PnP Conversations: Baseball in Stereo

Ted: Eric, I realize we’re in the middle of an exciting playoffs, and we’ll get to that. But right now I have a confession to make: I support the designated hitter.

There, it’s out. It’s on the table. It hurts me to admit it. I have always, until these playoffs, believed in the old ideas: that every man should hit for himself, that tradition should bear out, that a pitcher hitting pushes managers to rely on strategy. I was wrong. It took this season for me to realize it.

This year I watched way more AL baseball than NL, which is a first for me. At first I was startled when the lineup turned over without a flailing twirp in the lineup. Then I got used to it. Where AL teams had in the past seemed bloated and excessive, like a genetically modified factory turkey, as the season carried on these lineups took on the feel of normalcy. All these good hitters, all in a row! Maybe this is how it should be.

turkey by flickr user bucklava

Also, someone quoted somewhere the startling yet reasonable fact that the NL is the only league in existence in which pitchers are required to hit. As that point hit home, I started to feel like such singularity smacked of petulance rather than tradition.

So there I was, on the brink, not sure where I stood, watching very little NL ball. Then the playoffs, the NL games. The pitchers hitting, to my AL-ized eyes, was something of an abomination. The flailing, the absence of skill or style. This is how AL fans must see the NL! I realized. I was horrified. My mind was made up.

But these pitchers sure can pitch! We called the no-hitter in our last conversation (close enough, anyway). So what’s our next on-point prediction for these 2010 playoffs, Eric?

Eric: I see your point; the Ranger and Yankee lineups strike me not as bloated turkeys but as sleek killing machines — no inefficiency to be found in the mechanisms of their run-scoring. It’s as if the American League is played stereo and the National League in mono. But I find myself itching to defend the NL, in all its nostalgic, idiosyncratic glory. The Senior Circuit. The Double Switch.

In other words, I appreciate the inefficiency of the NL; I appreciate the intricacy, the moving parts, and yes the strategy. I’ve been playing a lot of MLB 2k8 lately (don’t judge me; it’s convenient and the franchise mode is surprisingly tough), and I’ve found playing in the NL a much more dynamic experience. There is something lost with the DH — something gained, but also something lost. That said, it’s all just a game anyway, right? So if the NL took the plunge, I’d merely moan for thirty seconds and then start to wonder if the Dodgers could sign Adam Dunn this offseason.

ghetto blaster by flickr user rpm1200

As for these playoffs, how about Elvis Andrus stealing home? Oh wait — that already happened. I predict the Rangers beat the Yankees. How about that? Bold, right? I’ve always found the prediction game a silly one with teams because all I am totally unable to separate the emotional and the intellectual. In other words, I just pick the team I want to win. Go Rangers.

We return to this topic all the time but it seems a valid one. The exciting postseason pastime of deciding which team to get behind — only to watch the games and realize that sometimes your instinct decides these things for you for you. Example: Despite my Dodgers fandom, I was pondering not hating the Giants for this series. The Phillies have caused me a lot of strife lately. The Giants are fun fun fun. Tim Lincecum (maybe still) knows who I am from the many times I interviewed him when we were both at the University of Washington. And there’s the underdog factor.

But as I watched the Phillies come to the plate down at the end of Game One, all I could do was root for Jimmy Rollins to hit a double and devastate Brian Wilson (a total goon, at least in my rendering of the playoff narrative), thereby lifting the people of Los Angeles to collective joy.

Oh these playoffs are surprising times. And for the first time all year, I’m starting to realize how sad it is that baseball’s almost over. Has the specter of looming offseason doldrums hit you yet? Did it just happen right now? Sorry about that…

Ted: No, the looming specter of the offseason has not hit me, and I consider it a tad sacrilegious (can sacrilege come in “tad” form, or is it an all-or-nothing prospect?) that you would bring up such a prospect in the heat of the pennant battle. That reminds me: during a broadcast, Ron Darling and John Smoltz started to talk about spring training, and some drive from one Florida town to another. I could have punched them. This is no time for such talk. This is the time when spring don’t mean shit. So I will now commence ignoring the concept that time exists past Halloween.

I get your argument for the pleasant familiarity of a broken system, ie the DH. After all, we here at Pitchers and Poets often praise the inefficient, or the pleasantly unaware, the pleasures of intuition and flagging data input. I guess I’m just following my gut, though. I think the older I get, the more I’m willing to set aside matters of principle and embrace the mechanism of entertainment. The DH is entertaining, and that’s maybe the only argument I can make for it.

animated steve carrell via flickr user cineypantalla01

Intuition and rooting, yes, it’s a complicated tango. I want to root for the Giants, myself, but can’t help but enjoy Roy-O pitching for the Phils, and enjoy that he and Brad Lidge are bookending the game once more. But I still can’t root for the whole team. I’m a fragmentary supporter right now. I dig Lincecum (I’m totally sure he remembers you, just like I’m sure Jose Cruz remembers when he coached me in 14-year-old Babe Ruth), I like that Pat Burrell (who I’ve just in my head nicknamed Despicable P — ha!) has been reborn anew, and I like Kung Fu Panda a lot, but I can’t put it all together. For the Phils, I can’t like their all-too-familiar postseason lineup that much, though they’ve got some remarkable players on their team.

AL-wise, once again, I don’t want the Yanks to win, but they’ve got Lance Berkman driving in runs. And I don’t really like the Rangers. Josh Hamilton creeps me out with his combo of junkie vulnerability and religious zealotry, and they still haven’t shaken the band box, popcorn, all-hit old reputation in my reptile brain. Yet I love Cliff Lee, and I double-love Elvis Andrus, and I like Vlad Guerrero.

In short, I’m torn. So in a way I sort of lose, but I also sort of win, in that whatever teams go the distance I can find something to enjoy. I’ve got some kind of baseball version of diplomatic immunity. It’s kind of cool.

Here’s a random question: can a team win the World Series with Mike Fontenot playing third base?

Eric: Yes, technically it is possible. But my instinct is that this team can’t. The reason? By playing Mike Fontenot at third base, Bruce Bochy is denying America the joy that is Pablo Sandoval. This is typical of Bochy, who in recent years has also elected to deny America the joy that was his well-defined Padres era mustache. For a team like this year’s Giants to win the World Series, it would take some sort of rising. Not The Rising, like Springsteen’s The Rising, but a regular rising — as in to form an identity that is greater than the sum of its crazy parts.

The Giants have so much weirdness. Taken as individuals, Despicable P and Aubrey Huff and Big Panda and Timmy and the Ghost of Barry Zito, and even god forsaken Brian Wilson are all delights. Misfits. Characters. Inglourious Basterds,the lot of them. Yet the Giants, for all the unlikely winning, have yet to become the full-on, fun-timing band of gypsies that they are capable of. This team should sing like the Pirates of the 1970s. They should be the kind of team America wants to get behind. But they remain — to reuse an appropriate metaphor from earlier — a team that projects itself in mono.

This is partly because of Bochy’s management — of which Fontenot’s unlikely presence is a direct result. Ron Washington would never be so stodgy as to play a utility guy instead of a slugger, struggling or not. (Then again, Washington has the DH at his disposal…your point about entertainment value is starting to make sense.) And the Rangers, even with a slightly less magnificent set of kooks on their roster — an ex-junkie Jesus-freak, a shortstop named Elvis, an unlikely Nelson Cruz, a Japan reclamation project, etc. — manage to capture the imagination and at least for me, play in stereo.

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