Friday, October 10, 2014

Watching October baseball for the first time

Maybe it's the fact that I've gotten married or it's the fact that I teach university students, but I have chosen this year as the year to feel fully grown up. This probably explains posts such as this one, as I realize that things I saw as being in a state of flux when younger are actually in a state of permanence. Thanks to the prominence of Korean players such as Choo Shinsoo and Ryu Hyunjin, Major League Baseball is very popular in Korea and I come across live games, both in the regular season and now during the playoffs, simply by going out for lunch, as many restaurants here have TVs. The Korean league is also very popular in Korea, more popular than American baseball, and the result is that I see a great deal of baseball and hear a great deal of discussion about it.

I enjoy going to baseball games in Seoul, even though the stadium reminds me of a smaller version of Shea Stadium, heavy on concrete and light on anything else, something that is an architectural abomination until you consider that it was built in 1982, a time when Korea was a far, far poorer country. Compared to most other buildings from that time, Jamsil Baseball Stadium is quite nice, actually. The experience of going to a game is also fun, so I ended up going to a game last Saturday just because I happened to be going past the stadium.

It was a 5 pm start and as I realized that this was by far the coldest baseball game I had ever been to, I also realized that I was at a baseball game in October, albeit a regular season game. It's not that I would have never been to such a game in North America since I would have probably ended up at a game in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia or some other Northeastern city in conjunction with some race, road trip or football game. Still, if I hadn't moved to Seoul, I might not have seen a playoff game until I had kids who were older than I was the last time the Jays made it to the playoffs (parenthetically, I moved to Canada in 1994 and started watching baseball in 1995, so I have been waiting for the Jays to make the playoffs for as long as I have known pro sports).

The season that just finished marked the 20th consecutive season of playoff futility, 21 seasons if you consider that the 1994 team wouldn't have made the playoffs even if there hadn't been a strike. I remember a copy of the Jr. Jays magazine for kids sometime between the 1995 and 1996 seasons, that showed the Blue Jays promising to get back to the excellence of the past decade in order to commemorate their 20th season. As things stand now, the 21 consecutive years of futility are stacked against the 17 years from 1977-1993 when the Blue Jays were either on their way to winning or were winning.

To guard against disappointment, I refuse to believe that the Blue Jays will go anywhere until they actually clinch a playoff birth. Even if they stand in first place by a dozen games on Labour Day, I will believe that they will find a way to blow it, even though the story of this team is not really one of tragic collapses or unraveling as much as it is never quite being good enough, or even being close to being good enough.

October baseball goes against everything that baseball is about. The weather is cold and unlike in spring, it's winter that's around the corner, not summer. You don't want to linger as much as you want to stay warm and then get out as soon as possible. The games are also different. They are about performing in the short-term, not over the long-term. I always thought that sudden-death elimination games, or even a game 7, were unlike baseball because baseball doesn't really lend itself to the short-term, as obviously exciting as a single game of baseball might be.

On this night, powerhouse Nexen beat wild card-hopeful LG 6-2 in what could be a preview of the playoffs. I haven't seen much on the debate about the corporatization of pro sports that was prevalent in the 1990s when stadiums began to be named after companies, making me think that no one has issues anymore with the confluence of professional sports and big business, considering that professional sport is a big business to begin with. Still, I smile when I remember that most Korean professional sports teams are named after a large company, not a city, meaning that casual fans would struggle to remember just where a team plays.

In the American League playoffs, it was great to see the Royals not only make the playoffs but advance to the ALCS. I was impressed by the Washington Nationals 96-win season, even if they didn't go anywhere in the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Nationals' playoff appearance in 2012 was their first since 1981. Kansas City is making its first appearance since 1985. The Texas Rangers needed 36 seasons to make the playoffs for the first time. The Blue Jays' playoff drought could easily match or exceed these droughts, using the more popular Leafs as a template, and October baseball would remain something Torontonians see only in other cities.

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