Throughout the playoffs, sportswritin' fella Miles Wray will be writing for us about the production of postseason baseball. What Miles takes that vague phrase to mean will be as much of a surprise to me as it will be to you. Here’s his first piece.
Allow me to propose a new term for the baseball lexicon: Octoberness. Noun. Used in a sentence: “Derek Jeter joyously dogpiling with Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams sure is peak Octoberness.
Octoberness, along with all of playoff baseball, is something just slightly separate from regular baseball; not necessarily better or worse so much as easier to recall, easier to retell, easier to manipulate. Regular baseball is feeling your arms sunburn as the losing manager slowly strolls out to pull another reliever in an 8-2 game. Octoberness is David Ortiz launching a ball over the Monstah at midnight, his breath misting in the air as he rounds the bases. Regular baseball is Aramis Ramirez. Octoberness is David Freese.
Those who create television ads for baseball are watching these playoffs, as they do every playoffs, on high alert for moments of Octoberness. The Octoberness moments are bound to pop up—last year’s moment of peak Octoberness, for instance, was Koji Uehara collapsing into a victorious hug of exhausted, joyous ecstasy. In previous years that peak moment has been ecstatic Craig Counsell, ecstatic Luis Gonzales, or ecstatic Magglio Ordonez. (Ecstacy is the Dollar of Octoberness, resignation the Euro.) These moments are endlessly rebroadcast, sometimes in quarter-second-long excerpts, as baseball presents its idealized self-image to an attentive public.
Of course, regular baseball has a way of creeping into the places where Octoberness should be taking place. Think of Kolten Wong getting picked off to end a World Series game last year. You can practically hear the record scratching to a halt. But as heavy as that moment was in terms of WPA, it was not weighted with the gravitas so essential to any true moment of Octoberness. There is no way to slo-mo that moment, wash it over with sepia, underscore it with ecstatic Joe Buck. For a second, Octoberness gave way to the bizarre, the technical, the banal.
Here are five hypothetical, series-changing scenarios that could take place in this October that would carry the least Octoberness (a la Wong), followed by the scenarios that would carry the most Octoberness (a la Freese). As with any measure of Octoberness, the deeper into October we go, the more Octoberness these scenarios produce.
Ordered by lowest to highest degree of Octoberness. These power rankings are objective, and final:
Lack of Octoberness
5. Anything that happens in a matinee.
Some openings of sports tournaments, like the first marathon days of March Madness or the Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies, are attractions in themselves. They stand on their own as occasions, weeks ahead of the actual crowning of champions. Baseball’s second season just kind of…starts. Even the day of back-to-back-to-back-to-back games was hardly an event: some of those were Game Ones, some of those were Game Twos, and the whole thing took place on a Friday.
More importantly, by matters of Octoberness, many of the early games in baseball playoffs are matinees, and matinees are by definition anti-Octoberness. All of the best Octoberness moments take place past midnight. This is an essential component of the baseball season as metaphor for life: Spring training, when new life and hopes bloom, was made exclusively for matinees. Playoff baseball, which takes place on the brink of hibernation (not to mention after so many hopes have died) is supposed to take place in the evening, preferably late in the evening. This is just a law of nature.
(Also, if I may quickly turn the start of baseball’s playoffs into an event: Wait an extra day or two after the play-in games and have all four Division Series Game Ones on Friday night, followed by all four Division Series Game Twos on Saturday night. Baseball-o-rama.)
4. Yasiel Puig cuts down a go-ahead runner with an outfield assist.
Hot prospects and hot tempers are staples of regular baseball, the former a time-filling diversion for losers, and the latter a fatal character flaw of, well, losers. October, and thus Octoberness, is the domain of baseball’s most noble gentlemen. If Puig were to seal a game with a late-inning broadside unleashed from his mighty cannon, there exists a legion of punditry that will be reduced to staring at their keyboards in the press box with mouths agape, stiff with existential crises.
3. Nelson Cruz or Jhonny Peralta wins a game with a walk-off hit.
There are many paths a baseball player can travel that will summit in redemptive, climactic Octoberness. You can be numerously benched, traded, cut—those all make great low points for eventual redemption. You could suffer a once-debilitating injury, persisting through the lengthy and emotionally taxing rehabilitation. You could even, like Josh Hamilton, ravage your life with recreational drugs.
But whoa boy do drugs of the performance-enhancing type really erase one’s chances at a redemptive narrative. We have gotten a foretaste of this fate, with Cruz’s two-run homer being the difference in the Orioles’ 2-1, sweep-finishing victory over Detroit. While Cruz’s homer was the ultimate winning margin, that homer also came in the sixth inning, meaning the moment was not punctuated with walk-off-type celebration. Were another Cruz homer to take place in the ninth inning of a scoreless game, such a moment would trigger a flurry of hand-wringing op-eds that will only be a drag.
