Today is a historic day, with two Game Fives scheduled in the Major League Baseball playoffs. Jesse Goldberg-Strassler explains what makes the postseason so special — and why it’s time to rock.
Summer baseball is the jazz of the sports world. Similar to jazz, summer baseball occurs in the background, secondary to the fan’s experience. There are the aficionados who hang on every play and declare it to be the finest form of art, yes, but the summer crowd is mostly filled with relaxing patrons, chatting their way through a comfortable afternoon or evening.
A creative riff here or a spark of remarkable individual talent there might provoke a quick burst of applause, but the effect as a whole is one of complementing a good time with family and friends.
Football is different. A football game grabs fans’ attention for every new play, ending conversation abruptly. Summer baseball does not; it’s common for a conversation to proceed smoothly right on through several innings. And you would never hear at a football game, “Hey, start of the second quarter — anyone hungry?” yet a “Top of the third — anyone hungry?” fits right in at the ballpark.
All of this changes in the postseason.
The crowd ambling through the gates for a summer game is in a collectively brilliant mood. No one comes into a baseball park frowning, not when the weather is warm, the sky is clear, and the grass field unfolds fresh and green before them. The arriving fans are there for a good time, above all else.
A playoff crowd arrives with adrenaline already collectively pulsing; the playoff fan is on hand specifically to yell for a victory. Excitement pushes the fan’s step a little quicker than usual, tension pushing at the heart, nervousness twisting about the stomach. There’s the matter of attire, too: A summer baseball crowd is dressed in t-shirts and tank tops and flip flops and spaghetti straps and shorts. A playoff crowd is dressed, head to toe, in team apparel and team colors.
In a playoff game, the atmosphere is taut right from the ceremonial first pitch. A called strike in a summer game is cause for disinterest; a called strike in a playoff game is cause for a shout. There is no reason to stand at a summer game, save for perhaps a home run, a web gem, and the seventh inning stretch. There is every reason to stand at a playoff game: a two-strike count on the opposing batter, a leadoff single, the upcoming P.A. announcement of your team’s best hitter. The toughest thing at a playoff game is determining when to leave your seat for food and drink. Best grab it early, or else you might very well miss the biggest play of the night. One run is insignificant in a summer contest; one run is everything in a playoff game.
It all begs the question: Which version of baseball was the one that won the hearts of Americans, grabbing the title of national pastime and holding it tight until football mounted a charge in the final decades of the twentieth century?
Baseball, as it is romanticized, is the game of fathers playing catch with sons in the early sunlight of a spring day; students sneaking radios into school in order to root on their favorite team; grandparents bringing their wide-eyed grandchildren to the park for their first game on a Sunday afternoon; and youngsters grabbing their gloves and racing out to the local field to play a game that lasts till sunset. These are all summer baseball memories.
My first real memory of the game, though, was watching, heart pounding, as the ailing Kirk Gibson battled Dennis Eckersley in October 1988. The Eck was unhittable, fearsome, long hair flowing, left leg kicking high, making a gun out of fingers and shooting down batters after striking them out, and I could only harbor the barest of hopes that somehow Gibby and the underdog Dodgers could overcome him. He did, they did, and raw emotion grabbed me and danced me around the room.
This was the sort of baseball that captured me, playing with my emotions. I cared nothing for the goats, only for the heroes. Kirby Puckett and Gene Larkin in 1991. Joe Carter in 1993. Craig Counsell and Edgar Renteria in 1997. Tony Womack and Luis Gonzalez in 2001.
It’s not that I don’t love jazz. It’s quite pleasant, especially on a gorgeous, tranquil day in the midst of a welcoming summer.
When the air turns crisp, however, baseball changes its beat.
It’s time to rock, and we’re ready.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is a Ballpark Digest contributing editor and the Voice of the Lansing Lugnuts. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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