Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Remembering the League Division Series

GAME 162
On the last day of the season, the Phillies eliminated the Braves, letting the Cardinals slip into the NL Wild Card spot, while a rain delay and extra innings allowed a historic Red Sox collapse to nearly synchronize with an Evan Longoria homer that sent the Rays into the playoffs as the AL Wild Card. It was amazing, and it prompted an almost explosive joy from fans. This was what the end of the season should be like. This is why we didn't need another wild card team: "This is what you can shove up your horse and ride outta town, Mr. Bud."

At once, I sympathized and felt confused.

Disliking Bud Selig feels natural, like flowers growing toward sunlight or toddlers fearing snakes. Bud Selig does bad things to baseball, but wanting another wild card isn't bad so much as it's the least progressive solution to expanding opportunity for all teams. It's a simple solution, and as is the case with most institutional solutions in America, we assume that simpler ones are better because difficult or unseen challenges automatically portend something worse. Adding another wild card feels a lot like solving the inequities of private health insurance by mandating everyone buy it instead of trying a public option: when in doubt, motion will be mistaken for a valid substitute for real improvement.

But many fans' reactions to Game 162 and to a second wild card seemed, if not misguided, then at least logically flawed. The beautiful serendipity of Game 162 meant that four teams' fates were, in a matter of minutes, decided by the actions of eight teams, and many fans took that to mean that the system would only worsen if tinkered with. But of course, eight teams can determine the fates of four in even a four-team playoff system, with two divisional champions per league. Further, there's nothing to suggest that adding another wild card team can't replicate these same sets of circumstances or even make them more common.

What happened in the aftermath of Game 162 is that, evidently, a lot of people who jeered at past baseball generations who hated the introduction of the wild card, or three divisions per league, or two divisions per league, or the general abandonment of the "pure pennant race," had their moment of instant nostalgia and developmental provincialism. Like those people who keep pledging to write a Contract with America that halts its political, demographic and social evolution at an arbitrary line in the sand, these fans — many of whom are sabermetrically progressive — had their moment of generational obstinancy. In short, "What we grew up with won't be improved upon. Tinkering with this present slides it into decline."

The pure thrill they felt at witnessing the unfolding of impossible odds to determine the postseason would somehow be less welcome if it were more possible to happen again. Why? Because that's the way we've always done things.

I don't know which has overwhelmed me more about this year of postseason baseball: an old and malfunctioning DVR that deletes and overwrites games randomly, scheduling quirks that have resulted in nine hours of games per day, except on Sunday, which featured a combined 19 hours of football and baseball, or trying to process it into a narrative without last postseason's crutches of Blutarsky-esque chemical abuse.

I'm not sure it's possible to spend hours each day with John Smoltz, "Hello, Darling!", Buck Martinez's stream-of-consciousness or Craig Sager looking like he's showed up 45 years too late to shoot a promotional video for The Kinks' "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" without promising your brain that you will at least make sure it stops functioning later. "But, Mobutu," you might protest, "what about beat writers?" And to you I will say this: they have buffet.

For several nights, I've simply gone to sleep, seeking refuge in the realms where I know kung fu or own a torpedo for some reason — hiding from baseball and from my fear of jinxing the Rays. Well, no more. The Rays' season postmortem will come later. For now, let's see what else has happened. I bought beer; it's still possible I could live forever.

(Warning: all of these series condensed because of that damned DVR.)

I'm a little bit older than many of you, so I remember being a teenager and having a poster of Dennis Eckersley in a red swimsuit and gazing at his feathered hair and a tiny hint of his nipple.

The pregame for Game One of this series might present the strangest sight in baseball since Kelly Downs walked around Candlestick Park in 1989 — luckily clutching his young boy to his chest instead of, say, Bob Costas — and staring as if he were trying to will the earth never to move again. In this case, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton catches the first pitch from Cooper Stone, the young boy whose father fell to his death when Hamilton underthrew a souvenir foul ball to him. Hamilton hugs the boy and stands with the mother, and it's just incredibly obvious that the family is now his. Hamilton has become the father. Having killed him, he's taken possession of the boy and the wife. Look at how he embraces the woman. He has furrowed that field. Perhaps he has gained the father's powers.

