Getty Images

How I learned to stop worrying and love modern playoff baseball

31 Comments

Relief pitchers recorded 44 of the 51 outs in last night’s Wild Card game. The starting pitcher of the winning team recorded one of them. In all there were eighteen strikeouts, nine walks and five homers allowed, collectively, by eleven pitchers. The game, which did not include a bottom-of-the-ninth, took three hours and fifty-one minutes. Welcome to playoff baseball.

This is maybe the third or fourth year of the quick hooks/long bombs playoff era, and I’m torn about how to think of it all.

On the one hand, it assaults my aesthetic preferences. I’m a pitching guy who has always perceived the game first and foremost through the feats of starting pitchers. It’s a dispositional thing, mostly. My favorite players growing up were usually starters who, rightly or wrongly, I imagined as Davids facing nine Goliaths. I have always appreciated offensive heroics — Kirk Gibson’s homer off of Dennis Eckersley is one of my greatest baseball memories — but my ideal baseball game has always been one in which the drama and narrative comes by virtue of a pitcher’s duel, with the tension building, inning-over-inning, until one of them breaks. Quickly-moving games in which aces, be they well-established or named as such by brevet promotion, work something close to magic as the innings build.

On the other hand, just because a game doesn’t conform to one’s preferences does not mean there isn’t greatness and drama to be found. While the pitching changes themselves — and breaks in the action occasioned by them — are buzzkills, how can you not appreciate the feat of a guy like the Yankees’ David Robertson being pressed into service early and used beyond his normal tolerances? A one-inning, eighth or ninth inning reliever came in in the middle of the third inning and tossed twice as many pitches as he usually does. It was not Jack Morris or Tom Glavine going three times through the lineup, but it was gutsy and it was excellent work and if you can’t appreciate that you’re just being a curmudgeon.

In light of all of that, I’m inclined to hold my complaints and just do my best to go with it.

This is what playoff baseball is now. It got this way by virtue of a lot of logical decisions. Decisions which, in a vacuum, make sense but which collectively have created a product that is somewhat (though, as time goes on, less-and-less) foreign and not necessarily to my liking. I still don’t know how to process these sorts of games as aesthetic experiences, but the guys on the field aren’t there to validate my aesthetic preferences. They’re there to win and they’ll do it whatever way they can. The guys back in the 1980s weren’t trying to deliver a pleasing aesthetic product to me either, after all. They were trying to win however they could. I just came to like what they were doing because that was what I grew up with.

I’ll watch as many playoff games as I physically can because that’s what I like and that’s what I do. I will, no doubt, sigh heavily as games drag on and as managers walk out to make pitching change after pitching change, turning the most important games of the year into bullpen games, the likes of which we’d only see in emergencies and when outcomes were relatively meaningless in the regular season. I’ll take to Twitter and moan about it sometimes too, lamenting that, in October, the game is transformed into something very different from what it is between April and September. I’m old and that’s what old people do.

But I’m going to try to do as little of that as possible. And even if I can’t stifle it too much, I’m not going to let my prejudices about how baseball games are most pleasingly mounted obscure the greatness that still occurs in every single one.

A critical strikeout by a relief ace in a tense situation is just as fantastic if it happens in the fourth inning as it would be in the ninth. A fantastic defensive play is still a fantastic defensive play if happens at 9:30PM or close to midnight. A homer is still a homer no matter if it’s the only one in the game or the sixth. Homers are cool. Baseball games can take the form of any number of narratives, but moments are still moments. If you fail to acknowledge them simply because they aren’t delivered in a manner to which you’re accustomed, it’s your loss. Don’t miss or denigrate the moments because you don’t like how they came to be.

And hey, as I watch all of these games, I’ll likely get at least one classic starting pitching performance somewhere along the way. It’ll be that more special to me when it comes.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

Getty Images
Leave a comment

There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.