Regarding the MLB playoffs and government shutdown


I’m feeling fairly nostalgic this week. Though I’ve not been that dedicated a baseball fan during the 2013 season — the bulk of my involvement has been consoling toasted Wisconsonites at the bar while the totally-not-foreseeable Ryan Braun saga unfolded — I’ve paid enough attention to know that the baseball gods want me to write a column about it.
It is, in fact, the early ’90s all over again: the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers are about to face off in the first round of the National League Championship Series, rekindling a rivalry that took root back when the Braves edged them out for the divisional title, sealing their famous “worst to first” season. It probably helps that I religiously watched the VHS mini-doc that chronicled that near-cinematic run, but all of it remains fresh in my mind: 21-year-old rookie pitcher Steve Avery’s air of dominance; John Smoltz’s remarkable second half turnaround; the team’s hammering of the Phillies in Dale Murphy’s return to Fulton County Stadium; Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Pena hurling a three-man no-hitter against the Padres.
This era of the Braves’ history still appeals to me, I think, because it’s a classic illustration of how a bunch of imperfect parts can coalesce to form a functioning whole. This was, remember, largely a team of talented but unproven assets (Avery, Tom Glavine, David Justice), cagey veterans just beginning their downslope (Charlie Leibrandt and Terry Pendleton, who turned in a career-best 23 home runs that year), and a cobbled-together bullpen staff.
If the Braves were not supposed to win their division in 1991, they certainly weren’t supposed to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, who went into the NLCS that year touting not only the best record in baseball, finishing at 98-64 and leaving the second place Cardinals in the dust to the tune of a 14-game deficit, but were the betting favorites to win the World Series. They are, incidentally, headed to the postseason this year for the first time since 1992, a season that deserves a write-up all its own.
The ’91 Pirates were a murderers’ row, comparable — and I’m not being hyperbolic here — to the Gehrig/Ruth era of the Yankees: a young Barry Bonds, who already carried considerable swagger to complement his preternatural baseball IQ, speed, and power hitting; Bobby Bonilla, a wunderkind who still holds the dubious record of the highest single-season salary of any “big four” athlete (over $42,000,000); between them in the outfield, Andy van Slyke, whose intimidating, no-BS playing style resembled a freshly whet blade as much as his name.
And that was just the outfield. Further in, there was Jay Bell, whose hitting prowess belied his innocuous sounding name; John Smiley, the Pirates’ 20-game-winning counterpart to Tom Glavine; sparkplug Orlando Merced, who nearly demoralized the Braves with a first-pitch home run in Game 3 (which the Braves would go on to win in a 10-3 rout).
The series itself was a close one, with the majority of games being decided by a run or two, defined in large part by stonewall-like pitching duels. I remember Game 6 in particular; my parents let me stay up late to watch it. The Braves had held the Pirates scoreless through nine innings, while only managing to scrape together a run themselves. In the top of the ninth with two outs, the Braves fastball specialist and late-season closer Alejandro Pena faced off against Andy van Slyke. For at least four minutes — which, in at-bat time, is freaking forever — Pena, typically not a thinking man’s pitcher, fired bullet after bullet towards van Slyke, who managed to hit the ball every conceivable direction that wasn’t fair.
Then, it happened. With van Slyke primed and ready for another 90-mile-an-hour offering, Pena promptly lobbed literally one of the only changeups of his career. In terms of probability, this was sort of like a unicorn crapping out another unicorn, and Van Slyke, held rapt by the anomaly, could do little more than blankly stare as the ball crossed the plate, straight into Greg Olson’s glove, whereupon the home plate umpire announced strike three via karate chop.
It’s convenient, a little prescient and a little accidental that I look back on this now. At the time, I was seven years old, my comprehension of the world around me simply one that stopped at the fact of existence, never penetrating the why or how. I understood that this sport, that these moments, thrilled me in a way that was at once visceral and honest, but I wasn’t yet adult enough or foolish enough to pretend knowledge beyond my grasp.
As I write this, the United States government is in the midst of a shutdown which, because I’m still seven years old in some ways, I imagine sounds like the Millenium Falcon abruptly losing power when Han Solo tried to send it into hyperdrive (hits inhaler, straightens pocket protector). The lion’s share of the blame rests, objectively, with the Republican Party, self-handicapped by an irrational fear of their ever-dwindling, but still gratingly vocal, Tea Party contingent. Much has already been made of the disingenuous nature of this borderline hostage situation: if Obamacare was going to be detrimental to the public good and — as the GOP and Teabaggers will tell us — is something to be saved from, its opponents would simply let it pass, rendering its inevitably crumbling all the more public.
But its not going to fail; top GOP leaders have said as much, all but confirming this mess as the shallow power play that it is. Tea Partiers, meanwhile, couldn’t give a damn — not about the millions of hardworking Americans (including, inexplicably, the lower-income brackets of their own ranks) who would continue to go without insurance should this cockamamie plan actually work, not about the national debt or a hypothetical default on it, and certainly not about the millions of federal employees that will be furloughed as a result. And they don’t give a damn because they have no concept of empathy.
Were I face to face with a GOP leader, I don’t know what either one of us would have to say to the other. We would recognize that there are stakes in what is at play, that there are consequences, intangibles, something historical in the balance. We would recognize, I think, that we are part of something larger. Beyond that, though, the only solace, the only thing we have in common, is that we do not understand each other.

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