Bring us the head of Don Zimmer. And the right arm of Greg Maddux. And those wristbands worn by Barry Bonds, who has self-portraits printed on the terry cloth, giving new meaning to the term self-absorption. Bring us the gut of Ken Kaiser. And the red-white-and-blue bunting of Yankee Stadium. And grown men named Dusty, Junior, Chipper and Bip. Because now is the time to take notice of those things that make baseball unmistakably baseball—to give thanks, at long last, for the arrival of October (from the Latin octo, meaning eight, and ber, meaning it's cold out). October brings eight teams playing games in the cold, games that we actually care about.
Which is not to say that the regular season was irrelevant or that it was merely (in the words of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz) "our preseason." But let's be honest: For all its manifold charms, the baseball season consists of roughly as many games—2,268, played in 181 days—as the NFL plays in a decade. And every one of those ball games is broadcast, so that baseball becomes like the thrum of traffic or the hum of air conditioning. It's background noise, easily unnoticed. Until somebody turns it way up.
Last week somebody turned it way up. Everybody turned it way up. The playoffs are baseball turned up to 11, with play that is far sharper and games that are ineluctably weirder than anything staged in the preceding six months. Even the two lopsided series—Atlanta over the Houston Astros and the Florida Marlins over the San Francisco Giants, both in three straight—made for riveting viewing.
In the three years of Division Series play, six of the 12 series have been sweeps. But the mere act of watching games in those series has provided an illicit pleasure, since many of them have been played on workday after-loons, as was the case last week in Atlanta and Miami. The quintessential postseason games are played in swaths of shadow slanting across grass outfields that are mowed in diagonal stripes, like a school tie. Which is only appropriate, since watching the playoffs means playing hooky.
Another beauty of playoff baseball is the comforting predictability of it all. You know exactly what's coming on every pitch: Which is to say, something you've never seen before. So Astros pitcher Mike Hampton was battling the Braves to a standoff in Game 2 until the fifth inning, when his gaze went as blank as the out-of-town scoreboard and he couldn't throw a strike, walking four consecutive Braves and losing the game (and quite possibly his mind).
And that was nothing. In San Francisco last Friday night, a leftfield wall deftly played an outfielder when a groundskeeper closed a door in the wall just as a ball was caroming off it. The door acted like a pinball flipper, bamboozling Bonds, the Giants' six-time Gold Glover, and allowing a Marlins run to score. Just like that, the West Coast had its own Jeffrey Maier.
Jeffrey who? If you don't know, then you don't follow the playoffs, which every year summon from obscurity instantaneous heroes. So until last week, the great mass of Americans thought Renteria was a rash, perhaps one you get from rented bowling shoes. But then Florida shortstop Edgar Renteria slapped the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 against San Francisco and was mobbed by his teammates and manager Dusty Baker. With the wave of a wand, he became—abracadabra!—Francisco Cabrera. (And if you don't know who he is...oh, never mind.)
The corollary, of course, is that the playoffs can erase a lifetime of hard work in about an hour. Welcome to Goatcrafters. When Houston's formidable trio of Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell went 2 for 37 against Atlanta last week, the Killer B's were instantly ridiculed as the Killer Breeze. The Seattle Mariners' otherwise-invincible Randy Johnson lost to the Orioles twice in five days. Bonds's 3-for-12, no-homer, two-RBI series actually raised his lifetime postseason average to .200, where he may reside forevermore, in a tollhouse on the Mendoza Line. (Cf. Mike Bordick, the Orioles' number 9 hitter, who was 4 for 6 with two walks and four RBIs in the first two games of their series. Cf., by the way, is Latin for compare. It doesn't stand for centerfielder. But we understand: You have baseball on the brain.)
In Houston, a city that only turns out for a winner, the Astros drew a crowd of 53,688 last Friday, a baseball record for the Astrodome. Even Fay Vincent, the phlegmatic former commish. couldn't stay away, showing up next to Braves owner Ted Turner at Turner Field, which is now known in Atlanta as The Ted.
The Ted, The Jake, The Stick. If you ignore the new corporate names of some stadiums (and do ignore them: What those companies are paying for is your complicity in their publicity), then baseball has recaptured an old-time feel this October. Notice how many players, not merely the Indians, are wearing knee-high socks; how many umps are overweight, blind or both. There's d�j� vu all over again all over the place.