What I’ve learned about the playoffs and the Word Series is to be very, very excited. But not too excited.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the postseason. I do. And it’s not that I don’t recognize the majesty of St. Louis Cardinal Jack Clark taking Tom Niedenfuer deep in Game 6 of the 1985 National League Championship Series. And it’s not that I don’t long to see the Dodgers win a World Series again. But the truth is, part of who wins that classic matchup is based on the same factors as who wins a regular-season game — skill, smart managing, the ability to bounce back, and luck. That’s what makes the game great.
Still the notion that postseason games are somehow more important, or more pressure-packed, or more, I don’t know, special than a contest in the middle of May, or July, or even April, obscures a larger truth, which is this: Every game is special, and it’s how a player performs in each game, and in every game, that determines his success, not how he plays in one series.
For years, I had pretty limited postseason experience (quite limited actually), but like so many fans before me, I learned the risks of postseason exuberance the hard way in the fall of 2008. I found myself an adult in a whole new baseball situation as I watched my Dodgers win a postseason series and move on to the NLCS. We hadn’t won a postseason series since 1988, when I was just fifteen, but I had always appreciated postseason ball. It was fun to watch the games of the fall even if my heart wasn’t emotionally invested in the teams that were playing. I could really just sit back and appreciate the fundamentals at their best.
Last fall proved different. I wasn’t just invested in who won, I was all in. I sat in my seat with a white-knuckled, sweaty-palmed death grip on whatever I was holding at the time. Every pitch meant something. Every out. Every managerial move. Every call by the ump. The fans were alive. They stood when there were two outs and two strikes, waving those rally towels as if they possessed magical powers to make the batter strike out. “Throw him the chair!” my brother screamed. Translation: “Sit him down.”
As you might expect, losing to the Phillies in the NLCS last year was devastating. My brother and I were inconsolable. As lame as it might sound, a little piece of my heart broke that night. An even bigger piece of my brother’s heart broke that night. The game that we were eliminated in was at Dodger Stadium, and we stayed for about an hour after the last out. In that hour, players came out for curtain calls and blew kisses to the fans that were still there. I would say over a thousand fans stayed, and we were a rowdy bunch. Frank McCourt and his lovely wife stuck around. A chant started. “Please sign Manny.” Clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap. “Please sign Manny,” the Dodgers fans shouted.
Nomar came out of the dugout, and the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. He waved and put his hand over his heart paying tribute to us fans. He took a long look around, soaking up the moment, his moment. It seemed like he was saying good-bye to the stadium; I hoped he wasn’t saying good-bye to baseball. Tommy Lasorda said a few words into a microphone. He thanked “the best fans in baseball.” He finished up his speech by saying, “When you lay your head down on the pillow tonight, say a prayer for Tommy and the Dodgers.” It was a vivid moment, and while we reached a disappointing end, there was something strangely uplifting about the whole scene.
As we were walking to the car, I saw daddies holding sleepy kids with their baseball gloves still on, draped over their father’s backs. I found solace in the idea that even though we weren’t moving on to the World Series, memories were made that night. The children of the fans from ’88 had their own stories to tell. A whole new generation of Dodger fans got to experience NLCS baseball for the first time. And who knows, maybe one of these years we’ll actually win.