I’ll admit it: I struggle with the postseason. As undeniable as the drama and the excitement of do-or-die baseball are, and the unforgettable moments that arise from it, I seem to be lacking some genetic predisposition the rest of the world shares toward October. All playoffs are, to some degree, a balance between measuring greatness and maximizing spectacle. The trouble is the sport itself: the unpredictability embedded into the game―the same force that allows even unwatchable teams to win a third of the time―prevents a single championship game or even a dozen from being conclusive. We have to sacrifice that, give up the notion that our champions are fully proven, for the thrill of the playoffs and their heroic moments.

If sports are our ultimate realization of reality television, of unscripted drama, the playoffs are where this theme meets resistance. Thirty years ago Bill James beat back against the narratives that dominated not just the sport itself but how we understood it. But in October, when the stakes are high, those forces return and overwhelm us. Baseball reveals itself to be, at least for one city each year, a perfect story with heroes and happy endings, predestination writ large. But to accept the narrative arc and its climax, we also make a deal, and that deal requires some cognitive dissonance.

The existence (or non-existence, as the argument is generally phrased) of clutch performance is such an old, tired topic that people were sick of it nearly 10 years ago. There has been little to say since; the general sabermetric stance at this point is that it’s extremely limited in scope and examples, if at all. Richard Cramer tried to find evidence of it in 1977 and failed; James and Pete Palmer replicated his results. It’s impossible to prove a negative, of course, but what’s interesting is not the findings themselves (they are not) but that the burden of proof is even laid at the negative and not the positive. People desperately want clutch performance to exist, because without it, the foundations of why playoff baseball exists at all begin to crack. The real threat is to our heroes.

The problem with heroism is the problem of linguistics: one word means different things, and those concepts often get conflated. Heroism can mean:

  • A person who demonstrates great strength or ability (usually the former, though)
  • A person who demonstrates bravery through noble accomplishments
  • A person who is the object of widespread admiration
  • The protagonist of a story

These are by no means exclusive, of course, and some examples of heroes muddy up the waters by leaning on multiple definitions at once: Beowulf, nine-digit-grossing Marvel movies, the Three Musketeers. The 1992 Stephen Frears movie Hero attempted to base its story on the mere exclusion of the third of these elements. But there are more versions than just this: In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle developed a history of heroes as those who shaped history themselves, a precursor to Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Randian heroism leans heavily on the Nitzschean Superman, mixed with a necessary conflict against an oppressive hive-minded society to break through. It seems like heroism is just about anything you care to call it.

But for our purposes, for October’s purposes, we need to understand what it is we want in a hero. Baseball is at a disadvantage here: no matter how high the stakes of a baseball game, its heroism can never play on the same scale as the real world, with its tragedy and cats stuck in trees and actual death. But we’re smart people who can handle relativism. So what is a hero in the baseball sense?

The traditional definition of baseball heroism is that of antiquity: the baseball player as Achilles. In this case, it’s just the strongest guy on the battlefield, the best players, the ones who provide fans with the most joy. It’s the heroism of children toward adults, wishing to grow up and emulate them. As a boy I would toss a ball toward my bunk bed, leap forward and catch it “above the wall” in emulation of Ken Griffey, Jr. I would lift my glove up triumphantly, narrate through invisible broadcasters the unbelievable nature of my imagined catch. But at some point in adolescence, I began to discover the difference between “want to be like” and “wanting to do similar works as,” and that style of heroism dissipated in me.

Similarly untenable is the concept of baseball player as folk hero, as the avatar of and representation for a people. This may have been true in the early, homegrown era of the game, but 140 years of ringers and corporate entities have stripped away any illusion of baseball team as symbol for place.

Instead, I think that most people would assume some level of virtue in their heroes: some level of intention, regardless of action, to do good. We wouldn’t think of someone who saved 10 lives as heroic if the action were performed purely by accident; we might not even accept it without some level of self-sacrifice or at least a risk of it. Certainly this is a dominant theme in the heroism we see in other walks of life, from soldiers to firemen to good samaritans. This again poses a problem for baseball, because baseball isn’t very good at self-sacrifice, from a systematic standpoint. The actions that benefit the team and its legion of fans also tend to benefit the player, statistically and emotionally.

I think that resonance between individual and team goals is one of the virtues of the sport, at least on the field and away from the agent, but it deals a blow to our hopes for heroism. And those on-field examples have been chipped away: the sacrifice bunt, once the noblest of pursuits, has been revealed by WPA to be a fraud. And without clutch hitting to fall back on, there’s little to distinguish the mental and morality of a player to his opponents. Everyone is trying hard. Everyone wants to win. Either no one is a hero, or everyone is nearly equally.

So is there no such thing as heroism? Fortunately, I don’t think we have to give up the title entirely, just tighten up our use of it. There are still examples of virtue in the game, compatible with our October mandate. One way an athlete can exceed the reasonable expectations laid down by his colleagues is to play through unreasonable pain, like Kirk Gibson and Curt Schilling did in their heroic performances. Certainly the off-field hardships of some men in coming to the game, the trials of Jackie Robinson or Jose Fernandez qualify.

And Game 5 of the Dodgers-Nationals series provided us with two fine examples of another version: pushing past the traditional limits of expenditure. Hitters aren’t allowed this one, given the game’s restriction on how much they can perform, but Kenley Jansen was willing to throw more pitches than could have reasonably be expected from a closer in the age of 98 mph cutters. And Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw will be remembered as a hero in this game for coming in on a single day’s rest, after starting the previous game, and closing it out for the save. Heroism tends to be a results-based affair: it’s hard to reward people for unrealized intentions. But Kershaw’s volunteerism threatened more than just his arm: failure in this position, failure for being Clayton Kershaw while not really being Clayton Kershaw, would have been a blow to an already misfortune-tinged legacy. It was the perfect position for failure, and as the game receded into history the extenuated circumstances behind the L would have been lost. Kershaw’s willingness to contribute despite that, despite the cost, is as heroic to me as his ability to succeed in that task.

Ultimately, that prepositional clause “to me” is the heart of it. Heroism is a relative thing, and always will be. My goal is not to strip away the accolades of your favorite player, or diminish their accomplishments. Miguel Montero deserves acclaim for being able to accomplish what he did in Game 1 of the NLCS; perhaps that admiration simply needs a different word to describe it. Or perhaps I’m just a small-Hall person when it comes to heroes.

I love baseball, and I love the passion and tension that playoff baseball brings. But by accepting that there may be no clutch skill, no secret extra level some quasi-deities can access, I can’t ascribe extra meaning to the results of those games. A timely home run does not, alone, a hero make. I’m okay if the story doesn’t end properly, or lacks a consistent narrative. Not every story needs to have heroes.

Thank you for reading

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Excellent article, nearly heroic. I like the concept you are putting forth and see as the game has become more sabermetrically savvy that some of the fun has been taken out of it, to whatever degree. But it is still a unique sport with all it's quirkiness and complexity of rules, as Jeff Sullivan said at fangraphs, it is a game for people who like to think. Thanks for doing.
Good job. I wish the announcers would read this.