I’m having a fascinating (for me, anyway) discussion with my friend Tomás about baseball, romance, narrative, “crunch time” … you know, the usual. Tomás suffers from that dreadful disease known as “Dodger Fan-itis,” but he is somehow tolerable nonetheless. He has posted a piece to his blog, “Dodgers in the 2nd 40,” that grabbed my attention for the way it described so accurately the joys of baseball’s long season, and the ways we break that long season down over the course of six months:
As I grew up, I began to better appreciate the rhythm of the game. I began to realize baseball, as much as anything, is a game of momentum. There are key times in the season when it is imperative that your team clicks on the field. If they don’t, nothing else will really matter in the end. …
I started to think of the baseball season in quarters rather than in halves. 162 doesn’t breakdown evenly into 4 parts, but I think of it as four groups of 40 games. As baseball fans, we spend so much time waiting for the first 40 that it’s hard not to give it too much attention. There are few things more satisfying than a strong start in the first 40. (For that matter, there are few things more annoying than a weak start.) But, for almost all of us almost every season, the first 40 is still warm-up. People are finding their groove; teams are finding their formula. It’s like the first mile of a race: what happens here is less important than what happens later on.
Instinctively, we also pay a lot of attention to the final 40. It is, after all, the lead in to the big show. We have a sense of its importance because we know it is the final stretch. But even more important than winning this sprint to the finish line is what condition you’re in at the end. Remember, beyond it is the postseason.
And that’s where momentum comes in. You don’t just want to win more games than the number 2 team, you want to finish the final 40 while playing well. You want your strongest players to be playing as well as they can, all the magical things that make a winning team to be happening on a regular basis, and all the intangibles to be, well, almost tangible. …
I can’t tell you how many times the Dodgers have made it to the end of the season when you know they have the cards stacked against them in the postseason, not because of who they might face but because they’re not playing in that magical zone. When your team is there? Well, no matter how good the competition is on paper, they better get out the way. …
Baseball is a long season. Any team in a season that long is going to have its ups and downs. The trick to becoming champs is for those ups to be at just the right times so that they expand on themselves rather than implode.
I’m pretty much cannibalizing our discussion … you’d do just as well to go over to his blog and read the whole thing … but this is an easy way for me to get my own thoughts on this blog, while providing the context his original post provides. (This does a disservice to his writing, since I’m excerpting him but mostly pasting everything I wrote in this space … again, read the original, it’s worth it.) Anyway, my initial reply was this:
I see two things going on here. There is the narrative of a season (or, for that matter, a history of seasons). And there is the undeniable fact of the games that are played. Without a narrative, I don’t know that baseball would have such a hold on its fans. It’s like a soap opera with ball and bat. Our love of the narrative is what makes us love fast starts and great finishes. It’s what makes us look for any sign of momentum, forward or backward. It’s what connects this day to the next, and to the one before. It lends itself to the romance of baseball, and it is, I think, the main reason we can happily spend six months with the game.
And yes, some of the rhythm of the game is inherent in the sport. But much of it arises from our desire for narrative. Some things make better stories than others, so, for instance, a Dodger-Giant game matters more because of the history between the two clubs, and the ways that history fits into the narrative.
But … and here I become the spoilsport … on a concrete level, stuff like rhythms and momentum are largely meaningless. The only thing that matters is that you win enough games to continue playing into the post-season. An unnoticed win against a last-place team on a sparsely-attended Thursday night in mid-July is just as important as a win on the last day of the season that pushes your team into the playoffs. It lacks drama, it lacks narrative, it lacks rhythm, it lacks any feeling of momentum. But if your team had lost that game back in July, your game in September might not matter at all.
This is why, when I’m looking at teams besides my own favorite, I enjoy a good narrative, but when it comes to the Giants, all I care about is that they win as many games as they can. The narrative, wherein the Giants have never won since moving to California, certainly drives my desire to see them succeed before I die. But what matters more than anything is games won, no matter when they come on the schedule. This lacks romance, but it’s true nonetheless.
I’ve written in the past about the ways our appreciation of the aesthetics of sport at times collides with our desire to turn the ephemeral into something concrete. My sense is that any attempt to define the happenings on the field of play lead people to assume you don’t understand the aesthetics, which isn’t true. I have a romantic notion that the Giants will one day win the World Series; that dream won’t be satisfied until they actually do win the Series. Romance and reality are intertwined.
Tomás had a lovely reply to my rantings:
What separates the winners from the rest in the end (and there are exceptions, of course) is almost always something more. A team has to play better than the sum of its parts. They don’t have to like each other, but on the field they have to move like an organic whole, a team. The strengths have to overshadow the weaknesses. Then you end up making the lucky breaks for yourself. …
Brother, it is romance! Romance and science!
