In the seventh inning of the second game of the 2012 World Series, with no outs and Brandon Belt standing on first base and Hunter Pence on second, San Francisco Giants leftfielder Gregor Blanco bunted down the third base line, finding a pocket of land that would make for an aggravating journey for any infielder. The runners took off. Detriot Tigers catcher Alex Avila sprang from his crouch, and third baseman Miguel Cabrera rumbled in. The ball rolled close to the line in that shimmy-shake, insect-like pattern that amplifies every clump of dirt or rotation of stitches. By the time the two arrived, they had decided that the best course of action – the eye-blink quick Blanco already teleporting his way to first – was to wait, to see if the ball would trickle foul.
Everything the players could do had been done, and they all waited on baseball to show what it had in store. Cabrera and Avila bent at their waists, staring down at the ball in unathletic poses better suited for holding a conference over some issue of household repair. Giants and Tigers alike rushed to their dugouts’ top steps and, in a few seconds of panic, tried to brush up on their physics. Home plate umpire Dan Iassogna darted out to deliver the verdict. The ball stopped like a marble testing a flat table, resting on the grass-dirt border just inside the third base line. The Giants had the bases loaded, and when shortstop Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play a few moments later, Hunter Pence would score the game’s first run. The Giants would win the game by a score of 2-0.
During the regular season, plays like this one rescue the game from the rote. Master craftsmen stand around the diamond asserting their honed skills, but once in a while the ball decides to do something seemingly on its own, catching an odd outfield corner or spinning up, after a couple low bounces, into an infielder’s throat. These plays upset and equalize, give the cellar-dwellers playing out the string a dice-roll’s chance against the juggernaut, if only for one evening. These are the oddities of a devilish game, and they even out from April through September.
During October, though, they decide things, conspiring to humble the brilliant and elevate the flawed. Every team and player is at the mercy of the most volatile force in baseball: the play. We look to make sense of it all, supposing that October prizes a different but no less consistent set of attributes, maybe starting pitching or bullpen depth, maybe heart or valor. Before games, analysts instruct us in the matchups that will determine the outcomes; after games, they interview players who tell us why such matchups are moot in the face of magical fall heroism. In truth, the World Series is not about the well-traveled veteran, the MVP, the fireballer, or the power of the tighter collective. It is about a game that resists control, a game that, unchecked by a long and soothing schedule, does what it wants.
The Series’ first game featured starting pitchers Justin Verlander for Detroit and Barry Zito for San Francisco. Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball and, in a time when fans squabble over what defines greatness, the rare player of nearly unanimous cross-generational appeal. He pitches with an incredible immediacy – one needs to see only a single Verlander fastball burning to the corner of the plate or curveball like a shooting star to understand his brand of excellence – that matches his unassailable statistics. Zito, on the other hand, is a fragile pitcher with an 85 mile per hour fastball and a curveball that can either reclaim its former brilliance or sit in the plate’s center.
On this night, though, Zito seemed blessed. His lukewarm fastballs fluttered to the plate, shadowing the upper part of the strike zone, but Detroit hitters could not catch them. Curveballs dipped with hyperreal motion, as if animated by some cardboard machinery in a child’s popup book.
The Giants’ batters, meanwhile, hit Verlander’s good pitches. They swung as if freed from the basic tenets of the pitcher-batter relationship. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, with two sunny swings, sent two well-placed Verlander fastballs over the outfield wall. A routine grounder from Angel Pagan bounced off third base, extending an inning and starting a three-run rally. Zito himself hit a run scoring single in the style of the drunk playing blind, lucky pool. Verlander exited after four puzzling innings, and the Giants proceeded to win, 8-3.
The game started a series in which Prince Fielder, the Tigers’ behemoth of a first baseman, batted under .100, in which Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro continued a recent habit of tossing singles into right field as easily as casting a fishing line. It started a series in which the Tigers, who had scored 726 runs over the season, tallied only six to the Giants’ sixteen. In a lottery of expectations exceeded and unrealized, the Giants came out better in four straight games, claiming their second World Series in three years.
To the logician, October baseball can be maddening. If the regular season tasks teams with building slow, solid cases for their superiority, the festival at the end requests that they shout their credentials as quickly and as loudly as they can. October offers synthetic thrills; the postseason is “magical” because it cannot be reasonable.
But if the World Series fails to award itself to baseball’s best team – only twice in the last decade has the team with the most regular-season wins taken the Commissioner’s Trophy – it asserts a reality unique to its sport: that baseball is an autonomous, fickle thing. The players’ actions resonate with the air of ancient prayer, as if they go about their duty not out of belief that it will produce the desired result but to convince fortune of their deservedness. The bunt that sticks, the good pitch that gets hammered, the bad pitch that smuggles through – these are the tools of October, a deranged, joyful, meaningless, and all-important month.