By David Roth
They're out there, walking among us and generally behaving as anyone else would. You probably even know some of them yourself -- they are your neighbors, your friends, people on your commute or in your office, the man or woman making your sandwich at Quiznos or ordering a sandwich ahead of you at Quiznos (note: this last bit only applies at Quiznos). Except for how eager they are to expound upon the virtues of Descalsonian scrappiness or define the term "True Yankee" or hymn Mike Ilitch's heroic commitment to winning or explain the contrarian genius of Brian Sabean's roster construction -- they are more or less normal people. They just happen to be the lucky ones: fans fortunate enough to have some positive emotional investment in one of the four teams remaining in the postseason. The chances are good that you are not one of them.
Over the last few years -- and, in some cases, the last few generations -- these fans have done well, cheered happily and without complication for teams that won. They have their excesses, and those excesses are unappealing -- the back-patting self-regard of the Cardinals fan; that bellowing count-the-rings overcompensation unique to Yankees fans. But their teams are not their fault, and neither really is their shared tendency to reverse-engineer some deeper valor into their teams' success. As we see in our politics and popular culture, in celebrities retweeting their fans' fulsome kiss-assery and maybe especially in TED Talks, success makes people weird -- simultaneously grandiose and paranoid and generally strange and un-people-like. It's not necessarily good for us, all this getting-what-we-want, not any more than a diet of candy, bacon and scotch would be.
Which is maybe part of the explanation, if certainly not all of it, for why so many of us, orphaned in the postseason without teams or rooting interests of our own, chose to make it difficult and cast our lots with the Baltimore Orioles (improbable) and Oakland Athletics (implausible) and Washington Nationals (new, at least) during baseball's second season. This sort of wishful armchair anarchism is natural fan stuff, and easy enough to understand. The teams that win -- the ones still playing, and the ones that have been playing in these series more often than not in recent years -- have a gray permanence about them.
It's easy to see what fans might find admirable about the savvy, overachieving Cardinals or go-for-broke Tigers, the patrician Yankees and workmanlike Giants. It's just that we already knew all about all those virtues, having been reminded constantly and (more to the point) very recently about them. However graciously or gracefully baseball's elite teams perform, they're unmistakably elite. There are fans who want to wrap themselves in that and grab some vicarious shine, which is fine. But that sort of aspirational fandom is mostly the province of people who take notes during Donald Trump's monologues on "The Apprentice" or obsess over royal weddings -- the sports fan's equivalent of "liking" Rolls Royce on Facebook.
Given how much time we spend in our ordinary lives looking up, through cubic miles of bulletproof glass, at various elites, it makes sense to use the safe space of the playoffs to indulge the urge for fantastical upheaval and pick an unlikely team as our chaos engine of choice. A team like Oakland could be any team that was objectively overmatched in many ways and underrated for reasonable reasons but somehow found a way to defy all of it; they could easily be your team next year, which is what made them so remarkably likable. Baltimore, for its part, confirmed the stubborn, palpable mystery at work in this ever-more rational and extravagantly well-quantified game -- here was a team that should not have worked, but did.
Washington had an awfully glossy coat and high-end pedigree for an underdog, given the talent on their roster and the figures on their payroll and their nice new stadium in a booming, wealthy metropolitan area. But they were also unpredictable and weird and unfamiliar -- Bryce Harper and his Juggalo eye-black, mean-eyed bro-villain Jayson Werth, a front office that stuck by its narrow and self-defeating handling of Stephen Strasburg with downright Congressional stubbornness. All these teams represented upheaval, change, a safe and happy sort of chaos. And all of them are gone, now, because that is how baseball and most other things work. But there is some good news here.
The good news being that this would all be a much bigger bummer without the actual baseball, and baseball mitigates pretty much all of the bummer-y aspects. As metaphor or microcosm, the way baseball's permanent elite held off the hopefuls is a drag -- the colder, realer world eclipsing our October escape from it, and knocking the temperature down a few degrees in the process. But baseball is not a metaphor or a microcosm. It can be used that way, of course, but mostly and finally baseball is just baseball.
And the baseball that has been played this October -- by the aristocrats and the revolutionaries alike -- has been as fulfilling and wild and great as anyone could've hoped for. The storylines are just storylines, designed to layer some tactile humanity over the virtuosic mechanism -- the pitching, the hitting, the baseball -- that powers October. As of now, the best of those storylines are gone, which leaves us -- most of us, that is, the ones not lucky enough still to be watching the teams of their home and youth and benign obsession charge towards another World Series -- with nothing but the baseball.
If that's all we've got for the next couple of weeks, it's still an awful lot.