November is here. Football is in flower. The hockey warriors rage in full throttle. Even the hoop scholars are back in session. But there is no more baseball. Nor will there be any until winter has come and gone and the voice of the turtle is heard again across the land.
For some few – an apparently fast diminishing breed – baseball’s absence marks the low point on the sporting calendar. Though aware it casts me a hopeless throwback, I happily claim such membership. We jock luddites will never concede that baseball is no longer the national pastime, with all the others taking the cue and minding their place.
So it is that the last mighty bellow of the World Series reverberates across the seasons and down through the years and it’s not only about who won or lost or how the games were played. The Play’s the thing, after all.
My first “Fall Classic” – or at least the first I remember – was the 1947 dandy matching the Yankees and Dodgers. The Red Sox had, of course, tangled with the Cardinals just the year before, but at age seven I apparently wasn’t quite ready for it, or at least no clear memory persists. But in the fourth grade at the Brackett School in Arlington, where a lovely young teacher thought it educationally wise to bring a radio to school so the class could catch a couple of innings, October magic was planted in one’s heart of hearts and it has lasted.
It was a great series, beamed across the republic by the incomparable Red Barber. Jackie Robinson makes his Fall debut and with remarkably little fanfare, I might add. One out away from the first Series no-hitter, Bill Bevens gives up a game-winning double to Cookie Lavagetto. A sensational catch by little known Al Gionfriddo saves the Dodgers in Game Six, robbing Joe DiMaggio of a series ending clout. “Ohhhhh, Doctor,” wails Red Barber on the radio, as DiMaggio in disgust kicks the dust. But the inevitability of the Yankees prevails in the end as stalwart lefty Joe Page stomps from the bullpen and shuts down the gallant Dodgers on one hit over the last five innings.
It would be quite the finest Series-clinching Game Seven relief pitching masterpiece the game would feature until the amiable and laconic country boy Madison Bumgarner ambles from the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen 67 years later and breaks the hearts of the gallant Kansas City Royals. So once again a plucky upstart falls before a more seasoned and perennial champion. If it all has a familiar ring, that’s because it should. The scenario rarely varies much and we hope it never does.
Will the 2014 gem have the staying power of so many of its forerunners, of which the 1947 edition is but one of the several dozen better examples? Will there be old fools 67 years hence eager to fawn over its precious memory? Given the current ferocious pace of change in all walks of life, our professional sports will likely look very different by 2081, assuming everyone still cares. No point in going there further.
This was a good Series, better than expected. It had nice pace, good personalities, reasonable drama, and a terrific ending. On the other hand, there may have never been a World Series – at least not since World War II – that featured more profoundly mediocre finalists. Maybe there were two potential Hall of Famers on display; maybe three, counting the Giants’ superior manager. No more.
The Royals and Giants matched contesting lineups that had a grand total of one .300 hitter and no leader in any significant offensive category. The Giants prevailed with essentially one competent starting pitcher, the estimable Bumgarner. Their other three starters, Messrs. Peavy, Hudson, and Vogelsong, lasted a grand total of 16-and-a-third innings in five starts compiling a collective ERA of 9.92. Astounding! Okay, so the relievers were wonderful. But I have never accepted that the essence of the art had much to do with nameless chaps parading from the pen to fire their brains out for two thirds of an inning.
These were willing and spirited teams, but far from great. Only marginally better than average, really, a pair of wild-carders who managed to scratch their way into the playoffs on the regular season’s last weekend, then got lucky in part because they held back smartly in the stretch and arrived in the post-season relatively healthy. In other words, they saved it for the prom. It’s a strategy that increasingly works while casting more and more doubt on the validity of the interminable regular season. In this brave new wild-card baseball world, teams labor 162 games over six long, hot months so that a team with the eighth best record can emerge champ? When does all of this become dubious?
There’s an odd paradox at work in major league baseball. The owners score hugely, with the value of their properties sky-rocketing, while the players get rich apace with the high price of even mediocrity totally off the charts. Yet, simultaneousl,y the prestige of the game slides as doubts about its future grow. Is baseball better off than ever, as the outgoing commissioner loves to say, or in its early death throes? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.
Skeptical stories in the major media, all emphasizing the negative, ran prominently in the post-season. In a Page One story, the New York Times took note of what it termed “declining interest,” and declared, “In a new landscape, a national pastime loses its standing as the center of attention.’’ No equivocation there. A veteran Chicago scribe complained that his prestigious newspaper formerly assigned five reporters but now only sends him. The lead columnist of the Boston Globe – which has long covered the event as if it were Armageddon – skipped the last two games in Kansas City, apparently on the assumption his readers don’t care. Wow!
Shaky TV ratings are the excuse, although reporters who base their estimate of the importance of anything on television viewership numbers are suspect in my book. Maybe through the early rounds, this year’s ratings were unimpressive, and it was painful to see baseball, the onetime king, dodging any head-to-head competition with football. But in the end, as the excitement rose, so did the ratings and the finale was near a blockbuster. What does it prove? Less than the pundits believe.
It ended on a wild note that might have been the stuff of legend. What, might you, too, have wondered, would have happened if the Royals’ Alex Gordon, in a siege of wonderfully reckless daring, had run through his third base coach’s frantic stop sign and tried to score on that shot in the gap that the Giants’ outfielders, in their panic, were butchering?
You’ll recall the scenario. Last of the ninth. Two out. Nobody on. Royals down, 3-2. Madison Bumgarner heroically pitching on fumes. Gordon slices the ball to left-center, but what looks like merely a sharp single grows exponentially as, first, the center fielder boots it, then the left fielder cuffs it more, and suddenly there’s pandemonium in the ballpark as Gordon rounds second with the Giants still thrashing in desperation.
It was at this split second that the spirit of madness that attends all epic moments might have seized young Gordon, urging him to go for it as if the Hound of Heaven were on his back goading him to greatness. And who knows? Maybe just like “Country” Slaughter in the 1946 Series, such a mad dash in ridiculous defiance of the odds would have resulted in something glorious?
But he stopped because the coach ordered him to stop. And it was undoubtedly the right call for a well-executed relay would have nailed him. Nor would it have been close. But the relay had to be perfect. The Giants would have had to make the difficult play flawlessly, under huge pressure.
Having little better to do, I guess, I shall continue to wonder. The lovely thing about it is we can never know, thus making it forever possible. Such a game, teetering on such fractions and whims. I shall miss it, as I always do, until it again reprises, along with the voice of the turtle.