Early Saturday morning, there was a “room service” knock on my door at a hotel two blocks from Busch Stadium where many out of town Cardinals fans stay, then party the World Series nights away. The man bringing up breakfast assumed I was one of the Redbirds faithful, too.
“I was up late with the Cards but couldn’t sleep much so I ordered breakfast,” I said. With that, my new friend raised his hand for a high-five.
“If anybody said at the end of August that we would even be in the playoffs, you’d have been committed. And now look!” said the middle-aged man. Then, sweeping his hand as if serving a banquet, he intoned, “Scrambled, bacon, wheat toast, coffee. Enjoy your breakfast. Enjoy our championship!”
In St. Louis, baseball never goes away. After air to breathe, a slathered rack of ribs and a beer, it’s life’s next essential element here. But elsewhere, passion for the game fluctuates a bit, oscillating around a healthy median.
For example, in 1975, the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox played what was widely considered, at the time, to be the best World Series ever with a Game 6 that has provided replays for a generation.
Baseball was in a soft spot then. A game for April-to-September nights when you can talk to your neighbors between pitches, maybe even commit the sin of leaving an inning early, lacked the electric riff and rebelliousness of the era. But, as always, the times swung too far and had to recalibrate.
The game, just hanging around, being itself, slow at times but also exciting enough to glue you to a home team for months of a pennant race, was ready for a new romance with those who weren’t its permanent suitors. That affair, begun in ’75, lasted until the murdered World Series of ’94.
This season, the sport once again set revenue records, had its fifth-highest attendance (73.5 million, plus another 50 million in the minor leagues) and continued to explode across new media and marketing platforms while making billions in its latest round of local cable television deals. The game is indisputably robust. But it’s nice to be loved, too. That next era of passion, a period when the temper of the game suits the tenor of the times, may be coming ’round again.
Long ago, one Carlton Fisk home run in one exceptional World Series was enough to shift the national sports focus in a narrow three-network universe. Now it takes a whole lot more. So for the last 31 solid days, baseball has delivered the kind of 24-7, sensory-overload, tweet-this-sucker reintroduction of itself that’s required these days if you want to grab millions of people by the lapels and shake them out of their distracted disaffection.
On Friday before Game 7, you could tell that Commissioner Bud Selig was truly gratified that the game — which he, his owners, agents, the players union and 20 years of blind-eye steroids abuse tried to debase — has come up gleaming and glowing again.
At most, baseball can have 41 postseason games if every series goes the maximum, and October excitement is proportional to length. On that score, baseball’s been coming up short the last six years, averaging just 30 games spread over far too many days with games starting too late at night. Cause? A sport that’s often tone-deaf to its public but eventually gets the message.
This year, baseball compacted the schedule, started games 30 minutes less late (an 8:05 p.m. start doesn’t deserve the compliment “earlier”) and reaped an instant reward. Oh, that karma thing works again: Thirty-eight of the possible 41 games were played — a new record.
All seven postseason matchups proved dramatic, with 13 games decided by one run (an MLB record) and six others by two. Of course, that’s normal; half of all MLB games are decided by two runs or less. But this October reminded us just how frequently baseball games are excellent. And in some that aren’t, Albert Pujols hits three bombs.
You can trail five times in one game, facing elimination. In that game, you can be down two runs in the ninth inning against a reliever who throws 100 mph. Then you can be down to your last strike — and tie it up on a hometown boy’s triple when a Rangers right fielder named Cruz maybe cruises just a little, just enough, to miss a championship catch by a yard.
You can trail again by two runs in the 10th inning but still have life because, in a no-sudden-death sport, Josh Hamilton’s home run doesn’t end anything. It just continues the fun, heightens it and opens out imaginations.
Lance Berkman’s last-strike, season-saving single in the 10th and David Freese’s walk-off homer in the 11th inning both came after most other sports would’ve said, “Good night.” Sometimes, baseball can take too long. But when a game suddenly becomes too good to be true, baseball lets the drama play its way out to its true, full and sometimes absolutely perfect ending.
The last month has underlined almost everything in baseball that broadens a sport’s appeal. The game’s next labor agreement, due soon, will barely raise a ripple. “Both sides finally learned what damage that does,” Selig conceded.
Though some ballplayers got injured, and plenty played hurt this month, none were maimed and the sidelines didn’t need parking spaces for gurneys.
As for parity, for the fifth time since 1997 a wild card won the World Series, proving that the regular season is for bragging rights but October is forever. Many towns envy obscene payrolls in a few cities, but, while extra millions help, they aren’t indispensable to a high-five with your room service eggs.
In other sports, seasons simply end. Baseball lingers. In my office, I keep the scorebooks of my handful of favorite Octobers. Those scribbled personal accounts stay behind with us, letting you replay, relive and, deep into winter perhaps, have yet one more insight into what should have been done, but wasn’t. Other sports say they’ll have to look at the films before they will know what really happened, then they never tell you what they saw.
Baseball shows you everything the first time, in plain panoramic view, then lets you figure out what you saw, again and again, forever.
Excuse me, while I find a place for my scorecards for the last month. I may need a ladder. They’re going to have to go on a very high shelf.