I don't really know that much about the person living in the apartment next to mine. He's only been there a few months, and during that time we've exchanged pleasantries, and one time I shared an elevator with him while he vibrated at jet-engine frequencies with a hangover one Saturday, but that's about it. I have some sense, based on circumstantial evidence/sweatshirts I've seen him wear, where he went to college. I am dead certain, because we share a wall and because of where his television is, that he too cares about the Mets more than he probably should. This is an affliction we could bond over, presumably, if ever we happened to be heading to work at the same time. That hasn't happened yet, but let's give it another six months.
On Thursday night, at least, my mysterious neighbor cared more than I did. When the Mets fell two runs behind the execrable and flagrantly checked-out Phillies in extra innings, the day after being swept by the only slightly less depressing Braves in a three-game series at home, I bailed on the game. I found out that the Mets came back in the bottom of the 11th inning to win because I heard my neighbor laughing and clapping. "Is this real?" he kept saying, laughing in the way you laugh when you are alone in your apartment and maybe have been alone in your apartment for some time. "Is this real? Asdrubal Cabrera?" Dude doesn't even have a roommate. He was just saying it, because it so cried out to be said.
It was, I found, easy to confirm that it was real, and that Cabrera's three-run homer—capped with a bat flip that could not have been more overstated had it been rendered in anime—won the game for the Mets, and kept them from falling behind in the wheezing, weird sack race that is the National League Wild Card. It's real, for sure. It's not spectacular, but nothing about either league's Wild Card race is. Both of those races remain tragicomic games of musical chairs, with multiple teams gimpily circling some rickety folding chairs at a strikingly low rate of speed while John Fogerty's "Centerfield" plays on a shitty boombox. Both races are, in that way and only in that way, perfect.
There was a time when people still got angry about the Wild Card, and the way in which it both diluted and further protracted baseball's postseason. Presumably those people are still angry about it—your crankier baseball cranks tend more or less to freeze in their respective aggrieved rictuses, if only because anything less would be an Unprincipled Betrayal—but everyone else has more or less moved on and accepted all the free, extra, notionally meaningful baseball that the extended postseason has given us.
Sometimes that gift really feels like a gift, and we unwrap a couple more weeks of tense and taut and important-feeling baseball than we would otherwise have had. At other times, it's a different type of gift: one of those tragic gummy panettone cakes in a dented cardboard box, wrapped in newspaper and with a post-it note attached wishing you and yours A Very Merry Christmas 2013. This stretch run has mostly been one of those sad, spongy, marked-down mid-January panettones, if only because of how bravely each team in contention has gone about trying to lose its way out of the race. The baseball has mostly not been beautiful, give or take an expressive Asdbrubalized walk-off here or there. But there is nothing else to eat for dessert, really, so stale panettone it is. You're hungry, aren't you?
Live sports will be last thing that people stop watching on television, before everyone finally gets around to not watching anything on television anymore. These games are, in these dwindling days, more or less the last pillar of both certainty and wildness standing amid a broader recession into atrophy, entropy, and atomized abstraction—the last thing that everyone will watch together, as they happen, because viewers know that they will only happen once, and because we do not yet know how they end. In the abstract, this is an argument that holds for every game, although it sure feels truer now than it did in the drowsiness of August. Those games count, too, but with the season diminishing as it does every year about this time, both the games and that uncertainty are precious.
Or, anyway: that is true in the abstract, but only intermittently true in watching the actual games in this year's wild card season. As close as these races are—and a half game separates the three National League teams chasing two wild card sports, with five teams within three games of the American League's two—they have a different and drearier sort of tension. The division leaders are safely out of range, clinched or nearly clinched, and with the exception of Boston's later-breaking dominance have spent much of the season playing at a different level than the teams scuffling down below. October being October and baseball being baseball, any of those wild card teams could somehow get enough purchase on the chaos that rides over this part of the season and become something different and scarier and brighter than they presently are; one of those teams might be able to hang on all the way through to the end. Murphing is magic, but Murphing is real. Murphing happens.
But it is not happening yet, and the wild card races have, brilliant blips and the odd bit of Asdrubalized magic aside, mostly had the same sort of negative, gnawing tension that is more commonly associated with long airport layovers or overlong political campaigns—there is a destination, and the certainty some of arrival at some point in the future, but there is also the overriding sense, here in the moment, that we will never get there, that the tarmac goes on forever and the television does not turn off and all the clocks are stuck stuttering back and forth at a permanent 3:44 PM. The teams in the wild card cannot surge, because they are too imperfect or too broken-down or too tired, or because the opponents with nothing to play for but dignity and spite are fresher and less stressed. It's a race, and an exceptionally close one, but the same can be said of two people trying to walk through the door of a Dunkin Donuts at precisely the same time.
The good news, which is very good news, is that it will not stay this way. The season's design doesn't allow it, and the nature of the game ensures it. October always comes, and the relationship between order and chance in baseball is inherently too lopsided for things to simply continue happening as they ought at the upper end and not-quite-happening-at-all as they are in the wild card. Things do not even out, not really, but they do resolve, and they will resolve. This is the value proposition that not just baseball but all sports have, and it is the only reason it really needs in order for people to watch—a change is always going to come. The regular season always ends, and soon this one will, too. And then baseball will begin shrinking until there is only one team left, wearing ski goggles in a tarp-covered locker room, screaming and wasting champagne. It happens every year, and if all we know about these games is that they will end, that's still reason enough to watch all the way through to the finish, into the night, with both the certainty and hope that there's something unreal out there we haven't seen yet.
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