Monday, September 1, 2014
The month of September has come, a momentous one for baseball fans like myself. It is a sad irony that right as baseball's pennant races are being decided that the sporting public shifts its gaze from the diamond to the gridiron. For a big chunk of summer, from the NBA finals to preseason NFL games, baseball holds sway, and that's usually the time I find myself most likely to be at a ballgame, during what I call the "high summer."
Since I root for two losing teams, the White Sox and Mets, my baseball focus shifts a bit in September from my teams to the larger game. I have not used my MLB TV subscription much this season, mostly because I see Mets games locally and I get WGN in my cable, meaning I get to watch lots of White Sox games. Now that it's September and the pennant races are heating up, I've got the Royals game on the TV and plenty of hope that the team I rooted for in Nebraska childhood can make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The last time the Royals made the post-season was so long ago that Reagan was in the White House and Gorbachev in the Kremlin. I am sure that over the next month I will spend my evenings watching key games in the various playoff hunts, but I will be giving special attention to the Royals.
Since the advent of the wild card format, September baseball has been a little less exciting. With more playoff spots and smaller divisions, pennant races have lost a lot of their tension. For instance, Oakland looked like a sure thing to win the American League West, but they've been overtaken by the Angels, even though they have the second best record in all of baseball. Back in the old days before 1995, Oakland would have been shit out of luck come season's end, but now they know they can coast into a wild card spot. The knowledge that it was win or go home gave September baseball an intensity that is not quite as strong today. Of course, there are exceptions. The last day of the season in 2011 was one of my favorite days ever as a baseball fan. The new streaming technology allowed me to flip between games and see Boston crash is spectacular fashion.
If you root for a successful team, September brings the joyous, cathartic moment of clinching the pennant. No other sport has these champagne-soaked celebrations before the playoffs, the reason being baseball's long and grueling schedule. As a White Sox fan, I've only been able to experience three clinchings since adopting them as my team, but each was memorable. A clinching is especially sweet for long-suffering fans of crummy teams who finally get their moment of glory. I am sure that if Kansas City wins the division that there will be great scenes of jubilation. Growing up I saw most of my baseball on WGN, and even though I was not a Cubs fan per se, I wanted them to do well. I still remember watching them clinch in 1989, and Harry Caray's frantic call of "Cubs win the division! Cubs win the division! Cubs win the division!" He sounded like a boozed up street preacher singing hallelujah. If you stick with a team and follow them each and every day over baseball's grinding six month season, it is easy to feel this way. (At :54 you can hear the call.)
If you do not root for a contender, September baseball gets more complex. Some fans just stop paying attention, and pour their sports allegiance into their favorite football squad. Others find things to still care about, like hoping their team makes .500 or manages to claw their way out of the cellar. Since rooting for a losing team means taking a "wait 'til next year" attitude, such fans can take heart in all of the prospects who get called up late in the season when teams are allowed to expand their rosters. Still others, like myself, take the opportunity to get interested in baseball more generally. I tend to pick a couple of contending teams that I'd like to see win it all, and pull for them all the way through. This September it's the Royals, due to my childhood connection to the team, and the Oakland As due to my respect for their ownership and affinity towards rust belt cities. (For that reason I would be happy with Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Baltimore in the World Series.)
September baseball is also a good reminder of how the game mirrors the seasons. It begins in spring, as new life blooms, and ends in the autumn, when the leaves die nature goes dormant. I am a sucker for elegaic moments, including the season of autumn itself, so I never tire of September baseball's charms.