The fact that Hamilton's playing against the Tampa Bay Rays brings the usual Twitter/Facebook fusillade of lamentations and execrations that Hamilton couldn't get his life together in time to be an All Star in Tampa. These wear on any follower of Rays baseball pretty quickly, because they seem to carry this implicit resentment that he got his life together at all. In short, if Hamilton couldn't hit dingers in Tampa, it's unfair that he didn't die in a ditch before he started swatting dingers for someone else. It's uncharitable on a human level but just on a karmic and generous level as well: the Rays manage to produce some incredibly awesome players through the draft and have wonderful luck otherwise. It's okay to be unlucky sometimes.

I also think Tampa fans should stop whining about having Hamilton on the Rays because it's obvious that he's already developed a taste for human blood.

Buck Martinez looks like Andy Warhol and knows less about baseball than Nico. He's batting Basquiat leadoff, because he thinks the kid has something.

Top of the 1st, Game One: Martinez is so excited about CJ Wilson's breaking ball that he talks about it for a solid minute, prompting TBS to switch to a camera angle so far to the right of the mound that it completely negates anyone's ability to see the ball breaking from the left in to the right. It couldn't have been less useful if it were a 90º downangle shot from geosynchronous orbit designed to show us a sinkerball.

Bottom of the 1st: TBS gives the audience such a long and focused shot of such a twitchy and oblivious Ron Washington that you know just instantly that Texas will go to the ALCS, and Ron will find some irrevocable way to completely fuck it up.

Here's a fun game to play with BJ Upton for the last month of the season and for every game of the postseason: watch him swing at utter dogshit on the first pitch, take one straight down the middle for strike two because "I have to not swing! Coach said so," then spend the rest of the at-bat fending off anything near the zone. This results in a couple of doubles and a lot of strikeouts. Sometimes you can tell his mission is "walk," because it's like his entire body becomes a coiled spring tingling at its natural urge to take three swings as soon as possible. It's time to just accept that Upton probably will never really figure it out. He's always gonna be the guy he is now and has been since 2008.

For something like three straight minutes of the Game One broadcast, Martinez filibusters at Don Orsillo about how the Boston Red Sox season unfolded, how they collapsed, what factors might have played the biggest role and what we need to understand to appreciate these events. These are lessons that Orsillo, the play-by-play man for the Boston Red Sox, is surely grateful to discover and will not soon forget.

David Wells explains how Terry Francona lost the Red Sox clubhouse: "Players had to pay for their own soft drinks, churros, rotisserie chickens, boars, cod...."

Orsillo: "Only the Seattle Mariners in the American League have a lower batting average as a team." Congrats to the Tampa Bay Rays: rescued from the absolute batting-average cellar in the American League in 2011 and in 2010.

A word about Kelly Shoppach: it doesn't matter what else he does, his stocky-body waddle to first base and the white jersey, dark undershirt and horizontal-striped socks he sometimes wears at home games will always remind me of a penguin. That's why his two dingers make me think, "HOLY SHIT, THE MOTHERFUCKING PENGUIN!" Tampa sportswriters will use these dingers to tell fans that they should cheer him on his return to the Trop — forgetting his absolutely horrible platoon split, his shaky defense, his tendency to hurl bats into the crowd — then watch as he boots pitches in Game Two and easily guarantees that an extra run scores during James Shields' disastrous inning. As soon as he returns to the Trop, he returns to earth. The ironically named Shop-Vac, sucking like crazy, plummeting from the heights of a small sample size. He seems like a really decent guy, though.

Bottom of the 5th: Orsillo and Martinez spend most of their time talking about Matt Moore's giant smile and how teammates have nicknamed him "The Mask" after Jim Carrey's disturbing cartoon grin in that movie. If they have to stray from talking about how awesome the guy is — and he is just tremendous — I don't know why they can't mention that he's got industrial-Sharpie-wide eyebrows that look like something even Groucho Marx would have refused to paint on. "No," Groucho would say, "that's too far. The joke's too broad. Let's trim those suckers down."

I don't even know what these ads are for, but goddamn, Tommy Lee Jones is swimming in foundation, concealer and blush.

