On Narratives and Realignment

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you Patrick Dubuque’s first post as this summer’s Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration. Please enjoy:

“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The words “The End” don’t appear in Faulkner’s masterpiece, because the story doesn’t end; it just stops.  In the postmodern literary arena, the traditional story arc has fallen out of favor, replaced by an unflinching, gritty examination of life as is.  Climaxes and conclusions are left for the situational comedy, the summer blockbuster and the Dan Brown spiritual thriller.  Instead, we get the repeating signboards, and the vantage toward the horizon, with the misery of human existence as it disappears and resurfaces ad infinitum.

Baseball is in no way postmodern.  This week, however, a few of its storytellers are modeling with the hypothetical, toying with the concept of realignment.  Authors and readers alike strain to envision a world in which the Mariners play the Padres in late September, as opposed to July, or a future where Carlos Lee is a designated hitter rather than a designated hitter who happens to take the field every inning.  The whole conversation is wonderful off-season banter, oddly timed in its arrival in early June.  Rob Neyer and Al Yellon over at SB Nation present their cases for and against admirably.  My response is to reprint the well-worn cartoon that made the baseball blog rounds several weeks ago:

The important part of the comic (for my purposes) is not the seeming randomness from which the narrative is derived: The Return of the Native is a story essentially extracted from the meteorological effects on British topography, breaded with crumbs of angst.  Instead, what’s worth discussing is the creation of those narratives, a goal that the sport certainly aims to accomplish.  Essentially, baseball is driven by two very separate forces: the desire to have the greatest team crowned as champions, and the desire to have an interesting, dramatic month of playoff baseball.

As fans, we’ve inured ourselves to the fact that the current division and playoff formats are an uneasy alliance between excitement and realism.  Unlike the other major sports (except perhaps basketball), the qualities that reflect a good regular season baseball team do not necessarily lend themselves to the playoffs, where fourth starters are nearly useless and losing four out of seven games is entirely reasonable for a team that lost a third of them up to that point.  Any plan to expand the playoffs simply introduces more luck into the formula for deciding champions, and reduces the importance of the regular season.

What this phenomenon lacks in purity, however, it makes up for in narrative.  A realignment that introduces more teams also provides more underdogs, more parity, and more seventh games.  It’s democracy, in all the best and worst senses of the word.  It provides the hope for victory by diluting that victory, forgetting that too many memorable moments make each of them equally unmemorable.

So we have a hypothetical system designed to add excitement to every season, but people aren’t fans of seasons; they’re fans of teams.  A team’s narrative isn’t meant to be a trifling, six-month one-act play.  It’s a Michenerian epic, spanning years and generations.  Success should come from hard work and skill, the culmination of sweat and suffering and disaster.  So too should tragedy.  It needs its fatal flaw, its catharsis.  To have these results come at the hands of a fluke, a mindless twist of fate, is to render the whole exercise arbitrary, and reduce the work back into a string of random numbers.

Benjy, one of the few Faulkner characters to escape a novel with contentment intact, does so by keeping his gaze on the horizon.  In baseball, this is the meaningless weekday afternoon game in August, the second division teams playing for pride.  It’s baseball for its own sake, just as the existentialists gave up on winning and championed life for the sake of life.

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