Right now, the MLB is slowly, slowly revealing the names of the 2009 award winners. The results trickle out to the media like grains of sand through a poorly maintained hourglass, presumably extending the shelf-life of the now-finished season to grab a few brain cells away from Lebron James and the NFL.
There are numerous arguments, and plenty of good reason to just go ahead and announce the award winners when they’re tabulated, just before the playoffs. However, I am, however, about to argue that there is some legitimate pleasure to be had from the awards announcement process at this quiet time in the baseball life cycle. The free agent frenzy will soon begin, with the corresponding sense of urgency. This time, however, right now, is appropriate for reflection, with a contemplative look back at what is already, jarringly, “last year.”
During the baseball season, I often feel like I’m traveling down a turbulent river in a rickety canoe. Just ahead of me, bobbing in the rapids, is the piece of flotsam that represents the team I choose to follow, the Astros (they’ve been far far ahead of late from another coast, kept afloat only by an enthusiastic blog community. Also, does that make the Yankees a super-tanker?). It’s all I can do to keep my gaze trained on that elusive target, tracking its progress as it dips and swirls, disappears from view and reemerges.
The rest of baseball–the other teams, individual performances, slumps and streaks, scandals, standings, highlights, records–line the shore. Tracking the piece of drift downstream, the shoreline flickers past in my peripheral vision as little more than a blur of color and light.
The first respite on this journey (it’s a fun ride, despite my somewhat harrowing metaphor) comes in the calm eddy just before the playoffs, when most slots are sealed up, bad seasons come to an end and, and the new second season promises a more concentrated pursuit. That’s the first time I try and take stock of all that has just happened, particularly by catching up on the teams that are still in the race. How did they get there, what do they bring to the table?
That quick breather is soon over, and the class 6 rapids that are the playoffs begin. And as abruptly as they begin, they are through. All falls silent, birds chirp, the woodfire crackles in the evening light.
The twilight fades to the depressing yellow glow of the indoor NBA arena. In the conjoined exhilaration and melancholy of the season’s end, it turns to reflection time. For me, that’s means checking the detailed leader boards on sites like The Hardball Times or Fangraphs.
It’s a marvel to me how much I miss in the course of a season. You can read all of the blogs that you want, and watch as much Baseball Tonight as your eyeballs can take, but small bits and bytes of information still continuously emerge depending on the lens that you put on your camera. Train your viewfinder on the A’s or the Blue Jays or whatever team is furthest from your typical focus, and you’ll find out that Andrew Bailey had a dominant year out of the bullpen, or Adam Lind just crushed it all year. And those are the obvious ones. Aaron Hill can slug, but he doesn’t take many walks. And Vernon Wells…yikes.
For every team, there’s a minimum of 25 things to learn, and truly many more than that. Every player tells an eight month story.
And so, to the awards season. As lengthy as the process is (Joe Posnanski tweeted “As a member of the Baseball Writers, I wonder: Can’t we stretch out these awards more? I understand MVP comes out July 2013.”), there is a core understanding going on that this is indeed the time to discuss the awards. They are individual in nature, and the darkest depths of the offseason are better suited for debates about player prowess than just before the post season, when team play is paramount. Individual award conversation pales in comparison to the playoff vibe, the intensity of each pitch of each game.
Now, however, the hot lamps have cooled, the champagne has dried sticky to the floor, and we’re by the campfire again. It’s the time to contemplate the individual achievements, the gems buried in the rock of a long, arduous season. What sparkles now can be placed under the microscope and tested for purity. Purity, in this sense, is gauged under the jeweler’s eye of conversation, of debate, with a calm dose of perspective.
Enter the awards, which offer the institutionalized version of one side of a conversation. The general body says, “This is the answer to this question,” vis a vis the best rookie in each league, the best pitcher, the best player, the best coach. A definitive proclamation is the best way to start any conversation, as it’s the ultimate launching point for conversation. And so, in a manner, the awards are not a finisher but a starter, the flint and tinder that set the baseball scene to talking up a fire. The hot stove, yes, is what that is, if it sounds familiar. It’s calm water. It keeps us warm.
The awards season mirrors the times, by which I mean the offseason itself: it’s a slow tedious march, marked by the odd flourish of pretty great stuff to talk about.