Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2022

Welcome To October

In his epic poem “The Waste Land,” with its renowned opening line, T.S. Eliot may have been right about Europe in the wake of World War I.  But as far as baseball fans are concerned, Eliot had the calendar all wrong.  April is by no means the cruelest month in the Great Game.  When the longest season is just getting started, hope and optimism abound.  Even fans of clubs destined to be cellar dwellers are filled with thoughts of charity and goodwill about the new campaign, even if the positivity is directed at a single returning veteran or rising prospect. 

It is at the other end of the schedule that cruelty twists its sharpened knife.  For some, it is because by that time the veteran has clearly underperformed, or the promising rookie has proven not quite ready for the big leagues.  Among the faithful of most franchises, mid-autumn finds April’s promise replaced by disappointment and despair as hopes for a postseason run give way to another season without playoff games at the local stadium. 

But even the squads that qualify for MLB’s season-ending tournament are not immune.  Indeed, October is arguably especially cruel for fans of those teams.  For as the month unfolds and, this year, with expanded playoffs and the delayed start to the season, leaks into November, the ending for fans of all but one of those teams will be unhappy.  The first pitch of this year’s playoffs was delivered less than sixty hours ago, and already the hopes of three contestants have been dashed, with a fourth destined to join them before Monday morning dawns.

That fourth team to see its season end in this year’s expanded Wild Card round will be either the San Diego Padres or New York Mets.  The two squads are meeting in a decisive third game at Citi Field as this is written.  The Padres bludgeoned Mets ace Max Scherzer Friday, hitting four home runs that silenced the partisans in Queens, but New York’s Jacob deGrom fared better Saturday, holding San Diego at bay until the Mets’ bats erupted late.  The disappointment will be keen for whichever club comes up short in Game 3, for back in the hopeful days of Spring there were many fans, and at least some pundits, making the case for each as a serious championship contender.  But second place finishes in division races, the Padres by a lot to L.A. and the Mets by a tiebreaker to Atlanta, sent both to the best-of-three Wild Card round that now opens MLB’s postseason, guaranteeing an early exit for the loser.   

In St. Louis, Cardinals fans enjoyed a remarkable second half by slugger Albert Pujols, who at age 42 had returned to the franchise that picked him late in the 1999 MLB Draft and for which he played the first eleven years of his Hall of Fame career.  Pujols was hitting so poorly by June that he contemplated retiring in mid-season.  But after the All-Star break he rediscovered his swing and chased the 700 career home runs mark through the season’s final weeks, finally surpassing it in late September while helping St. Louis pull away from Milwaukee in the NL Central.  With Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina both in their last campaign, fans hoped for one final run deep into the postseason.  Instead, the Philadelphia Phillies arrived at Busch Stadium and ended the careers of the two superstars, and the Cardinals’ season, with a furious 9th inning rally on Friday and a solid shutout one day later.  With the new format that makes each league’s division winner with the fewest regular season wins the fourth team in the Wild Card round, St. Louis became the first ever division champion not qualifying for the Division Series.

Fans in the Tampa Bay area are used to watching their team outperform rivals with far larger budgets by fielding a skillfully crafted roster of young players leavened with one or two veterans.  But in Cleveland, the Rays ran into a Guardians squad that looks to be a new and improved version of Tampa’s model.  Cleveland fields the youngest roster in the majors, though manager Terry Francona is no neophyte.  A canny skipper who guided the Red Sox to titles in 2004 and 2007 and took Cleveland all the way to a game-turning rain delay in extra innings of World Series Game 7 in 2016, Francona imbued his young charges with the belief that this could be more than what was widely presumed to be a rebuilding year.  When the White Sox stumbled, it was as if Guardian players said “why not us and why not now,” before racing to the AL Central title.  Cleveland then ended Tampa Bay’s season with a pair of thrilling one-run victories, the second in 15 innings.   

But while there is now disappointment and doubt in greater Tampa, and on the banks of the Mississippi, and, soon enough, in either sunny San Diego or out at the end of the number 7 subway line in Queens, the emotion north of the border is sharper, the pain more acute.  In Toronto, the cruel blade of defeat twisted and turned and cut to the bone.

Back in those halcyon days of March and April, when a new collective bargaining agreement finally assured fans that there would be reason to cheer this summer, the Blue Jays were quickly established as favorites to win the AL East and a popular pick to go all the way.  The team’s voluble young star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. fed the hype, promising that 2021, when Toronto missed the playoffs by a single game, “was the trailer.  What you are going to see this year is the movie.”  Fast forward six months, and after the Blue Jays scored a walkoff win over the Yankees at the Rogers Centre during the final week of the regular season, Guerrero Jr. loudly and repeatedly proclaimed “this is my house,” with video of the outburst quickly spreading across social media.

But now the movie has turned into a horror flick for Blue Jays fans, and Vladdy’s house seems more like a hotel, with Guerrero and his teammates the accommodating innkeepers.  The night after his outburst, New York’s Aaron Judge sent his AL record-tying 61st home run into the Toronto bullpen, and the following evening the Yankees celebrated on the Rogers Centre infield after clinching the AL East, consigning Toronto to the Wild Card round. 

The Seattle Mariners arrived Friday, and promptly jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game 1, which proved more than enough for trade deadline pickup Luis Castillo, who shut down the Blue Jays over 7 1/3 innings on the way to a 4-0 final score.  Facing elimination Saturday, Toronto pummeled both Mariners’ starter Robbie Ray and the Seattle bullpen, racing to an 8-1 lead after five frames.  A jubilant crowd was looking forward to the decisive Game 3 on Sunday.  Or they were until the Mariners, a team that has given its own fan base plenty of cruel twists over the years, sliced into the lead with four in the top of the 6th.  Then, after the Blue Jays plated a run in the bottom of the 7th, Seattle scored four more in the 8th to tie the game at 9-9, the last three tallies crossing the plate after an outfield collision between two Blue Jays chasing a bloop fly ball.  The raucous crowd was silenced, stunned and cowering, awaiting the blade’s final twist. 

It came in the 9th, on a pair of doubles that completed the Mariners’ rally from a seven run deficit.  It was the second largest comeback in postseason history, the largest for a road team, and the largest to clinch a postseason series.  Sportswriter Molly Knight, whose Substack column “The Long Game” (https://mollyknight.substack.com/) is well worth a subscription, called it “baseball witchcraft.” 

There is truth in that, for the Great Game’s gods like nothing better than toying with the contests that matter most.  But there is another word for it, and for all the deeply cruel twists that have already happened and those that will occur between now and that special night of ultimate joy for a newly crowned champion.  That word is October.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: