The Fall Classic in the Twenty-First Century

FlagBaseballRegardless what “boys of summer” you choose to root for during the months when the thermometer registers in the eighties regularly, when sun block and barbecue are the smells of the days, when the sun sets later allowing children to play longer; once the September morns shift to thoughts of pumpkin-carving, then frost on the pumpkin and the half-year trek is completed and what we used to call the pennant races decided, you cannot help rooting for the boys from K.C. and their remarkable run.  It is something special to see them make the playoffs for the first time in twenty-nine years—I was a senior at the University of Connecticut watching game 7 of that series on a portable Motorola black and white TV with rabbit ears in a dormitory called John Phillip Sousa House room B-204 that evening.  A year later, my bad boys, the 1986 Mets would win the World Series and the Royals achievements this year restore hope and faith that the Mets will win again before my arteries are too crusty to be aware of it.  It also brings a ray of hope that more television viewers will choose the World Series over regular season NFL football and that networks like FOX can air World Series games earlier in the day for the benefit of schoolchildren so that they can become fans of what we once called the national pastime.

The Kansas City Royals have not lost a single postseason game in 2014.  First of all, they did not finish in first place in their division, the American League Central.  They were one of two Wild Card teams, the two teams with the best win-loss record of non first place teams who have to square off in a single-game play-in for the privilege of being bracketed with the best team in the league.  They won the play in game, swept the Los Angeles Angels, the team that had the best record in all of baseball, three straight in a best of five.  Then they swept the Baltimore Orioles four straight in the best of seven League Championship Series.  The Royals, a quintessential underdog—reminds me of a more innocent time when the 1969 Miracle Mets overcame 5,000 to one odds and made a believer, of Mister Earl Weaver.

I would like to label the 2014 KC Royals an old-fashioned underdog.  But they are actually a modern-day underdog.  When the World Series began in 1903 until 1968, which for elder statesmen like me does not seem like forty-six years ago, there were no playoffs, only the World Series.  Teams were grouped altogether in their respective leagues, and the first place team in each league played the World Series in the warmth of early October under the falling orange leaves, not in the chill of late October where bare, leafless trees dot the landscape.  Even from 1969 to 1993, teams were grouped into only two divisions (not three) and the East and West champions played a best of five series becoming best of seven in 1985, for the privilege of playing in the Fall Classic.  As remarkable a run the boys from K.C. had, in the past, under the original two systems, they would have cleaned out their lockers at Kaufman Stadium, headed to their permanent homes, and that pentagonal electronic board in centerfield with the crown atop would have displayed the message WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR for the benefit of the fans in attendance of the final home game on the 2014 regular season schedule.

When I first became a fan of the game in 1968 at age six, the term Pennant Race referred to the regular season; 162 games in 180 days to determine the best in the business of two rival leagues who never butted heads until the World Series except for an exhibition game in July often referred to as the mid-summer classic.  And the term Fall Classic was an exclusive term for the best of 7 game World Series.  Back in the days, you proved you were the best team in your league out of 162 games and then to be World Champions, you simply had to win four more and had seven chances.  Today, the Fall Classic is October baseball (and in some seasons could spill into early November) in its entirety.  Younger generations of fans no longer refer to the regular season as the pennant race, simply, the season.  The pennant race does not start until the postseason begins.  The play-in games and League Division Championship Series have become the plot, the League Championship Series the climax, and the World Series, the denouement.

Long before social media and smart phones, the only portable devices I had growing up in the late sixties and seventies was something called a transistor radio.  Mine was a Realtone silver and black with a big-round dial you fine-tuned with a side-wheel to the desired station and you could listen to it through holes in the case or plug in a white cord to a small hole and stick the other end in your ear.  The Magnavox version in turquoise blue was also popular.  I would fall asleep listening to Tom Seaver, Tommie Agee, and Ed Kranepool playing a late night game in San Francisco with Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, and the great Willie Mays with old-time play-by-play transmitted on an analog device.  Better static-free quality is available on a smart phone or I-Pod with radio capability, but the desire to listen in the spring and summer when it is just one of 162 just isn’t felt by this generation.

As expensive as regular season tickets may be, a middle-class family has a better chance of taking a child or family to a regular-season game than a postseason game.  A modern child would have a better chance of getting into it if the regular season were once again the pennant race.  And become more of a fan, and in particular, a fan of the game as well as a fan of their favorite team, if it were first place or nothing.  But alas, that is a relic of my past, just like a dinner date with face-to-face conversation with the other party, not getting a word or two in-between while checking in with personal devices.

Baseball has a chance to surpass football in the month of October for two reasons; the scrutiny of the spousal abuse scandals among its players which may ultimately cost its commissioner his job and the proposed changes in the rules, such as eliminating kickoffs and just placing the ball first and ten on the twenty and eliminating the PAT (point after touchdown)—a team scoring a touchdown could either go for a two-point conversion or simply tell the referee “take seven!”  Unfortunately, all sports is on the decline, America is on the decline, and its young citizens have different priorities in life.

Can the 2014 Kansas City Royals send a message to this generation that hope always springs eternal albeit they were made by a modern playoff system?  As old-school as I am about the game of baseball, they would appear to be the best hope we have.

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