It means nothing
You tell yourself it means nothing. You look at the stats, and the history of the divsional era postseason and you know that being the best team in the regular season means nothing. Of the sixteen World Series since 1995, the best team has won only three times. The worst team in the playoffs has won it twice. (Here’s a chart. There’s an updated chart including the 2010 data, in the Flip Flop Fly Ball book: neither SF or TEX were the best team in the majors.) But even with this knowledge, you can’t help but look at the numbers: the team I root for won the toughest division in the American League, and had the best record in the league, and they’d be playing the winners of the weakest division. The Yankees should win. (And when I say should, I don’t mean it in that way that Yankee fans are stereotyped: like they somehow deserve it.) But being the best means nothing. It doesn’t matter how much money is spent on the team, either (there’s a chart about this in the book, too). Money definitely helps a team get to the playoffs, but we come back to the first point here: in the playoffs, you might as well play pin the tail on the donkey. Even though you tell yourself, with all the evidence, that it means nothing, you can’t help but get involved. You see highlight clips before each broadcast, you see catchers running into the arms of pitchers, and the team celebrating on top of them. They won the World Series. All that logical analysis out of the window: those guys won.
There are very few things I don’t like about baseball. The lack of logic to the playoffs, though, is one of them. That a season that is way way way longer than any other sport, one-hundred-and-sixty-two friggin’ games, can come down to a best-of-five, followed by two best-of-sevens… it’s so utterly ridiculous, it makes no sense whatsoever. Maybe my view is tainted because I’m British, I’m used to the best team in English soccer being the one that got the most points in the league. We keep our knockout competitions separate. The goal of the long slog of the season is to come out on top, not be forced to have a quick kick around with seven other teams who were nearly as good. The more I have learned about baseball, the more I have buried myself in the history, the more I think that the game would be better in the pre-1969 league set-up: two leagues, winners play for the series. I can’t go back in time to gauge the feelings of players, teams, or fans, but I imagine that before 1969, winning your league’s pennant meant a heck of a lot more than it does now. That was a very real prize for winning the long season. What does it mean now? If it is mentioned, it’s because you were the World Series loser. It means you won seven games. That’s all.
Knowing all this does help, it helps to know that the rolling of a dice isn’t going to go your way a lot of the time. But, game five of the ALDS: it’s impossible to let your brain entirely rule your heart. I wonder why Nova is yanked so quickly (not knowing he was injured at the time), I wonder why Hughes is yanked so quickly, I see the bases loaded with one out twice and only one run score. I imagine Benoit’s boil is chatting away with him. Maybe the boil is a Yankee fan, maybe he’s trying to convince him to see if he can throw a type of pitch he’s never thrown before. Maybe he’s just telling him about some hot girl he’s seen in the expensive seats. I see Disco Valverde come in in the 9th, and the perfect narrative in my head - my head being a head that dislikes Valverde - is that the dancing fool gets completely lit up and loses the game for the Tigers. I see Alex Rodriguez, an utterly fantastic player who may be past his best, a player I still hope has some good years left in him, a highly-paid and therefore highly-hated player who just wants to be loved. And I, you, and everyone who cared to look at the glass as being half-empty, knew he’d strike out. (That’s not true: I had envisaged a weak grounder to short.) But there’s one more big hit in him, he can smack one into the gap, and Teixeira can launch one and win the game. But that didn’t happen. Disco Stu struck A-Rod out. Oh. So that’s it.
I know, I am very aware, that most of the people reading these words have no sympathy whatsoever for a Yankee fan. This is something beyond the team I root for. I think it’s something every fan knows. That hollow feeling when it’s all over. I’ve experienced it twice this season. Once in the Mexican League, and now in the American League. Both teams had the best records in their leagues. Both teams lost to teams called the Tigers. While I am way way way more of a New York Yankees fan than a Diablos Rojos del México fan, the loss in the Mexican League series was actually worse. The Diablos had won the equivalent of the division series, won a game seven in the equivalent of the championship series, and were swept by Tigres de Quintana Roo. I was at games three and four. It was thoroughly depressing. But the disappointment of losing is something that is best shared, I think. Just as is the joy of winning. When I watch important games on TV, I am very quiet. not really a huge amount of fun to be with. There’s something so much better about doing it in public, though. Even if you aren’t actually with someone you know. You are surrounded by people going through the same emotions. I clearly remember when England lost to Germany in the 1996 European Championships semi-final. I watched it in a pub in my hometown. When England were defeated on penalties, I walked to the bus station through the city. The whole city was quiet. There were lots of people milling around, but nobody was talking. It was kind of beautiful, that shared but separate silence. I felt the shared joy when I saw Liverpool win the Champions League in Istanbul in 2005. I felt the shared disappointment when I saw them lose the Champions League final in Athens in 2007. Until the Diablos-Tigres series, I’d not felt that with baseball. I watched game six of the 2009 World Series, drunk with a friend in Berlin. We drank champagne at nearly 6 o’clock in the morning, Central European Time.
I’ve watched the last two playoff defeats on my laptop, in my bedroom in Mexico City. The hollow feeling after defeat is all the more hollow when there’s nobody around who cares. I’m not one for dissecting every moment of the game when it is over, I just wanna sit near people who know what it’s like. After Alex Rodriguez struck out, I closed the browser window immediately. I had no desire to see Detroit celebrate. Especially Valverde. (I have nothing at all against Detroit, just, y’know, he seems like a dick, and I can’t help but wonder if he’d be doing this stuff if he were a starter in the National League, having to step into the batter’s box.) So I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, and on the way back, stopped in a crappy Irish-type pub, ordered a Jameson’s and a Modelo Especial. The bar’s speakers were blasting Creedence. Jameson’s and Creedence remind me of being in Toronto. The TVs were showing some NASCAR-ish type race.
It’s not the end of the world. My team lost. So be it. And I am more than aware that the team I root for is way more likely to win the World Series soon than plenty of other Major League Baseball teams. Now I have to root for the team that I hate the least. So, y’know, go Brewers/Cardinals/D-backs/Tigers. Of course, for the good of the world in general, a World Series featuring the least marketable teams would be best, because it would slow down the flow of money into Rupert Murdoch’s bank account. But really, I don’t care who is in the World Series. I’m just rooting for the remaining series to go seven games each. More baseball means a shorter wait until Spring Training. Losing sucks. Of course it does. But I am thankful that I have found a game with such a long regular season, where individual losses don’t affect me as much. I like watching a game in July, seeing my team lose, and not really being affected by it too much. It’s good to enjoy the game more than the result. A couple more weeks of nail-biting, of joy and sorrow for fans of the remaining teams. Then we Hornsby ourselves away until March, with the smaller ballparks, the enormous squads, and the sunshine of Arizona and Florida. March, you are a beautiful month.