Neftali’s Smile

Neftali Feliz let loose the last pitch of the baseball game between the Rangers and the Yankees, and as the umpire rung up Alex Rodriguez, the young closer’s face morphed from stern and focused to jubilant so quickly that you could only see it happen, like all the best action from Shark Week, in slow motion.

There was no self-conscious and deliberate removal of the chewing gum before diving into the fray that came quick on the heels of that last pitch, as we saw from A-Rod when the Yanks clinched the World Series last year. There was none of the stoic celebrity that Jeter carries with him like a suit, his days of doing anything you could call “unbridled” having passed. Same goes for the gray-haired Posada, and for the gaunt-looking Mariano Rivera, who I imagine would enjoy a bubbling sesh in the tub with some Epsom salts over a screaming, hooting scrum to celebrate, what, just an ALCS win?

Last year was a screening of Cocoon, as the old Yankees guard walked the red carpet one more time. This year, the young ones are in the foreground.

And “young” could refer to the franchise as much if not moreso than the players on the team. The Rangers, like the Rockies of 2007 and the Marlins of 1997 and the Dbacks of 2003, are a fresh franchise to see so late in the game. With all of its variety, you’d think that baseball would have sent every possible iteration of teams to the big dance in October, and so it always feels something of a privilege to see somebody new.

As hokey as the end-of-game celebration has become, when the cameramen start to outnumber the players on the field with their steadicams poised in front of them like burning trash cans, it’s still this beautiful thing, to watch these guys whose arm health is worth a-buh-zillion to fling themselves onto a pile, risking tendons and knees and elbows. You don’t see that from a franchise that’s been there before.

You probably watched this yourself, but at the peak of the Ranger pile’s density and madness, DLed reliever Frank Francisco found himself on the second layer up from the ground, pinioned by someone on top of him across the back of an anonymous player who was on all fours by somebody, in a sort of Dante’s Inferno of tangled bodies. Francisco couldn’t move, and the television audience watched as he struggled for a beat or two, realized his predicament, and grinningly gave up on trying to wriggle out, letting his arms sag in a kind of shrug of happiness. He gave himself to the pile, sacrificing himself on the altar of the poor sap trapped underneath his 250 pounds.

Isn’t that what we ask of these guys: sacrifice? That’s the core of it, anyway, despite the contracts and the fame. Dive, chase, fall, flop, swing, crawl, hop, trip, in the name of this game. We’re asking them to hurl themselves onto a pile so that we can do the same in our minds, grinning at the legs poking out of the bottom and the clown who takes a running leap onto the top of it.

The dogpile when you were a kid was a way to nominally humiliate someone, to pile on top of them until they’re gasping and groaning for air. But it was also a way to get closer, to occupy the same space as these friends, these people, who you know but don’t know, who you worry might be robot clones, or just projections of your own consciousness, not independent sentient things that feel the way you feel. Digging a knuckle into a rib to get a bark of pain was a way of range-finding, and of scouting out the boundaries between yourself and somebody else.

Baseball reminds us of those fall days of our own. Dogpile, Texas Rangers, so that we, too, may dogpile.

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