Wild at heart
Rockies fans have a point: The Wild Card format is a baseball betrayal
Many a Colorado Rockies fans will surely agree this morning that baseball’s do-or-die Wild Card playoff format can be one big downer. Fewer will probe the depths of their psyche to examine why.
What you’re feeling is the vestigial burn of a Wild Card game that is an American sham, hucksterism at its worst. It’s football disguised as baseball. It’s an invented, artificial construct that betrays the taint of a bad Hollywood rewrite: “More drama, kid. I don’t want a dry eye in the house.” It’s a flip-flop of majestic proportion: They turn the endurance trial that is a professional baseball season into a stage-show contrivance that fits neatly into a prime time TV window.
What baseball demands of its elite players is the mustering of focus and concentration and intention deep into the dusky late innings of a rain-delayed game on a Tuesday in August that nobody’s even watching anymore. Calling it a “grind” is underselling the point. It’s more an impossibility. Baseball is the Tough Mudder played out four times a week. You get on a plane. You get off a plane. You sleep fitfully if at all underneath a sheet that smells vaguely of Clorox and despair. You go the ballpark. You take BP for the 90th time, willing yourself to twist the hips, turn the wrists over, examine the outfield soft spots. Try to hit the gaps. Then you play a game. In the infield, you set up with exactly the same routine for every one of the 150 or so pitches that will occur. Few will result in searing round projectile coming your way. But you have to be ready anyway. Somebody wins and somebody loses. You take a shower. You go back to the hotel. You do it again the next day.
Nobody expects or deserves sympathy here. Playing baseball professionally is what it is: hard, demanding, cruel. But they make it hard for a reason, which is to test you. Not once, not twice, but 162 times a season. If you aren’t up to it, you’ll be punished: by your body, by the standings, by your receding OPS number, by the sound in the voice of an agent who knows the gig is just about up.
At the end, a few teams still stand. They call them league champions but they’re more the survivors; those who managed through.
Then they take a few of them and dispatch them to the field and allow them nine or so innings to do it one more time. A game that has been painstakingly and repeatedly played over the preceding four months is thus reduced to a sugary prime time spectacle. We’re the audience. They’re the warriors. The ball is the lion. Somebody’s going to get hurt.
Is it dramatic? You betcha, kid. But it’s not the kind of drama baseball organically produces over a stretch of games in which players emerge, stories crystallize and patterns are revealed. It’s not bottom-of-the-ninth-of-Game-6-drama. It’s not this:
It’s a compressed, invented drama. It’s Russian roulette on the diamond. It plays to your worst instincts: How can we possibly turn away when we know there’s blood to be spilled before the nightly news and we get to watch it live?
And so: Balls take weird bounces. Strikes are adjudicated questionably. An invisible wisp of air pressure influences the slant of a slider that doesn’t slide. A pitcher hits a triple. Things like that.
These things happen, true. That’s the point. But they happen across a wide, grand tapestry. They happen over days, weeks and months of a long, long season. Baseball is a reckoning whose ingredients are physical ability and pure caprice and the Law of Large Numbers. It evens out over time. You can fool the baseball Gods for a while. You can do it over an at-bat (see Archie Bradley), over a game (Hey! Our shortstop went 4-for-4!), over a Player of the Week kinda week. But physics and mathematics ultimately will conspire to put you back in your average (.237) place. If you keep at it long enough.
Not so in the Wild Card game. It takes the preceding 162-game grind and tosses it aside with complete disregard. Here is a new version of baseball: a roll-the-dice, random number-generated compression of entertainment that’s engrossing for all the wrong reasons. A confession: I’m not even much of a Rockies fan. Love the ballpark, not wild about the team. I grew up Willie Stargell and Roy White; those allegiances pretty much come with lifetime guarantees. So it was with relative rooting disinterest that I watched the little graphic screen on my iPhone indicating the progression of the game. Behind the numbers and the tracking of at-bats it was apparent we were all being snookered. The core numerology of baseball, the richness of its full seasoned stats and metrics was nowhere to be found. Instead, a compact and prescribed dose: 9 innings, 27 outs. Winner take all.
The do-or-die quality of the playoffs makes the post-season interesting, sometimes riveting, across almost any sport. In New Zealand, where I lived for a year, I was once mesmerized to the point of pacing the room by a semi-final cricket match, for goodness’ sake. But here there’s something missing: some encapsulated expression of quantity and repetition that otherwise informs the game of baseball. It comes down to the realization that 27 outs just aren’t…enough.
Of course the season can’t go on forever. There’s a championship to be played, ultimately. Plus, we all need our Netflix & chill. But even so: A best two-out-of-three won’t exhaust our leisure time entirely, and it might allow for a better, truer reflection of what baseball is all about. Even if the Diamondbacks dominate in two games. Think about it, MLB, will you?