I couldn’t agree more with that last paragraph, but I find the romance in the narratives we construct … and I’d emphasize the word “construct,” because they aren’t “real.” In this particular case, I answered:
The last time the Dodgers won the World Series, in 1988 … They didn’t make the playoffs because they had momentum in late spring … they made the playoffs because they had Hershiser, Leary, Belcher and a great bullpen. They weren’t better than the sum of their parts … they were better than the other teams in the West. They got off to a great start last year, and it paid off when they won the West by three games. But they didn’t win because of some magical May/June, they won because each win counted in the final standings, and they had a lot of very good hitters and very good pitchers to help them win those games.
The World Series is a 7-game competition. Probability tells us that the better team will win more of those than they’ll lose, but the difference isn’t that big, because 7 games aren’t very many. But 162 games is usually sufficient to sort out the best teams from the rest. So I’ll agree the “best” team doesn’t always win the Series, but that’s not about romance or team spirit or organic wholes, it’s about probability theory. The best teams make it to the post-season (allowing for the vagaries of the divisional and wild-card structure). After that, it’s much more of a crapshoot.
Tomás again, as I see it, imposes our desire for narrative onto the reality of the games played on the field:
A group has only so long to become a unit, late May is about as late as you can wait. But it means little if it doesn’t get you through the dog days.
No, they don’t win because of this, but without this they usually can’t. In those crunch times this is what makes players play their best seasons, post their best numbers, or even do things that defy the probabilities suggested by their record.
I was feeling inspired by this point, prompting yet another long reply:
I guess my biggest problem with this is that we’re talking about baseball, the most individual of team sports. Basketball teams need to work together on the court … even Kobe can’t do it all by himself. A soccer team that doesn’t perform as an integrated unit is easily picked apart. But there is nothing similar in baseball, where the primary match-up is between one pitcher and one batter. It barely matters if the left fielder and the second baseman don’t like each other, don’t come together as a unit. If their team goes on a ten-game winning streak, they’ll all be happy. I’m not saying ballplayers don’t deserve to have a congenial work environment, but I don’t think it’s as important in terms of results as having good players. Bonds and Kent hated each other so much, Barry strangled Kent in the dugout right in front of the cameras. But now that his career is over, what Kent remembers is that he won an MVP with Barry’s .440 OBP in front of him in the lineup, that the only time he got to the World Series was with Bonds and the Giants.
Of course you are right, some people are better about delivering in “crunch time.” But we’re talking about a very select group of people, the 750 best baseball players in the world. My guess is, the guys who can’t handle “crunch time” have been weeded out long before they make the majors.
As for “crunch time,” I believe that falls more under the category of romantic narrative. Gibson’s home run off of the Eck is one of the great moments of baseball history. The time, the place, the participants, the build up, Gibson’s injury … as they say, you couldn’t write a better script, and Gibson delivered. No fan is immune to that story, even me, who can’t bear to watch the replays because I hated it when it happened. I’d be a fool to argue that Gibson’s home run was of minor importance.
But in terms of winning a World Series game, it was barely more important than Hatcher’s two-run homer in the first inning. People don’t remember Hatcher, in part because Canseco hit a grand slam the next inning, but mostly, of course, because of Gibson’s moment. But without Hatcher’s homer, Gibson never even bats. Yet no one assigns a mystical tag of “Mr. Crunch Time” to Mickey Hatcher, because his home run is far less interesting as narrative.
Ultimately, it’s Tomás who gets to the core of things. “Such a game that allows for so many ways to love it!”
As if to prove I have a heart as well as a brain, I added an anecdote which I might as well include here, as well, since I don’t think I’ve told it on this blog.
Here’s a narrative that usually gets left out, that has always fascinated me. Dennis Eckersley was my favorite player in those days, even though I’m a Giants fan. Seeing the hated Dodgers beat the Eck broke my heart. But what stuck with me as the next season unfolded was what happened just before Gibson’s AB: with two outs, Eck walked Mike Davis. As you know, Eck had great control throughout his career, and 1988 was no different, so when he walked Davis, it was quite unusual. And in 1989, it was as if what drove Eck wasn’t the desire to bounce back from Gibson’s homer, but to make sure he didn’t walk anyone who would be on base when a homer arrived. In ’89, Eck gave up home runs a bit more often than he had the year before. But he only walked three batters the entire season. Three. And in 1990, throwing about 50% more innings, he gave up only three unintentional walks all season. In 130 innings over the two seasons after he walked Mike Davis, Eck walked a grand total of 7 batters, one intentionally. I’ve never seen him say anything about this in interviews, but I can’t help but create a narrative here where Eck watches Gibson’s home run sail over the fence and thinks to himself, “Damn, I never should have walked Davis.”
(Many years ago, I wrote about my own relation to the romantic side of sports, and I don’t know that I could improve on what I wrote then: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”)