The World Series Is a Terrible Burden

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I fell asleep last night at 11:00 p.m., Game 4 of the World Series locked in a 3-3 tie. I love baseball. I love the Detroit Tigers even more. But somethings, believe it or not, are more important than sport, more important than rooting for a team. I had a job to report to in the morning. I had to greet the day at 5:00 a.m., something I hadn’t done in years. There are few things certain in baseball, but there were two options open as my head hit the pillow: either my beloved Tigers pull one off and extend the series to Game 5 and another Justin Verlander outing, or they don’t. They didn’t—a small mercy, ending a postseason that started so promisingly exciting before descending into a madness of blowouts, sweeps, and shutouts, cold bats and advantageous pitchers—and amidst the Tigers’ frustration and the Giants’ joy, soon there’ll be an article about how this year’s World Series was the lowest rated such event of all time.

After Game 1, a surprising 8-3 blowout that, in damaging the perception of Justin Verlander as an unhittable postseason juggernaut and promoting Pablo Sandoval to the position of unstoppable hitting machine, likely sealed the Tigers’ fate, one such article appeared on Sports Illustrated‘s website. It was small, a blurb, really, but then, all articles about trivial things like ratings are. The article has since been edited, but at the time of its initial release, it noted that the record established by 2012’s Game 1—The Lowest Rated Game 1 of All Time—broke the record established in 2011, which broke the record established in 2010, and so on. Tigers/Giants, Cardinals/Rangers, Giants/Rangers; what’s implied by this annual expose on the Fall Classic’s dwindling numbers is that largely nationally unknown teams end up clashing for the championship—an unexpectedly hot wild card team,the favorite sons of a town lost in “flyover country,” the titans of a city whose glory days have long-since past. Major League Baseball is often accused of rooting for teams like the New York Yankees (“east coast bias” is a common theme dominating the sports talk radio stations west of the coast), and even if it’s not true (there’s no real way for Major League Baseball to satisfy a conspiracy theorist), the logic of such theories is remarkably sound: with a team like New York in the World Series, not only do you secure a large share of the largest television market in the world, but you have, in the most important series of the year, a team the common fan likes or detests, one it’d like to see triumph or parish. Either way, so long as they’re watching.

The New York Yankees are a team that needs no introduction. Detroit and San Francisco aren’t exactly small markets, but the casual fan may not be able to name any Giants beyond Buster Posey, Kung-Fu Panda, and that bearded guy from last year’s Taco Bell commercials. The Tigers aren’t much better. They were a team so defined by the production of Verlander, newly-acquired Prince Fielder, and triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera that their efforts were regularly described as being put together by a coalition of “stars and scrubs.” The burden of the World Series is to craft and sell an effective narrative to a nation that spends 162 games uninterested in the two teams battling for the crown. Without a gigantic team—your Yankees, your Dodgers, your Phillies, your Cubs (yeah, right)—this is a terrible burden, a losing proposition. It’s little wonder each year sees the shattering of an ignoble record that was just shattered the year prior. Watching the numbers dwindle isn’t exactly like chasing Hank Aaron.

Without the easy storyline provided by baseball’s monoliths (“David vs. Goliath” or “Hogan vs. Andre,” usually), the buzzword going into the World Series is usually “momentum.” Depending on which sportscasters you listen to and what writers you read, either the Giants had it, or the Tigers, with arguments for and against either team being fairly compelling despite the idea of “momentum” meaning absolutely nothing at the beginning of a series, something rendered hokey and boring by the time the first pitch crosses the plate during Game 1. The Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, often making the richest, longest-tenured team in the postseason look like a hapless single-A affiliate. The San Francisco Giants rebounded from an 0-2 start in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the World Series, the team often described as “riding a karmic wave” due to their reliance upon previous playoff non-entities like Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval, the bullpen heroics of an otherwise struggling Tim Lincecum, and the searing bat of Marco Scutero, a late-season pickup turned postseason mascot thanks to his production and his withstanding a questionable slide by Cardinals slugger Matt Holiday.

Despite winning the World Series in 2010, the Giants, entering this year’s Fall Classic, were a team of nationally unknown quantities. Many of their heroes from 2010 are now bench and bullpen pieces. Sandoval, the hero of Game 1, was a rotund afterthought two years ago. Brian Wilson, the quirkiest character in the history of sports’ quirkiest position, watched his team from the dugout—the world’s beardiest cheerleader after undergoing Tommy Johns surgery in April. Melky Cabrera, the Giants outfielder who provided much of the team’s offensive spark through the first half of the season, watches from home, exiled from San Francisco after serving a 50-game suspension for the use of P.E.D.s and the unearthing of a conspiracy to undermine the league’s testing system. This Giants team was a resilient one, just as they’d been billed. Resiliency, however, is only a selling point when the team is reeling off come-from-behind victories or facing a team that’s easy to beat. Were the 2012 San Francisco Giants paired with the 2011 chicken-and-beer Red Sox, a nation would have cheered for its scrappy, orange-and-black underdogs.

