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NOW MORE THAN EVER, BASEBALL NEEDS AN ELECTRIC OCTOBER
In the ninth inning before an expected (and crippling) labor standoff, a troubled sport is depending on postseason magic and potent story lines to keep America interested amid its football obsession
How romantic if October, as in autumns past, somehow saved Major League Baseball from itself. Just gaze at the fabled uniforms and take in the prestige, the tradition, the shivers — Giants, Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox. Consider the fun they’re having already in Boston, where you hope the laundry cart that wheels every home-run slugger through a narrow, archaic Fenway Park dugout doesn’t result in a hospital visit.
What could be better than the Sawwx eliminating $324-million choker Gerrit Cole (two innings, 50 pitches, $1 million) and the sucky Yankees — who have won only one World Series since 2000 while the Red Sox are dreaming of their fifth in that span — while dispatching manager Aaron Boone to his next job, if not wobbly architect Brian Cashman? Well, this would be better: The Cardinals, from the forgotten heartland, ousting the Dodgers and their $270 million payroll tonight. We can’t wait for the boos that will greet the cheating, trash-can-banging Astros in Chicago, where the White Sox always have been honorable and incorruptible, other than in 1919, when they threw the World Series, and Tony La Russa is one of the proudest managers ever, beyond his complicit role in the steroids scandals that started when he managed the A’s.
And remember when we used to laugh at Tampa Bay? If the Rays win it all, the land of manatees, pirates, cigars and strip clubs becomes the first market since Detroit in the mid-1930s — when fewer franchises in all leagues made such a feat much easier — to simultaneously hold the World Series, Super Bowl and Stanley Cup trophies. “The Titanic and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers … two disasters that were accompanied by band music,’’ cracked late-night legend Johnny Carson, back when the Bucs were 0-26 and not gunning for back-to-back championships with the greatest of all quarterbacks.
“You hear people say winning is in the water here in Tampa. I’ve heard that quite a bit lately,’’ said Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured player in a convention-defying franchise that wins regardless of a perpetual revolving door that defies low payrolls and dismal attendance in a dungeon ballpark.
“Tampa, Florida. Sports Town, USA,” tweeted Rays lefty pitcher and southwest Florida native Shane McClanahan, who gets the Game 1 start Friday night against Boston at Tropicana Field, where good seats, as always, are available.
Oh, the jollies that lie ahead in October. “This postseason has all the makings of a blockbuster,’’ writes the modern bard, Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.
Except, Games 6 and 7 of the World Series are in … um, November, only days before the collective bargaining agreement expires and an antagonistic labor conflict begins. Which means the final outs and the champion’s celebration — the only reason America would be watching these days — quickly will be swallowed by talk of a lockout or players strike and the potential destruction of baseball’s public trust.
This is what our national past-its-time does so routinely and drearily — self-sabotage — stretching an endless season into a new month just as the average length of a nine-inning game extends to 3 hours and 10 minutes. That’s up five minutes from 2019, when commissioner-in-hiding Rob Manfred vowed to improve pace but still hasn’t installed a 20-second pitch clock, though such a clock worked this year in Low-A West, a minor league in California, where 21 minutes per game were salvaged.
Why would Manfred want shorter games? Shaving minutes decreases concession sales, lessens engagement on social media, diminishes the TV exposure windows and angers hitters who need more time to adjust crotches and pitchers who need to step off the rubber or, when no one is looking, slather the ball with substances. Manfred and the owners he serves so obediently, many with heads stuck in the 20th century (and up each other’s asses), refuse to address the alarming gaps of action during games, the lowest league batting average (.244) since 1968, the 27-year low in batting average on balls in play (.292), the “Three True Outcomes’’ that now are a sheepish part of baseball lingo (strikeout or home run or walk), the horror of 2,644 more strikeouts than hits, the defensive shifts that suck energy, the sabergeek bosses who have removed instinct and joy. And, of course, the tanking that has led to a more-farcical-than-ever imbalance between the haves and have-nots, which is one reason three teams won at least 100 games and leaves the 106-win Dodgers with a win-or-die assignment in a wild-card scare.
“The people that don’t appreciate what an organization does over the course of six months and thinks it’s a waste, they have no clue. … To discredit, in any way, the regular season is very, very shortsighted and very ignorant,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, on the defensive before a matchup against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals. “People who share that view are clueless and haven’t been in the grind and understand what it takes to win 100 games in a major-league season.”
No one feels sorry for the Dodgers. And no one feels sorry for the Yankees, who might be bluebloods as defined by resources but are just another woefully underachieving behemoth. To think Cole was among the numerous pitchers using illegal substances, and since his springtime admission, his performances have been less than reliable. He is 1-4 in winner-take-all games, and the $324 million, for now, was not well-spent.
It’s hard to imagine Boone will survive when he succeeded a man, Joe Girardi, who won a World Series and nearly reached another. “The guys are crushed. Unfortunately, we’ve been in this position, and it hasn’t ended how we want it,’’ he said. “Tonight was another tough one to take. We’ve been through a lot of wars with guys in that room. We’ve got a lot of stars. Guys are bummed. My message is, I’m grateful to be able to compete with that group of guys.’’
If it sounded like a goodbye, it probably was. “The other message is, the (American League) has closed the gap on us. We’ve got to get better, at every aspect. It’s not just the Red Sox and Astros. Look at our division — the Rays, Toronto,’’ Boone said. There are some teams in the Central and West that are better and better. That has to be front and center.’’
Said Cole: “I didn’t perform the way I wanted tonight. … I’m sick to my stomach.’’
For those of us who grew up with baseball and want to love baseball, October is a daily and nightly preoccupation. But with every blow-the-mind TV rating that comes from the NFL — which is up 77 percent on Sunday nights, 20 percent on Sunday afternoons, up 33 percent on regional broadcasts, up big on Monday nights — it’s obvious the MLB postseason is an afterthought. Hell, the NBA used to wait for the World Series to end before launching its season, but this year, Opening Night is Oct. 19. College football, hockey … they aren’t threatened by baseball.
The diehards are still out there. Astoundingly, one of them surfaced this week. MLB is trying to run Trevor Bauer out of the sport, if not ruin his life. Yet as Manfred’s office continues a lengthy investigation into sexual assault allegations against Bauer, while the Los Angeles County Attorney’s office determines whether to file criminal charges, the troubled pitcher tweeted plans to roll out “baseball content throughout the postseason’’ to his 394,000 YouTube subscribers.
Why? And WTF? “To celebrate baseball culture and entertain,’’ he said. Of his legal case, he leaned on his successful defense in an attempt to win a restraining order against him. “Hey, guys,” Bauer told his followers. “I know you haven’t heard from me in a while. I look forward to speaking about the false and misleading allegations in the future. But for now, this is what I’m able to share with you: One legal matter has been resolved. The judge’s detailed decision is available and it speaks for itself.” The Dodgers, who thought they were rid of him, we’re not pleased about a public re-entry timed mischievously for the playoffs.
Sad to say, some people will find his commentary more interesting than the games. Especially if he continues his diatribe about why the Players Association should go on strike. When we want to hear the crack of a bat, all we hear is a ticking clock.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.