A disaffected observer of baseball’s postseason once wrote of the World Series, “Regardless of what the parades and banners and White House visits would have you believe … early exits (by superior regular season teams) are a feature, not a bug, of baseball’s playoff system.”
Oh right. That was me. last week.
How can you not be romantic about baseball? If the three best teams in the National League lap the rest of the field, enough to win 100 or more regular-season games, then fail to reach the NL Championship Series. That’s how.
The Philadelphia Phillies did not back their way into a pennant; quite the opposite is true. Yet when the American League champion Houston Astros don’t have to deal with the Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves, or the New York Mets in the World Series, it’s fair to question the degree of randomness Major League Baseball introduced by expanding its postseason field from 10 to 12 teams. I won’t belabor the point for any Dodger fans who are still licking their wounds.
What I will do is offer a timely reminder of how much faith we place in the coronation of a baseball champion – and why.
A less disaffected observer insists that the World Series, randomness aside, remains “The Grandest Stage.” For his recently released history of the World Series, author Tyler Kepner spent three years gathering anecdotes from World Series performers. His hundreds of interview subjects range from 95-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers star Carl Erskine to 31-year-old Anaheim native Christian Colon. Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David even drops in to deliver a pretty, pretty good anecdote himself.
This book is not a chronological history of baseball’s championship ritual. It is a seven-part series of loosely organized moments, and moments behind the moments, that make the end of the season materially different from anything that comes before it.
The revelation here is that being a champion means more than you know. Not to the participants, mind you – they talk about it all the time, enough to sound cliché – but to the people that surround them.
Take Reggie Jackson. In the days after the New York Yankees’ championship-clinching victory over the Dodgers in 1977, the newly coronated Mr. October purchased a convertible Rolls Royce. On his drive home to California, Jackson’s car was pulled over for speeding a few times, but Kepner writes that “the cops didn’t care about that. They just wanted to congratulate a World Series hero.”
To take a happier page from Dodgers history, turn to Sandy Amoros. The author of a famous catch in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series refused an offer from Fidel Castro to manage in his native Cuba after the 1961 season. Castro retaliated by detaining Amoros in Cuba for another five years. According to Kepner, the government seized Amoros’ ranch, car, and cash. The state did not take his 1955 World Series ring, however. Before leaving Cuba, Amoros left it with his brother as a gift.
Recently, Kepner spoke with Orel Hershiser, the Dodgers’ color commentator who served as the pitching hero of their 1988 championship run. Because of the World Series, Hershiser said, “my life changed. I’m a voice of the Dodgers. I’m smiled at everywhere I go. People return my emails and phone calls. You gain all this equity – smile equity, laugh equity, integrity equity, concentration equity, all this equity gets added in all these different subjects of your life.”
In my dismissal of elevating short-series results into cultural touchpoints, I noted that the pennants and White House visits and parades afforded every World Series champion don’t discriminate. Whether the winning team was the best team in baseball for a month or a year, their reward is just the same. The players become heroes, the seasons historical landmarks for an entire fanbase.
But, as “The Grandest Stage” reveals, it’s more than that.
“My favorite player growing up, Steve Carlton, won the clinching game of the World Series when the Phillies won it the first time (in 1980),” Kepner said in a telephone interview from Houston, where he is reporting on – you guessed it , the World Series – for the New York Times. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t awesome every time but I love to say, that guy was on the mound when they won the championship. That mattered to me as a kid, knowing that my idols were at their best when it mattered most and gave the Phillies a championship. Everything was in its place.”
Multiply that sentiment by a thousand, and you begin to understand why Fidel Castro would not touch Sandy Amoros’ World Series ring, and police officers would stop to kiss Reggie Jackson’s.
Why, though, does the regular-season hero not receive the same adulation?
Sociologists have long noted the cross-cultural importance of rituals. In a classic paper titled The Sociology of Ritual, Gordon George SJ writes, “ritual is a form of communication with profound social consequences. … Almost every phase of human life is touched by ritual; it is as universal and as old as man.” Ritual defines the structure of religions, presidential elections and reality television series.
I think this helps explain our skepticism of the 2022 postseason – and ultimately why we will accept the result. The postseason ritual changed. A wild-card team was added in each league, expanding the first round from one game to three. But the World Series remains the same. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first best-of-seven series. Few rituals enjoy such permanence in our notoriously fickle society.
“We’re a prove-it culture,” said Kepner, a Philadelphia native who covered the Angels for the Riverside Press-Enterprise in the late 1990s. “We have these proving grounds; these are the steps to be a champion. We want to see you rise up. As good as you are during the long regular season, that’s only to get you a chance in the tournament. The purity of the game and the sport and the competition is why we watch the regular season. It’s why we watch a Reds-Pirates game in September when both teams are out of it. I think people love to be able to say ‘your team, your favorite player stepped up and proved it.’”