The Thrill and The Agony of Playoff Baseball

Cleveland Indians Progressive Field
AP Photo/Mark Duncan

On Monday, the Cleveland Indians clinched their first division title since 2007, which means Indians fans will be treated to their first full helping of playoff baseball in nine years. Well, “treat” is probably the wrong term — more like “subjected to” or “tortured with,” because playoff baseball is not something you enjoy; it’s something you endure, something you survive. In the Halloween parlance that like the MLB playoffs invades our lives every October, playoff baseball is more “trick’ than “treat.”

I mean this in the most gratifying way possible. Indians fans may have forgotten the intoxicating pain of playoff baseball, since they haven’t had a true playoff experience since a man named Grady and another who was part donkey played for their team. Sure, the Indians had that wholly unsatisfying one-off “playoff” game in 2013 against the Tampa Bay Rays. But for all the good the second wild card team has done for prolonged interest in September, the “play-in” game is a ploy. It’s excitement by gimmickry.

Is the Wild Card Game exciting? Sure. But there’s a reason they don’t start the Rose Bowl in overtime. Where’s the build? Where’s the angst? Where’s the drama? There is drama in the one-game playoff, but it’s a superficial one. It’s manufactured drama. Drama-In-A-Can. It’s a ten-minute movie, and there’s a reason the first two Godfather movies clock in at over six hours: the tale of Michael Corleone can’t be told in the time it takes to finish a sandwich.1

Playoff baseball is not something you enjoy; it’s something you endure, something you survive.

Granted, the Division Series can be over in the blink of an eye, too (at least compared to the length of the baseball season). But even a three-game sweep allows for some ups and downs, and in no sport are the ups and downs of the playoffs felt as viscerally as they are in baseball, where the ups are euphoria and the downs are despair. In basketball and football, the decisive moments of any competitive game are in the fourth quarter. As endless as the waning moments of Game 7 were in the NBA Finals, at least there was a clock ticking down the moments to sweet relief.

On the other hand, baseball is unbounded from time, which is simultaneously one of its most frustrating and charming qualities. Unrestrained by the artificiality of a clock and a human tasked with keeping said time, a game which could theoretically last as few as 52 pitches and the length of a Seinfeld episode (again, theoretically) stretches to a five-plus hour affair. Baseball’s timelessness is why its history weighs heavier than other sports — because it is timeless, the history is ever-present. And that warping of time is what makes playoff baseball so compelling. What was simply mundane in the regular season becomes magnificent. One hundred years ago doesn’t seem all that distant in baseball. Yet in the playoffs the next second seems an age of the earth away, as the tension melts and fills the expanse of time, stretching each moment into infinity. In the seventh inning with two men on in a one-run game, the 30 seconds between 2-2 and 3-2 become an eternity.

And so playoff baseball becomes excruciating fun, benign torture, and wonderful terror. Remember the 2007 playoffs, when the Indians beat the despicable New York Yankees with a little help from our insect friends? What about the Pitcher Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona pitching the best game of his young-but-not-quite-as-young-as-we-thought life in that game? What about the series clincher in Yankee Stadium I, when the always shaky Joe Borowski saved a gutsy start from unlikely hero Paul Byrd (but not before scaring the daylights out of Indians fans)? What about when the Indians won a five-hour, 11-inning sphincter-clencher in Fenway Park in Game 2 of the ALCS thanks to a spectacular effort from the bullpen (minus Rafael Perez)? What about that glorious 3-1 lead against the doubly despicable Red Sox in the ALCS? Sure, it all went to hell in Games 5-7, and that was misery — but again, that’s what I’m talking about with playoff baseball. Besides, if you haven’t heard, now Cleveland’s the city that rallies from 3-1 down to win series and steal championships.


It’s easy to be a cynic about playoff baseball. Baseball is a ridiculously pompous and self-important sport. The zoomed lenses and tight shots of sweaty pitchers leaning in from the stretch. The desperate attempts to turn Madison Bumgarner or Wade Davis or in 2007 Jonathan Papelbon [exaggerated eye roll] into mythological figures as Joe Buck wryly drones on about how “magical” October is. It’s a little tacky, isn’t it?

Baseball can be insufferable to be sure, but I can’t muster the requisite cynicism to ward off my childlike excitement. The anti-climactic 2013 Wild Card game aside, the closest I’ve come to that radiant October energy was last year. On October 15, 2015, in New York City for work, I watched the New York Mets play the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the World Series in a Lower East Side bar with a handful of three-hour friends. The Mets lost a 14-inning back-and-forth gut-puncher after a blown save by vaunted closer Jeurys Familia. Sure, the Mets lost the championship 4-1 in an otherwise uneventful World Series, but I’m sure that night is forever etched into minds of New York Mets fans much like the 2007 series is etched into mine.2 And the invigorating boost from those friendly strangers was something I’ll never forget.

Just to be in the presence of that energy, to vicariously experience the exhilaration and agony of an entire city at the hands of baseball’s terrible cruelty, was a stark reminder of what playoff baseball is capable of. Playoff baseball raises the hair on your arms, chills your bones, puts sweat on your palms, grinds your organs, and blends your insides. It can be a hell of a lot of fun, too. It doesn’t hurt that this Indians team is a lovable bunch of goofballs with a flair for the dramatic and a large dose of “nobody believes in us.” Just the thought of Hammy saying, “a swing and a drive…” in the ninth inning of a tied ball game makes my heart do cartwheels in my chest and sends tremors through my body. The last Indians’ trip to the playoffs took 55 years off my life, which by my count means I should die (checks watch) yesterday. Here’s to this trip taking 55 more.

  1. Let’s just not discuss The Godfather Part III. []
  2. Ed. Note: The 2011 Rangers-Cardinals series is mine. []