Baseball’s Big Chance: Two Great Games and a Crack in the NFL’s Shield
I walked to the game, because that is how you get to an important game in Pittsburgh. You walk over one of the great yellow bridges and get swallowed up by the joy that has preceded you. The traditionalists may scoff, but these win-or-go-home, one-game wild-card deals have taken on a life of their own. There is a sharpness to the holiday atmosphere around them. There is an edge to the jollity. Because these are the playoffs, and yet they are not yet the playoffs. They are a strange, mortal kind of passage into the playoffs. You saw that on Tuesday, when Kansas City and Oakland combined for a hysterical performance art piece that ran for nearly five hours. And you saw that on Wednesday when, instead of performance art, we got a still life from a master.
There simply is not much to say about what Madison Bumgarner, and his 10 strikeouts and 109 pitches, did to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He walked into a storm of noise and urgency and simply took the air out of the place. He was never in trouble from the first pitch. And, in the fourth inning, when Pittsburgh starter Edinson Volquez left a curveball over the plate with the bases loaded, and San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford parked it into the right-field seats, Bumgarner had a 4-0 lead that might as well have been 40-0. It is a remarkable thing to hear 40,000-odd people go completely silent all at once. They had seen the ball leave the park, and they had seen what Bumgarner was throwing at the Pirates, and they have been watching baseball in Pittsburgh long enough to know what had just happened. The season had disappeared over the wall.
At the end, it topped off at 8-0, and the Giants, who have evolved into fearsome fighters for the late rounds, move along to a best-of-five series with the Washington Nationals, and San Francisco remains part of a very interesting postseason for baseball, the most interesting one it has had in many years, not just because of the anticipated caliber of play — and I am already waiting for a matchup between Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, which may not even happen — but also because of the odd context in which baseball finds itself at the moment. It rises, old muscles creaking, less of them atrophied than people thought, and it looks out over the place in the world that once belonged to it and, in slow steps, it moves toward that place again.
As its postseason opens, baseball sits in a propitious position, at least as an ongoing element of the sports-entertainment complex. For nearly half a century, its status as the national pastime has been usurped by football, particularly in its professional manifestation, but also in its quasi-professional form sponsored by our country’s avaricious institutions of higher learning. Football locked up the primary fan loyalties at the local, collegiate, and professional levels. Baseball seemed to be fading into an ever more cloudy bell jar, where it one day might join boxing and horse racing as sports of an increasingly distant past. The most basic reason for these developments has been the swift and irresistible development of various communications media. In the basic structure of its game, football was perfectly suited for the moment when the country’s primary home entertainment option moved from radio to television. Because of this, of course, football also became a perfect vehicle for gamblers.
Now that the country’s primary home entertainment option has moved again, this time into the multifarious forms of digital devices and platforms — “Look, Ma. I can hold Jacksonville-Baltimore in my hand!” — football once again adapted itself to the changing times. Gambling is easier on computers and so is gambling’s more genteel second cousin, the fantasy league. We have moved into the age of vicarious fandom, in which people become fans of a sport through their fantasy teams, their love for memorabilia, their interest in the mathematics of the sport. The actual playing of the actual games has become oddly secondary, not least because more and more people cannot attend the games without federal matching funds. When all this happened, football had the easiest transition. The nature of expressing yourself as a fan changed, and football changed with it.
Which is odd, because so many of the new ways to be a fan got their start in baseball. Fantasy leagues began when a bunch of New York editors got together for lunch at La Rotisserie Francaise in Manhattan. (I know many of these men. I know where they live. They will pay. Oh, yes, they will … ) Baseball is where the concept of sports analytics began, where the battle between old-school perceptions and advanced mathematics first was joined.1 In addition, baseball has a stubborn reservoir of support, even if it is discounted occasionally by the metrics of the marketing people. Given that, as the playoffs begin, baseball has the best chance it has had in decades to put a large dent in the swaggering Decepticon that is professional football. The reason is simple — at every level, football is eating itself.
There are suburban parents who look at the statistics on concussions and think twice about signing that consent form. Public school budgets are squeezed to the breaking point. Universities have begun to feel the heat. (The University of Michigan, the athletic empire of which has been state-of-the-art for decades, is currently in turmoil over an issue of player safety.) And the NFL now looks like Rome shortly after the Ostrogoths hit town. Its image, which always was its primary marketing vehicle, is in complete chaos. Its brand is in trouble. Having tied so much of its success to technology, the NFL now finds itself excoriated across many platforms by thousands of content providers. And there is baseball, all shined up for its annual autumn showcase. The funny thing is that it was there all along.
You would not be wrong if you perceived a barely concealed, if largely sub rosa, glee among baseball’s most fervent adherents at the predicament in which the NFL finds itself. They have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. It validates all the emotion they have put into a game that was regularly consigned to genteel obsolescence. I have no doubt that my friend Keith Olbermann has been sincere in his denunciations of the NFL over the past few months. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t detect a bit of a twinkle in his eye, since Olbermann loves baseball more than baseball ever deserved to be loved.
So, on Tuesday, we had a sprawling mess of a German opera that nonetheless turned into a classic game between the Royals and the Athletics. Once, Bill Lee memorably said of his manager in Boston, Darrell Johnson, that Johnson spent the season falling out of trees and landing on his feet. Well, on Wednesday, Kansas City’s Ned Yost fell out of a tree and, on the way down, Yost hit every branch, was mauled by a passing turkey buzzard, was nibbled upon by squirrels, was briefly impaled on thorns, performed a double backflip and then a two-and-a-half in the pike position, and still landed on his feet. Yost’s unique managerial style was what people talked about the next day. The game got terrific ratings. And then, on Wednesday, in Pittsburgh, there was a quiet masterpiece, and that’s more than all right, too.
To be sure, baseball needs both kinds of games. It’s just that a game like the one played Wednesday night is a game for all the people who have been waiting for the country to come around again. Bumgarner’s mastery was clear from the first pitch he threw. Crawford’s grand slam killed drama worse than Cop Rock ever did. It was a game that required you to look for its delights. It required you to notice how Bumgarner used his fastball in on the hands to set up his slow breaking stuff away. Every at-bat was a different painting. Every pitch was a unique brushstroke of a different color. And you didn’t find out until later that, in the long history of baseball, of which a team called the Giants and a team called the Pirates have experienced the entire sweep, no shortstop before Brandon Crawford ever had hit a grand slam in postseason play. None of them, all the way back to Honus Wagner, the guy who pretty much invented baseball in Pittsburgh.
For the spectators, it was a game that had turned into a social event fairly quickly. For the last half of the game, a number of the patrons simply milled around the beer stands and the food courts, talking about what a great season it had been and what a terrible ending had come to it. It was while standing in line for a sandwich that I heard a peculiar cry of anguish.
“Fuck me,” the man behind me moaned as another San Francisco run crossed the plate.
The bridges got crowded again right around this time. Five-to-nothing is still a possibility, but 8-0 is permission to abandon the season because of that meeting you have at 8:30 the next morning. Standing in the aisles of the grandstand, you could see vague masses of people moving across the vivid yellow iron. The wonderful new park was emptying out, and people were crossing the river into autumn, and, around the next bend, a football stadium glowered in the dark.