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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Meaningless, Meaningful September Baseball Is Great Baseball

Illustration for article titled Meaningless, Meaningful September Baseball Is Great Baseball

A few thoughts, in no special order, on a lousy ballgame from the other night:

1.) The history of baseball is essentially one of aficionados complaining that some new development has deprived the game of its meaning, and then coming, before long, to regard it as having always been part of a fixed, eternal order. So I'm wary of reading too much into my own irrational disdain for baseball's new play-in system, which allows a full third of major league teams entrance to the game's annual postseason tournament; if I'd been born in another time and place I'd have regarded the move to a four-team playoff as a cynical and rigid fix and a break with history, and that would have been stupid and unyielding.


2.) Sunday, I went to a ballgame at Sox Park, a few miles from where I live on Chicago's South Side. It was never going to be well-attended; the Bears were playing the Vikings up at Soldier Field, the White Sox already had 90 losses on the books with two weeks left in the season, and the forecast threatened what was delivered, an afternoon and evening of damp mist and drizzling and occasionally driving rain, the kind that ends up chilling you hard even when you're wearing wool and drinking coffee, because it's Chicago. Still, Chris Sale was starting the game, and he'd probably been, to that point, the best pitcher in the American League, and the visiting Cleveland Indians were, at the start of the day, a game and a half out of a play-in spot, which is to say that this was a significant game, one that could perhaps determine whether or not Cleveland would have a chance to win its first World Series since 1948.

That there were perhaps 2,000 spectators in the park in time for the scheduled first pitch, and that perhaps a quarter of them remained when the first pitch was actually thrown four and a half hours later, was an embarrassment, not just for Chicago, which (ludicrously) imagines itself to be a baseball town, but also for central baseball, which has managed to dilute the races to the point where even a meaningful September game becomes essentially meaningless.

3.) This is in line with baseball's successful policy of making its own live audience irrelevant. Of course, the figures don't back the idea that this is happening: The poorly supported Tampa Bay Rays' attendance would have been the third best in the American League in 1969, the year the four-team playoff was introduced. Retrograde/nostalgic/revanchist tendencies set aside, though, it's doubtful that anyone who's been going to games for 30 years or more hasn't noticed a real diminishment in the quality of the attention live audiences pay to what's going on in front of them. (Imagine an involved complaint about the decline of scorekeeping here.) I went to a hardcore show once when I was in high school where the stupid singer stupidly sneered at the stupid audience and said, "We're not your television set tonight," and there are times when I wish a ballplayer would do same. The great change in baseball this generation is that it's finally become a fully mediated game, and Commissioner Selig's having brought the sport early and well into the digital era may turn out to have saved it, but I don't know that anything would even change that much if they just played the games in empty parks, provided rich people bought tickets and then didn't use them.

4.) Related to that, the devaluation of the game experience leads to great bargains. I scored a seat 20 rows behind home plate for $17, and because I waited out the rain delay—during which they played the Bears game on the center-field scoreboard and interviewed heroes of the Sox's division-winning 1983 campaign and shut down the beer stalls an hour and a half before the game even started—I was able to move to the first row behind the visitor's dugout. (Try getting down to floor seats at a meaningless Brooklyn Nets game in April!)

5.) One of the many winning things about the White Sox is the way they mythologize their own unimpressive history. In part it's an expression of who they are, the team of the South Side and the parts of the suburbs that stretch down into Indiana, the more insecure and inferiority-complex-ridden part of the most insecure and inferiority-complex-ridden city in the country (one so neurotic its citizens can only describe it in outlandish superlatives). In part it's an expression of the personality of team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who whatever his many flaws is intensely loyal, so that seemingly any player or team employee who wants to may stay on his payroll forever. (Half the people in the park who actually work for a living seem to have had their jobs for decades, and the coaching and front-office staffs similarly count lots of Reinsdorf loyalists and former Sox.) This lends a certain continuity to team operations, and supports a certain kind of pride. The Sox may be a historically not so great team whose park abuts rail tracks and a stretch of highway that stands as a monument to white people's ability and eagerness to wall themselves off from black people, but they're also the kind of team that builds statues of Billy Pierce and Harold Baines. Maybe you support a team that's had better players than Billy Pierce and Harold Baines and has snobbishly declined to build statues of them; great, who cares.

Anyway, the point is that Vance Law and Rich Dotson—heroes of the not so great 1983 division winners, and, of course, coaches in the team's minor league system, because once a Sox always a Sox—were interviewed on the center-field scoreboard during the four-and-a-half-hour rain delay, treated as conquering lords, and it was great. Law sang the national anthem, and it was even better, as he turned out to be a trained singer, a tenor in lovely voice and with a fine sense of phrasing. I'd like to think he appreciated the vigorous applause of the 500 or so in attendance as being genuine and well meant.


6.) There was a ballgame. This goddamn game. The thing about Chris Sale (aside from him being pretty scuzzy looking and having his own name tattooed on his back) is that he's a physical impossibility, six and a half feet tall and maybe 170 pounds and all of it coming from all sorts of unusual/improbable angles, and all of that affects the spectator as much as the batter. You know you're watching maybe the best pitcher in the league against a team that could (who knows?) win the World Series and so you want to appreciate it, especially if you're sitting in the first row behind the visitor's dugout, but the man makes it impossible even to follow what he's doing, because his arm actually disappears in his motion. He draws himself up and comes in somewhere between a sidearm and a three-quarters angle, and then his arm vanishes and then the ball appears from nowhere. It's really impressive, much more so than it looks on the broadcast or from the higher-up seats in the park, and while he has good speed the whole physical-trickery bit is what leaves hitters looking so stupid off his best pitches. Watch a hitter flail for the strikeout against a Sale change or slider, with his bat ending up two feet in front of the plate, from pretty much right there on the field and any arguments you may have been constructing about the superiority of any other sport will temporarily abate.