2. A game hinges on play at the plate.
While traditionally a thrilling moment in a tight ballgame, this year’s new legislation against plate collisions has the potential to make plays at the plate a lot less fun. I can see it now: the day after, Jose Lobaton’s stance, positioning, and psychological baseline is broken down frame by frame as a brutally dry passage of the official rules is grammatically parsed into oblivion.
1. A game hinges on video replay.
Forget measures of Octoberness. If—sorry, when—this bureaucratic fate reaches in from its distant command center and irreversibly alters the fabric of a playoff game, riots may be afoot.
5. Buster Posey hits at least two home runs in a game.
This era of the Giants has more Octoberness than just about any other group in baseball history: after drifting stoically (if not lamely) through great heaping portions of the regular season, the Giants become insatiably hostile once October arrives. I mean: they have won their last six playoff series! Okay, so there might be a sub-.500 year sprinkled in-between those victories—but that makes the Giants' Octoberness all the more potent. There would hardly be a more commercial-ready way to cap off a string of even-numbered-years domination than if their All-American wunderkind cranked a few into McCovey Cove. (Opposite-field hitting acts as an Octoberness multiplier.)
4. Stephen Strasburg seals a game from the bullpen.
Whether it’s peaking Randy Johnson, ebbing Tim Lincecum, or brand new David Price, there has always been an undeniable (if unidentifiable) thrill in seeing a starter emerge from the bullpen for the playoffs. From a narrative perspective, Strasburg is the best candidate to do so this year. Hurling some high-leverage late innings on short rest would dramatically expunge the narrative ghosts that have haunted the Nationals as a franchise ever since Strasburg was ultra-conservatively shut down on the eve of the 2012 playoffs. So, for making this moment possible, either thank you or screw you, Davey Johnson.
3. Royals Walk-Off Victory Sub-Power Rankings
It is a reliable staple of Octoberness: unassuming role player comes through huge. This has been Freese, it has been Marco Scutaro, it has been Scott Spiezio.
There is no reliable way to predict who, from the depths of the remaining rosters, will provide those big moments in 2014. It is true, though, that a moment of the utmost Octoberness will unfold if that big moment comes from an unexpected member of the Kansas City Royals roster. By storming into the Championship Series after their infamous decades, the Royals are already weaving a story of manic Octoberness. Here are the five best candidates to be the unsuspecting hero for KC, ranked by narrative strength:
5. Mike Moustakas
Entire season (career?) of spoiled potential is redeemed (for a bit) with a(nother) single swing.
4. Jarrod Dyson
Appealing speedster provides first iconic clutch triple in postseason history.
3. Nori Aoki
Will smile more widely and photogenically than any of his teammates in celebration.
2. Erik Kratz
Just like the immortalized story of journeyman catcher and World Series champion Chris Coste, a crucial hit by Kratz—who, like Coste, also played for the Phillies in his 30s—is a triumph of the baseball-lore archetype of tenacious, good-natured, blue-collar back-up catcher.
1. Raul Ibanez
The comeback of comebacks. Now 42 years old and left off of the Royals’ 25-man ALDS roster, Ibanez is nonetheless still under contract for a team that remains alive in October, and thus he cannot be ruled out from anything. If the dude was ending playoff games at age 40, is it really that ridiculous for it to happen at age 42?
2. St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series.
It doesn’t matter which of the 24 Cardinals is the foremost hero (remember, Peralta is excluded), another Cardinals World Series dogpile will always and forever be welcomed into the annals of The Glory of Baseball. Just as with the Cardinals championships of 2006 and 2011, a victory in 2014 would definitely seem like it takes place in some time period other than 2014—the Cardinals have a nostalgizing knack for turning back the clock and skewing to older audiences. Not that the Cardinals are from a specific previous era, either—this is because they are the distilled spirit of the timeless Glory of Baseball, duh.
1. Clayton Kershaw pitches a complete game victory, two or fewer runs allowed.
What a mighty vacuum there is now, with the forever prince of Octoberness, Derek Jeter, having just played his last. Perhaps the yearning has been unspoken until right this sentence, but I believe it to be real: we yearn for Kershaw to take Jeter’s place at the spiritual top of the game.
As bewilderingly good as Kershaw has been in the regular season, in order to become a supra-baseball energy-force like Jeter was Kershaw must perform at that same level in October. If he doesn’t improve on his totally pedestrian postseason record, before very long we will become uncomfortable in appraising his supernova regular-season abilities against a string of meh Division and League Championship Series performances.
It will be for the best if Kershaw manages to go all nine, preferably to clinch a series, summoning unknown reserves as his pitch count escalates into the 120s, clinging ferociously to a thin lead provided for him. And when Kershaw collapses with relief into A.J. Ellis’ sturdy arms at the foot of the mound, teammates in the background riotously running in from their positions—well, it will hardly matter who eventually wins the World Series. There is your moment of peak Octoberness.