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Baltes: There is a charm in watching an MLB team collapse

| Monday, September 17, 2018

History holds many examples of tragic, unpleasant collapses. There was the global economy in 1929 and 2008. There was the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. And, yes, there was the self-esteem of Jason Segel’s character towards the midpoint of 2011’s groundbreaking film The Muppets. All were certainly calamitous — perhaps the two former more so than the latter.

Chalk up what’s happened to the Philadelphia Phillies this past month-and-a-half as yet another such collapse.

On Sunday, August 5, the Phillies defeated the division rival Miami Marlins 5-3. The victory was Philadelphia’s second of the three-game series. The Phillies led the NL East Division by a game-and-a-half, and were tied for second place in the National League standings as a whole, trailing the Cubs by only one game.

A team that many had dismissed as too young and inexperienced appeared to have climbed into contention. They had made it past the All-Star break and still appeared to be thriving.

Since Sunday, August 5, the Phillies have won only one series. Their once-proud record has slipped to a paltry few games above .500, and a playoff appearance now seems very much out of the question. In a convoluted way, Philadelphia has ended up just about where most pundits and analysts placed them at the beginning of the year.

Full disclosure: I’m a Phillies fan. In spite of the near-constant losing as of late, I’ve continued following them closely. However, I don’t think that’s entirely linked to my being a fan of them, and it’s certainly not linked to me thinking they have any chance of coming back. Regardless of the city, there’s just a certain captivating quality in watching a baseball team fall apart at the seams (no pun intended).

Because Major League Baseball has a 162-game regular season, there’s plenty of time for complex story arcs. While leagues like the NHL and NBA might have a season that occupies more physical time than the MLB season, they contain significantly fewer games. In baseball, there’s less downtime for the media to dwell on the outcomes of individual games or make predictions for the future. Teams play almost every given day from May through at least September. More so than in any other professional sport, the narrative of a baseball team’s season is dictated by what happens on the field, and not so much what happens off the field.

When a team’s fortunes go south, it seems to happen in slow motion. Sure, there’s plenty of games, but the games themselves move slowly. The result of each individual game means relatively little on its own, but the eventual weight of 20 losses in 30 games in the MLB feels so much heavier than, say, a team recording four losses in six games during the NFL season.

It’s the way the losses seem to avalanche that really makes it hard to ignore a serious collapse in baseball. A few losses occur here and there at the beginning; no one takes much notice. Games are cheap. A team that’s already doing well shouldn’t worry too much about losing a few games. But then there’s a moment when all the pieces come together, when a collapse becomes clearly apparent.

It’s when you’re sitting in the 400-level in a light drizzle and you watch the cellar-dwelling Mets obliterate your pitching staff by scoring 24 runs.

The fact that they’re so difficult to see at first just makes the team’s structural failure appear all the more pronounced once everyone is fully aware of it.

There’s something charming in watching a team maintain its same routine despite all signs pointing to a season falling apart. Batters stoically maintain the same warm-up ritual as they go one for thirty-one at the plate. Pitchers quietly keep winding up in the same exact motion over and over again with the same facial expression, even as they give up eight earned runs. There are still the obligatory mascot races go on with the same pomp and fanfare. The 19th century etiquette and attitudes that never seem to change, the whole “this is fine” attitude that seems to permeate teams regardless of circumstances. The absurd futility of it all is simply captivating. In a way, it’s comical.

But, It still sucks when it’s your team.

About Peter Baltes

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