“The best that people hope for now is that a baseball game be played….And so we find ourselves at the major league equivalent of Little League, where it’s a celebration when someone doesn’t fall on his head and it’s considered poor form to rain criticism or curb hope. Call it the Losers Dividend.” – Jon Weisman, Dodger Thoughts
Many teams are out of the race by now–those both real and fantastical–the twilight of the regular season falls quietly for most of us. The focus shifts from the local and the regional to the national. Those left behind read the away scoreboard more closely, checking the lineups of contenders for holes, for short-format weaknesses, even as they lament the home team’s long-format shortcomings. The micro expands out to the macro; baseball’s google map zooms out, up from the roof of your house and the creepy neighbor’s Grand Am, up to bird’s eye view and the wide swaths of geography between landmarks, exposing the relationships that are too broad and abstract for day-to-day contemplation. In the broad view, you might learn that Colorado isn’t as far north as you thought it was, and that the Mets were far worse than you’d even considered possible.
But even as our gaze widens, most of us still head out to these inconsequential late-season games, or watch them on TV. Like a trip to the beach in September, the expectation at these games shifts, from watching a winning team to enjoying what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. There might be a chill in the air, but it’s nothing compared with the dead gray days of winter swinging three bats in the on deck circle.
As related in the Weisman quotation above, game time for the out-of-contention is in a sense baseball in its purer form: for it’s own sake. The pleasures are sensorial, immediate, and free associative. The mind, freed from concern for the score, flits about, jumping from memory and biography, to history, to novelty and around again.
For example, I watched an inconsequential game on TV the other day, between the Mariners and the Athletics. Both of these teams are solidly out of it. I was struck, first off, at how puny the A’s lineup was, having traded away Matt Holliday to the dominant Cardinals. This led my friend to note the power that the A’s once harnessed: the Bash Bros. in particular, who’ve since been sent to the back pasture. Instead of Canseco and Mcgwire, it’s Rajai Davis, Travis Buck, Ryan Sweeney and whoever else: a slap-hitting reminder that despite the Moneyball phenomenon, the A’s have got no scratch, and no scratch means no players.
My thoughts rambled on–I didn’t even know the score or the inning. Mark Mulder, I thought? Eric Chavez? Bobby Crosby? Was Jason Giambi here this year? And Nomar?. Perhaps it’s true of any team if considered too closely, but the A’s, in this diminished form, painted a melancholy picture of the arc of a man’s baseball life: the dark side of late-season, out-of-contention baseball; evidence that winning and competition distracts us from the sorry truth.
Ken Griffey, Jr., did plenty to rattle me out of the doldrums. Somewhere around the middle of the game, he lassoed a home run to right field. The swing was the same, the same as it was when he first came up. He knew it would leave when he connected, the only player you could never get on for hot-rodding in the batter’s box. He smacked it and paused, akimbo, for a tick. It could’ve been his 50th of the year for all it mattered, instead of his 17th. “It’s always majestic,” Don Wakamatsu said. “It doesn’t show age, that swing.”
That moment, watching Griffey hit a home run, is the epitome of the inconsequential game experience. Not because the homer had no value. In fact it was pivotal in the momentum of the game. But in a lost season, with the scope broadened, the swing looked like the whole of Griffey’s career, this home run just one more satellite circling the central gravitational pull of Griffey the figure, all of his cultural cachet, every ad and smile and backwards cap and home run and flying catch, jumped off the bat and rounded the bases. It was both a culmination and a condemnation of the game, the season, time: time exists and it doesn’t exist, matters and doesn’t matter. Winning matters and doesn’t matter: the Losers Dividend.
Ichiro rapped a single (a double?) to drive in a run. Felix Hernandez pitched 7 2/3 and tipped his cap to a standing ovation. Griffey struck out badly on three pitches. The game ended. It was drizzling outside.
“When do the playoffs start?” my friend asked. I didn’t know.