least, suddenly aware that the number of people surrounding him in the stadium isn't even a third the number he has killed.

How odd is it, then, that a World Series broadcast on FOX faces the burden of being considered only for the games played? As burdens go, it's a luxurious one. Maybe this accounts for the desire to talk about chess or to instantly peg this game a classic.

The first is a little familiar at least, the modern-commentariat need to instantly create career profiles for men like Washington — if only to dismiss them, to prove an insta-narrative wrong. Poor Wash; he's been profiled before he's ever developed any real, immutable style. La Russa's near-divinity needs its demiurge, so Wash's actual management has been conflated with anything that seems appropriately antithetical to La Russa's. If the rendering of La Russa's approach and acumen gets any more precise, Wash's antithesis trope might turn into some gleeful hand-clapping soul brotha, just a-dancin' all up and down them dugout steps, baskin' in the glory of dat baseball. He's a counterpoint in suspension: once we find out who wins the Series, we'll be told whether Wash's free-wheeling and positive management loosened up his team in tense hours, or we'll learn that he was a foolish amateur relying on talent when someone was busier using book-learning against him. (Insert soft racial narrative wherever it most comforts lazy readers or a lousy readership.)

The second issue, the "classic" issue, is a little harder to deal with. It owes as much to baseball as it does to our desires, as witnesses to narrative, as writers of narrative and as readers of the same. We want the times to which we pay heed to be momentous. Nobody follows a team for 162+ games, buys a Series ticket for 162+ dollars or writes a column around a thesis of 162+ words with the expectation of recorded-but-unbeloved transience. Goddamnit, we were here for a reason.

Because we bore witness, fun stuff, games that change leads and have inexplicable things happen should actually have meaning — especially when the next-day's discourse challenges whether things are meaningful. We want our shit to stand tall in that discussion. Those hours weren't life in abeyance but rather life writ large, on universal memory.

We naturally have to ask whether we witnessed a classic, even when we watched a game where the Cards and Rangers combined for five errors and 41 men left on base. Neither team expressly gave the game away, but you could overdub about half the plays of the first nine innings with, "Well, if you'd rather," and, "No, by all means, go ahead, I guess," and produce a workable version of, Who's Up, Tigerlily? It's easy to call the end hard-fought, because the end had more sudden implications than earlier innings that might as well have been easy-lost.

If we say that's a classic, maybe we're being hard on classic games. If we explicitly say it wasn't, maybe we're being hard on us. In earlier decades, without sports channels or replays, a classic could evolve in the imagination and without intercession. Some became classics in spite of themselves, where outcomes elided innings of dull or dumb content. Now, a sports media we both enjoy and encourage wants to evaluate and rank a game the next day. We create a mechanism by which we can dismiss the games that aren't truly classic, but that same mechanism immediately enters games into the discourse before we even get a chance to think about them. The exclusive process of memory and inaccessibility has been replaced with the process of immediate inclusion, never-forgetting and then having to argue for the contestants that leave the island.

This brings to mind the Bucky Dent game, or Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair, or even Bill Mazeroski's home run. All of those are indelible games, in the baseball mind, but God knows what preceded the indelibility in the casual consciousness. Maybe the Yankees blundered about the basepaths and needlessly sacrificed runners and potential runs before Bucky Dent bailed them out. Maybe the Red Sox over-managed their offense before Fisk bailed them out. Maybe the Pirates did all kinds of stupid crap, but the Yankees did more stupid crap and lost to a lucky dinger.

If Moneyball has taught us anything, it's that baseball's riddled with bad decisions and poor myths. What it hasn't yet taught us is what kind of myths we should build going forward — besides those about Barrold Lamar Bonds — and what myths will win out, despite our more empirically justified awareness. The World Series is a short series, and it defies the long-term wisdom of sabermetrics, even if appearing in it owes a great deal to embracing that arithmetical discipline.

This year's Game Six was a riveting, amazing and sort-of-bad game. A lot of dumb stuff happened. God knows what dumb stuff happened in the "classic" games we accept as classic. Maybe we should accept this one.