Despite the appearances given by an 8-1 exclamation point at the end of a four game sweep against the Yankees—not to mention the fact that the Tigers hadn’t trailed a game in five straight contests, starting with Justin Verlander’s dramatic Game 5 shutout of the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS—the Tigers were anything but a herculean team. For the majority of the season, they were an underachieving franchise, a team that boasted the best pitcher, the best hitter, and the most valuable free agent acquisition, but who entered the regular season’s final month locked in struggle with the Chicago White Sox. If Detroit had anything beyond its triumvirate of stars going when the postseason started, it was their starting rotation. Beyond Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Annibal Sanchez provided enviable rotation depth. The four, combined, were a Voltron capable of blistering fastballs and knee-buckling breaking pitches. There was little hint of weakness—Scherzer suffered from a strained deltoid, Verlander occasionally gave up a first inning home run, Fister had a weak first half, and Sanchez took time to adjust to his new league, team, catchers, and pitching coach, but came on strong after a few rocky starts—beyond the Tigers’ bullpen. Overcoming a 2-0 Detroit lead, with that staff, in the postseason, would be more like overcoming a 4-0 lead.

That was the narrative. That was, in addition to the promise of a free taco should anybody steal a base, what was used as the hook to this first time World Series match-up. Sports, however, rarely live up to a pre-ordained narrative. Justin Verlander was lit up in Game 1, giving up three home runs and exiting the game prematurely. Two of those home runs came against Sandoval, who etched a place in baseball history by blasting a third home run, joining the likes of Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols as the only men in the history of the World Series to hit three round-trippers in a game. By the time Sandoval’s bat was on its way to Cooperstown, the Giants were on their way to a World Series title.

Beyond Sandoval, though, this World Series played in a way that’s just anemic to television ratings: small. Even Sandoval’s second home run during Game 1 was preceded by the sort of small, peculiar play that seemed to vex the tigers, as Angel Pagan hit a ground ball that struck third base and rolled lazily onto the edge of the left field grass. When Barry Zito, of all people, struck for an RBI single, a potential play at the plate was spoiled by Delmon Young turfing the ball, the Tigers’ ALCS hero reduced to a clumsy Little Leaguer on a routine throw.

Beyond Sandoval’s display of home run hitting, the series was devoid of highlights until Game 4. Games 1, 2, and 3 featured sparking defensive play by the Giants and dazzling pitching from both teams. Doug Fister, in particular, put in a particularly gutty performance during Game 2, taking a line drive to the head but remaining in the game, allowing just one run in six innings. Didn’t matter. San Fransisco’s pitching was hotter than Detroit’s. Their hitters out performed Detroit’s when the situation required them to do so. Fister’s performance? Sanchez’s? Scherzer’s? Spoiled. The Tigers struck out an astonishing 33% of the time they came to the plate, actually a little better than the Giant’s 37%, but however ridiculous the idea of a “kharmic wave” seems, the Giants were riding something during their sweep of the Tigers. How else to explain a bunt dying just before reaching the foul ground, a rare Austin Jackson error in centerfield, Verlander’s futility on the mound, the spectacular grabs that robbed Cabrera and Fielder of sharp hits when the Tigers were looking to rally from one blow or another?

But these aren’t things that sell the World Series. The slow motion camera and the cameraman who runs in a semi-crouch down the third-base line after a batter on a home run trot were not invented for games decided by bunts, pop-ups, and titan batters looking at 89 mile-per-hour fastballs. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver—more comfortable gabbing with Erin Andrews and reading trite PowerPoint presentations than watching the game—are not men given to nuance, nor is FOX the kind of network that accepts baseball as baseball. The World Series will hopefully never pause during the seventh inning stretch for a fifteen minute sound and light show promoting the year’s biggest concert, the world’s best tire, the summer’s most expensive movie, or the world’s most mediocre beer, or the season’s new TV shows but that doesn’t mean that FOX couldn’t find clever ways of slipping its stars into high profile slots—New Girl star Zooey Deschanel and The X-Factor judge Demi Lovoto singing the national anthem, Lovoto’s rendition begging the question of her expertise—or product placement at every turn. The game’s first pitch was sponsored by Budweiser. Every pitching change was brought to you by Jeanie-O’s campaign to switch America to turkey bacon. Once Angel Pagan stole a base, Taco Bell’s director of marketing was interviewed during play.

“We’ll try not to make this a commercial,” the FOX announcer said, as though Taco Bell’s director of marketing had anything to say about baseball beyond that it’d cost his company a bunch of free tacos. “America thanks you.”

Perhaps America did. After all, Sandoval’s homers aside, this was a World Series that decidedly did not live up to the mantle of being the Fall Classic. Something needed to fill the air between strikeouts, the long pauses between stunning plays, the awkward silence of Comerica Park. It’s the word “classic” that serves as the World Series’ terrible burden, the albatross around its neck. Even as Miguel Cabrera’s Game 4 home run drifted and drifted and drifted until it fell beyond the wall, the 2012 World Series had an air of finality to it, of anticlimax. That’s the way sports are sometimes, why it’s ridiculous to attempt foisting a pre-packaged narrative on it. Scripted comedy? Reality singing competitions? Those are easy. Until the World Series returns to break its record next year, New Girl and The X-Factor will air at their regularly scheduled times. Enjoy them with your free Doritos Locos Taco. Be sure to thank Angel Pagan, America.