I watched most of the Pirates/Reds wild card game last night. I’ve adopted the Bucs as the team to root for in the playoffs, in part because it’s a great story for that long-suffering city to finally get to experience this, but mostly for Justin Morneau.
Watching the game, you could feel the electricity coming from PNC Park through the TV, and it reminded me of how much fun September/October baseball can be.
Actually, I wish I could come up with a better word to describe it than ‘fun’, because it’s pretty much the greatest thing in sports.
We all know football is king in America, but I still don’t believe that a football game, college or pro, regular season or playoff, energizes a city quite like a pennant race.
A football game is a weekly event. Yes, when your team is in the playoffs, the anticipation builds all week long as you count down the days, monitor the reports coming from practice and talk trash with co-workers.
But you’re still talking about, at most, three hours of football a week, in a season that only lasts four months.
A baseball team in a pennant race or playoff series is a constant. There’s a game every night.
A playoff series in baseball unfolds with a slow burn, but one that is on high heat. The games never really leave your mind, because there’s one every night. Whether you sit on your living room couch or congregate with like-minded fans at a bar, you’re on edge for every pitch, then the game ends, and you’re already thinking about the next night’s game. Once your team makes it to September and is still playing meaningful games, it’s like you’re under a spell, hypnotized. The season is so long. You’ve been watching games and reading the papers for six months, and when your team makes it to the postseason, or even to a September pennant race, it feels like your reward.
And, in my experience at least, baseball is a far more communal experience. The fans tend to be much more loyal to the home team; in other words, there are a lot more Bears and Packer fans in Minneapolis than there are Tigers or White Sox fans. So when the Twins get to the playoffs, you feel like, for those three hours each night at the bar or your buddies house or wherever, everyone is on the same team. You’re all participating in a common cause together.
One of the reasons I’ve always thought ‘Major League’ is such an underrated movie is because of how wonderfully it illustrates that part of the sport.
The early scenes where loyal but disillusioned fans bitch about how bad they know the team is going to be (but never suggesting that that’s a good reason not to support them), the scenes midway through the film when construction workers wear Indians helmets to work and old men where ‘Wild Thing’ T-shirts beneath their suspenders — that’s what it’s like, as pennant fever slowly overtakes a community.
Late in the movie, when the Indians are in a one-game playoff with the Yankees, the previously dead and empty ballpark is packed to the rafters, alive with so much energy, hope and anticipation it’s like it’s own entity, another character by itself.
It’s amazing how well the filmmakers of Major League were able to capture that, as well as the scenes in the bar where the construction worker sits next to the punk rocker, the bartender high fives customers who pound their beer glasses on the table in unison in tense moments, and the construction worker and punk share an awkward hug when the Indians win.
That’s exactly what it’s like.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun doing anything in my life than going to Twins playoff games, or even just Twins games in September when they were in the race.
Going to Hubert’s, the bar across the street from the Metrodome, was almost as fun as the game itself, as hundreds upon hundreds of people packed into that place before games, nearly every one of them wearing a Twins jersey. I don’t know how many two-hour friends I made in that place. It would always be so packed that you’d often times have to share a table with strangers, but you never minded, as long as you had beer, munchies, and Twins fans to talk about the games with.
As hard as I’ve tried here to describe exactly what that feels like, you can never really understand without experiencing it yourself.
I attended playoff games in 2002 and 2004, and covered playoff games in 2009 and 2010 (I was at Game 1 of the ‘87 World Series, too, though I was only 7).
I was also at the 2006 season finale, when the Twins clinched the division when the Royals beat the Tigers on the jumbotron an hour after the Twins game ended and no one had left, and I covered the Game 163 against Detroit in ‘09. Those two games are easily the best sporting events I’ve ever attended in person.
I’ll never forget the scene in the Metrodome press box for Game 163 in ‘09. Normally, any sort of cheering or animated gesturing is heavily frowned upon in the press box, especially one with famous people from ESPN and Sports Illustrated in it, but near the end of that game everyone had basically thrown their objectivity out the window, as reporters loosened their collars, rose to their feet and reacted physically to almost every pitch. It was surreal, one of those rare instances where you’re aware that you’re experiencing something historic as it’s happening.
Right now, people in Pittsburgh are getting to experience that for the first time in 21 years. I’m happy for them, and while I wouldn’t say I’m jealous, I desperately miss having that same thrilling sense of anticipation for meaningful Twins games. That stomach-turning inability to sit down during the game. The holding your breath with every single pitch.
I’m fortunate that the Twins have actually given me many of these moments over the years, from 1987 and 1991 to nearly every single season from 2001-2010.
The last three years have been horrible, obviously, and you can read my thoughts about that here.
Whether it’s under Ron Gardenhire or someone else, I really, really hope that they can get back to a pennant race soon. Because there’s nothing like it in sports.