Last Sunday was the end of the line for the majority of major league baseball teams, as the regular season wound to its conclusion.
Seven sides have now made the play-offs: New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, St Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies. Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, drawn level after a 162 game season, will have a one-off game for the final play-off spot tonight. All those games, and it comes down to one single evening. No pressure there, then.
For the other 21 teams, the season is over. Time to clear out the locker and have a well-earned rest.
The play-offs are an interesting sporting format, for an Englishman like me who didn’t grow up with them, in the sense that the end of the season is essentially staggered. There’s no final day blow-out, like in other sports. Instead, after the initial cull of play-off qualification, each team will face their very own individual end to the season. While the play-offs are a huge reward after such a long season, they also, for all but one team, provide a very public, high-profile and (perhaps) demoralising defeat to finish the year.
But for those other 21, the end has come already, and much more gently. For them, the season has ended with the proverbial whimper, rather than the bang.
This, I feel, suits the game of baseball. The game, at its heart, is a leisurely, even-paced one. Even the most frantic game takes over two hours. There is an ebb and flow, not just across the course of a game, but across the course of a season. It makes sense that the season ends this way for most teams.
With so many games to play, and a game nearly every day, baseball does not suffer from the hype overload other sports do. Many a NFL game, or English Premier League game can be (and will be) touted as ‘must-win’, even if that is not strictly the case. Baseball, however, saves such talk for when it is truly necessary, as for most of the year there is enough time and enough games ahead to catch up, to recover from a loss.
Baseball can be enjoyed in the moment. For much of the season, it doesn’t rely as much on the context of league standings as other sports do. And that is one of its main charms, for me. I can watch the game for what it is, rather than worry about what the result might mean. Mid-season, one game won’t ruin everything.
I think baseball also feels so languid as it is a summer sport. It’s the sort of game that can be played day-in, day-out, without killing the playing staff. It suits a summers day when the spectator wants his entertainment to wash over him, not smack him in the face (figuratively, not literally, of course!).
Being a summer game, it also lends itself to a certain wistfulness at the season’s conclusion. Not only is the season over. So too is the summer.
The autumn play-offs, however, are a different beast. After 162 games, this truly is high-stakes stuff. Will a whole season’s effort be for nothing? Or will there be a shot at making history? This is sport at its most unpredictable. No team in the play-offs can be ruled out. No one team is a lock-in.
So, there is still some excitement to come (and some). But here’s to the regular season. Where the game means more than the result. Where a team can hope and dream. And where there is always another game tomorrow, no matter how badly today went.