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Noah Gittell

Meaningless September Baseball

With the lockout over and a newly-ratified collective bargaining agreement in hand, baseball fans are getting a look at the future of the national pastime. The universal DH is here. Pitch clocks, the banning of shifts, and larger bases are coming in 2023. And don't forget about expanded playoffs, which may reshape the character of baseball more than any other. 12 teams will make the postseason in 2022, more than in any other year in baseball history (except for the anomalous pandemic-shortened season of 2020). Of course, the number of teams playing "meaningful baseball" will be much higher. The vast majority of teams will still be hunting for a playoff spot in September, with only a handful that are truly out of contention, which means most every September game will be loaded with playoff implications.

Ask just about anyone in baseball, and they'll tell you this is a good thing. The owners love it; more playoffs means more revenue. The players are fine with it, as they believe a 12-team postseason will encourage mid-market teams to spend more aggressively. The sportswriters don't have an opinion; they seem content to report on the internal politics of the new agreement. As for the fans, there has been virtually no pushback. Playoff baseball is fun. In this new system, fans of teams that would already be thinking about next year's roster will now have something to root for in the fall. Expanded playoffs means more engagement. More intensity. More fans living and dying with every pitch.

That's what we gain. What we lose is "meaningless September baseball," a phrase that itself will soon itself become meaningless. It's what we call the games played by a team that has already been excluded from the playoffs. They're not playing for anything, we say. But aren't they? It's when young prospects get the chance to come up and measure themselves against big-league talent, a reward for toiling in the minors all year in horrific working conditions. In meaningless September games, players who suffered injuries early in the year come back to prove to themselves and their bosses that they are healthy and ready to contribute next season. In these games, major leaguers of every kind continue to play hard every day to help their team win games that aren't important in the grand scheme of the season but are important because each game is a battle in itself, and maintaining focus on the game in front of you is what great athletes do.

When we lose meaningless September baseball, we lose some of the sport's hard poetry. We lose failure. Baseball is a game of slow failure. It's been observed many times that even the best hitters fail about two out of every three at-bats. I prefer a different statistic: Even the best teams in baseball lose 50 games a year. The fans accept this failure. They understand it's part of the game, and it reflects the realities of life. Most everyone who plays the game gets their share of clean singles and hits a few stand-up doubles. If you're really fortunate, you'll be born with the gifts to hit mighty fly balls that clear the fences and leave fans and pitchers alike shaking their heads in amazement. But even then, you'll lose more than you'll win, and most of your seasons will end not with champagne and trophies but with you trying to reconcile the victories and defeats, the hard work you put into the season and the frustrating end result. These contradictions don't resolve easily. There's always a remainder, in baseball and in life, and living with that remainder--learning from it, turning a past loss into a future win--is what makes baseball what it is.

But with expanded playoffs, that remainder is getting smaller. While only one team can end its season with a championship, there is now a clearer, more definitive line between victory and defeat. If your team makes the playoffs this year, you'll look back and say it was a good season. You will not feel that your time spent watching it was wasted. If your team is one of the few that's out of contention by the first few games of September, something must have gone very wrong. It was a bad season, you'll say. Gone are the days when a team plays well all year long and wins 95 games but doesn't go to the playoffs because another team in their division was just a little better. That's an unfair result, and how do they deal with that unfairness? They say, "We'll get 'em next year," then they pack up their stuff, go home, and learn to accept the fact that they did their best and lost. It's not fair, but it's life.

Expanded playoffs were inevitable, not because the owners have become so committed to generating revenue at the expense of the game but because the laconic rhythms of the sport no longer reflect the attitudes of the fans, many of whom gamble on the game through their phones in an effort to make them more exciting, or the tenor of our world, in which social media and political rage have us chasing endorphin hits at each other's expense like lab rats in an unholy experiment. But baseball wasn't made to reflect the anxieties of our modern world. It's supposed to be the antidote. It's a sport that reflects the slow, powerful rhythms of nature. It begins in the spring, the season of rebirth. By the time it ends, the players are in long sleeves and you can see their breath. I don't want every game to feel like life and death because the season already does. I want to watch the dynamics shift and change imperceptibly through its daily battles, and I'm perfectly fine with it ending with a whimper instead of a bang. It's preparing us for bigger whimpers down the line.

Look, I understand the appeal. The playoffs are the most exciting part of the baseball season, but in chasing that excitement, we are losing what makes the sport great. The essence of baseball is not the high of a championship. It's the meaning we bring to each minor moment. Consider this one: On September 30, 2019, Dominic Smith came to bat for the Mets in their last game of the season. It was his first at-bat since injuring his knee on July 26. The team, which had been eliminated from playoff contention weeks earlier, was losing to the Braves by two runs in the bottom of the 11th. There were two runners on and two outs. Yes, Smith represented the winning run, but really this was just about rewarding a player who had worked hard to return to the field after an injury with an at-bat.

But on a 1-0 count, Smith cracked a fastball over the right-field fence. "It's outta here!" shouted play-by-play announcer Gary Cohen, his voice cracking with excitement. The other players erupted out of the dugout. Amed Rosario bounced up and down as he waited for Smith. J.D. Davis high-stepped to the third-base line. Joe Panik, a New York native who had only been on the team for a few weeks and would be released days later, waited at home plate with a huge grin. "How great is this?" giggled Keith Hernandez, Cohen's partner in the booth.

As Smith danced his way home, throwing his helmet into the air, he was mobbed by his teammates as if they had just won the World Series. They hooted and hollered and hugged each other like men do. Then they packed their bags and went home. We've seen a lot of walk-off home runs, and a few in key games. This one was sweeter than the others because the game had no intrinsic meaning. The celebration shared by the players, announcers, and us, the fans at home, was born only out of our love of the game, not our hopes of future coronation. The only meaning it had was the meaning we gave it ourselves, and that's the best kind.

©2022 by Noah Gittell

Noah Gittell is a cultural critic who has been published at The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate, The Ringer, and LA Review of Books. He's film critic for Washington City Paper and a regular contributor to BBC's "Talking Movies."

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