7.) The problem with this game, at least from the perspective of the Sox supporter, was that the Sox were playing. Sale, first, was not crisp. From the second inning on there was a dullness to the crack of his ball in the catcher's mitt when contrasted to the sound that Cleveland's hard-throwing non-entity's ball made, and he gave up some solidly squared hits in the second that suggested later misfortunes. Worse, though, were his teammates. The issue was less that they're bad—forgivable, for various reasons—than their inability to play baseball as if they were aware of the year.


This is a strange time in baseball. Scoring is a bit below historically normal levels, which, after the long crack high of the '90s and most of the aughts, comes off as a return to the days of Old Hoss Radbourn. It's also a high-strikeout game in a way batters and managers haven't quite come to terms with tactically. And the changes have happened quickly. So you have a few geniuses operating who intuitively understand the implications of and/or are perfectly suited for the altered run environment—players like Mike Trout, with a perfect line-drive swing and a speed-based game that would have done well in any era but is uniquely suited to the one in which he's playing—and a lot of lousy hitters who think that it's still 1999 and that gripping the bat at the knob and ripping is a viable way for a banjo-hitting middle infielder to pop 20 home runs.

The White Sox have a lot of these guys, like Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez and Jordan Danks. Their approach fits the game they came up watching, but not the one they're playing, and it's just painful to watch them alternate between huge, sweeping strokes and emptily throwing the bat at the ball as it nears the plate. Through five innings, Cleveland's hard-throwing non-entity had given up one hit, and that guy got caught trying to steal second as soon as he got on.


8.) The really pernicious thing about latter-day sabermetrics is the way it encourages a kind of crass, meritocratic thinking about the game—the sort of moralistic framework that the numbers crowd was fighting against in the first place. The idea that there's an enlightened or correct way to play and, especially, to run a team suggests that those who follow it and succeed are deserving winners, and consequently that those who don't and fail are deserving losers. It's not exactly the same thing as the vulgar libertarianism that suggests that a man without a dollar is a man who never deserved to have one, but it's related.

This comes up because the sad, frustrating, and endearing thing about the White Sox is that they generally do things the right way, and yet things never quite come out right for them. They're loyal but not sentimental, prudent but willing to take a calculated risk, and really they spend more than they should, when you consider that the Cubs draw from the better off parts of town and the wealthy suburbs, leaving the Sox a market that looks a lot more like some dying locus of Rust Belt ruin porn than a fantastically rich center of global commodity trading and such. They make good moves on the free-agent market, like signing Adam Dunn; they draft polished players, like Gordon Beckham; and they import talented internationals, like Alexei Ramirez—and all being sound bets, they all end up fucking up. This is a team that's had a few chances and just flat missed, and not really because of anything anyone running the club did wrong. Sometimes players don't do what you think they'll do.


8a.) If anyone's done anything wrong it's the coaching staff, which through the system and up into the majors is filled with former Sox, veterans of teams that weren't really all that good, run according to philosophies that probably aren't worth passing on. To clear them out and bring in new exponents of modern ideas, however, would be so fundamentally opposed to the principles of self-mythologizing and loyalty that make the Sox what they are that it's not only unclear whether they could do it, it's unclear that it would be a good thing for them to do. Let some other team embrace meritocracy and the market as an instrument of morality.

8b.) A Premier League side run this way would be taken to by lots of Americans mistaking willfulness for authenticity.


9.) This goddamn game. Chris Sale looked so good at times, and so inattentive at others. You can't blame him, after a four-and-a-half-hour rain delay; Cleveland's hard-throwing non-entity had a play-in to think about, and Sale had the admiration of hundreds of Sox fans and the fairly small number of baseball fans willing to credit the idea that, losing record or no, he's the best pitcher in the league. Still, he just broke. Going into the sixth, he'd given up two runs, and you were thinking, "That's what makes a great pitcher—he's getting hit hard, doesn't have his best stuff, and maybe doesn't care that much about this game, but he keeps his team in it." Then he gave up a leadoff home run to Nick Swisher, and later a three-run home run to the damn shortstop, and it was 6-0. (Sale's earned run average against Cleveland this year: 8.61. Against not-Cleveland: 2.37.) A good thing there weren't more than 500 people in the park who had to watch that.

10.) Ozzie Guillen has a story about Nick Swisher's brief time in Chicago that ends with him kicking a reporter in the ass in Kansas City and chasing him out of the clubhouse, yelling, "Fuck Nick Swisher!" By which, he'll clarify, he means nothing against Nick Swisher, just, fuck you for asking some question about Nick Swisher and why he didn't fit in in Chicago, because who gives a fuck about Nick Swisher? Nick Swisher says "bro" a lot, looks like he's on the verge of a psychotic break when he comes off the field having struck out with the bases loaded, has his shirsey selling for $10 in the Sox's team store, talks to runners to the point where you suspect they steal just to get away from him, promises kids he'll toss them balls and then forgets, and has played a lot of playoff baseball since leaving Chicago, despite all of which fuck Nick Swisher, even if/especially because his team won and ended up a half game out of their play-in game.


11.) I'm not sure what's becoming of baseball: whether the play-in represents the point at which October ceases to matter, if the people in the park have been reduced and have reduced themselves to the studio audience of a television show, how the game expresses (or doesn't) our culture or what have you, but damn if an entirely meaningless (and yet, meaningful, because expanded playoffs!) September game can't fill you with dread and wonder and make you worry over the fast approach of winter, and that's with a good six weeks of games left on the books. Better things are happening to lesser sports, and it doesn't seem very important at all.

Photo: Getty