Game Two is a nightmare. Aside from joking about how Mike Maddux first looks like Frank Zappa and only later like Mike Maddux, no matter how many times you see him, or comments like, "Derek Holland: up to 52 on his pitches and 14 on his mustache," there is no joy here. Umpire Kerwin Danley refuses to reverse an incredibly stupid foul-ball call he made on a ball sitting on home plate and rolling forward into fair territory, effectively giving the Rangers four outs in an inning. Meanwhile, Shoppach can't stop any of Shields' pitches, which means we get to see the shards of his confidence exploding off Shoppach's knee pads and clumsy, horrible hands.

I was at Game Three, and I'm not ready to talk about it. I don't want to talk about Game Four either.

This series seems like pretty unobjectionable, decent baseball. What I watch just passes in front of me as a fun game. I've watched the Brewers all season and seen a lot of D'Backs/Giants games, and they all ranged from competent to fun. More importantly, most of these players come off like all-right guys. With the constant over-processing of personalities and over-pushing of sports storylines, what I enjoy most about the Brewers and D'Backs is that I can watch them and feel only baseball. Nyjer Morgan aside, there's no wearing "story" quantity here. Also, this series is repeatedly victim to my bad DVR, so much of this is culled from memory or posts elsewhere. Nonetheless:

Whenever they show that beard in close-up, Ian Kennedy looks like the actor from Problem Child finally grown up, still with a flat affect. He has the most unsettling beard in sports. It doesn't even look like it's his. If you told me he'd cut it off a drunk he followed out of a bar, then rubber-cemented it to his face, I would believe you. It's entirely possible that that's not even Ian Kennedy. The real Ian Kennedy died as an infant in 1986, and this guy took his Social Security Number. Wait, forget the Problem Child reference: I'm pretty sure this guy is one of the Klopek children from The 'Burbs. All the heat on his fastball comes from a diet of human marrow sucked out of a femur.

If there's one thing these promos teach me, it's that TBS is the Home of the Postseason Derek Jeter of 2002.

I like Deion Sanders as a mosquito, because he was able to fly in front of any pass, but anybody could swat him to the ground with one hand.

Wait a minute, Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist, Nick Punto, Ryan Theriot... is, like, every horrible potential shortstop/gritty white legend in this postseason?

Chevy's ad campaign for the Volt seems to be, "If you buy one of these, you will have to stop to poop at a gas station, at which point everyone in America will annoy the shit out of you."


Victor Rojas seems a little too excited to be broadcasting from INSIDE whatever stadium these games take place in, like he is worried his press kit might not have looked authentic. Most broadcasters just let you assume that they're at the ballgame or mention it in passing. Rojas is definitely there. You will not mistake this.

I haven't checked the injury report, TMZ or a rowdy unauthorized biography, but I'm pretty sure Kirk Gibson is currently managing on two cracked ribs, a sprained ankle and a miniature Mayan pyramid of uncut cocaine.

Home run Paul Goldschmidt! That's the first time I've seen a home run hit by a liqueur drunk exclusively by underage college girls.

As long as "park effects" are part of any discussion of baseball performance, we should talk about Zach Grienke giving up big hits because he's had to pitch through San Francisco morning fog or the kind of gas that killed someone Wilfred Owen knew. It's absurd that the Brewers have to keep the fucking roof sealed tight in the NLDS because of some bizarre inattention on behalf of Major League Baseball, but it's even worse when a great pitcher peers in at his battery mate through a matte effect from a mid-twentieth-century horror scene. If Grienke, Lucroy and the man at bat all died because a creature sucked all the salt out of them, I would just nod. That's what you get. That's what happens when you keep the roof closed. Man trap.

Here's a question that might be unfair: are Justin and BJ Upton classic examples of the younger brother who tried extra hard and the older brother who took gifts more for granted? Justin seems to step up his game every year, but BJ has basically been BJ since 2008. BJ gets slammed frequently for dogging it in games, and while surely some of that is dog-whistle racism about how the "gifted" and "physically better" athlete doesn't reinforce his gifts with "gritty awareness" and "gutty try-harding," it's also true that he checks out now and again. I've lost count of the BJ Upton triples that have become BJ Upton doubles because he saunters up the first-base line gazing at homers that are not. I've lost count of the potential runs the Rays have lost because Upton takes a bad lead off first and doesn't really seem to pay attention to the pitcher and then tries to steal anyway. That doesn't even get into his impatience as a hitter. Meanwhile, Justin seems to get better and better, and the story of his youth is of a kid trying to be as amazing as his older brother. Maybe that story puts them into small categories that poorly serve both men, but it sure seems interesting.

Due to delays and rescheduling and just bad luck, this was the series that my DVR cannibalized almost in its entirety. Still, things I learned:

"He certainly remembers Granderson taking Fister yard on the backdoor slider."

Joaquin Benoit was found dead and wearing a bra after he strangled the entire bullpen and hung himself on weightlifting equipment.

Tweet of the series, courtesy Bryan Joiner: "I'm at Yankee Stadium. You know Occupy Wall Street? It's like that, but the exact opposite."

Dick Stockton and Bob Brenley just start this out on all the right notes. Apparently Shane Victorino is "consistently voted one of the best hit-and-run batters in the NL," which I guess is in the same field on the questionnaire where you can name the player who is "Consistently the Best Two-Out Standing-in-the-Outfield Outfielders" (also Victorino) and the "Manager Most Likely to Remain Bipedal While Seated in the Dugout" (Charlie Manuel).

Bob Brenley says "varmints" 100% seriously, which is why Brenley is borderline awesome now.

Cool Twitter guy Tom Keiser says, "I would root for Josef Stalin's baseball team before I'll root for Tony La Russa's," which seems really unfair, because at least Stalin understood sample size.

Here's the thing about watching the AL East on a regular basis: during Halladay's first inning, I replied to two tweets and opened up a new post in Tumblr, then clicked on a new email. By the time I was done, the inning was over. In the AL East, you can update pretty much every social media platform imaginable and maybe skip an entire at-bat. Roy Halladay is so refreshing. His pitching a game offers an insistence that you actually watch baseball, since baseball pretty much refuses to stop happening. What a great guy. I mean, beyond his being amazing.

Craig Sager's wearing a kind of rosé-coral silk blazer and a vertically striped rainbow tie. It's like someone decided a strawberry gelato was gay.

Twitter buddy DJ_Mosfett points out that, at this point, supposedly EVERYBODY IN BASEBALL knows that Shane Victorino takes bad routes on fly balls, is getting older and will only take worse routes on fly balls. This gets mentioned after Victorino takes a bad route on a fly ball and fails to come down with it. Of course, the chances that any of these sages would have told you this on opening day — when it was evident to Phillies die-hards who actually care about defensive performance — is approximately zero. The postseason is a wonderful time when sudden categorical judgments emerge in the commentary of those who've been fed two sets of data: one, the stuff on the note cards handed to them by people who actually know anything; two, the random occurrences wherein the game confirms note cards and solemn nodding and, cough, ahem. Poor Victorino: his confirmation of a cue-card talking point in a CRITICAL SITUATION will saddle him with that same talking point until he's dead. Pretty un-Jeterian of him. He could be a Team Captain if he weren't Hawaiian, which politics tells me isn't even a part of America, where captaincy is legally born.

Tony La Russa is slowly turning into a leatherette cross between the Geico Gecko and the Wicked Witch of the East.

Tony La Russa leaves pitcher Kyle Lohse in for more at-bats than he can capably handle. He's hanging change-ups in the middle of the zone and just baiting failure all over the place. Anyone who's watched baseball knows that this is bad and can predict the home run that follows in short order. But those people have never played the game. They don't understand that Tony La Russa has these little notecards on which he's written whorls and shorthand runes and archaic pre-Christian syncretic symbols that chart both the recent 4-8 at-bats of every player against every pitcher on the team the Cardinals currently face, as well as how many Grittichlorians can be found in a clutch filled with their blood. They will pay for their insolence as the Cards lose Game One.

Only La Russa, a petulant little man who fabricates other teams' cheating to explain his losses while spinning fatuous yarns about the need for plunking opposing batters, would use a national playoff broadcast to whine about a mobile strike zone that penalizes his opponents as egregiously as it does his own players. Tony La Russa is a horrible, tendentious, scrofulous bastard, and baseball fans should wish him failure and pain. He likes the fucking Teaparty.

If Tony La Russa threatens to win another World Series, I want a group of humanitarian nations to send a flotilla to stop him.