Playoff Time Is Good News/Bad News For Players

“Quiero ir a mi casa.”

A simple statement from one of my Latino teammates, echoing a sentiment universal to all ballplayers:  We’re ready to go home.  Many are already there, sleeping in their own beds for the first time in six months, kissing wives or girlfriends (hopefully not at the same time), and perhaps enjoying a favorite meal made by their mothers.  I hate these people.

The reason I hate these other players is not because they’re all secretly serial killers or dog-haters.  They aren’t slamming doors in the faces of old ladies, they aren’t vilely taking lollipops away from kids, and they aren’t even extreme polluters bent on killing the ozone.  The only reason I hate them is because they’re home and I’m not.

I must wait a week or two longer to see my wife.  I must sleep in a couple more hotel beds and must only dream of eating my mom’s incomparable strawberry pie.  Hell, I even have to suffer through one more ten-hour bus ride.  I’m part of a “lucky” few still playing, as my team has made the playoffs.

Yes, we are ready to go home, but that doesn’t mean the playoffs lack importance.  One if not both hemispheres of our brains has fixed itself on la-la-land thoughts of home, yet excitement still overcomes us as we play these games.  They gain extra significance, even if in a schizophrenic fashion.

“Well, we’re in the playoffs, we might as well win a ring.”

This realism typifies the regard that most players hold towards the minor league playoffs, as I’ve heard this around 148 times over the past two weeks in three different languages.  Six months of constant travel has left all of us both mentally and physically exhausted, yet we’re competing with a determination rarely seen in the regular season.  At our essence we’re all competitors, and the playoffs offer a higher level of competition.
Half of the seats remain empty for each of our playoff games in Connecticut.  Welcomed by cool nights reminiscent of a New England April, the crowd still reacts with a fervor that belies its size.  Fellow 2004 draftee and Double A veteran Eddy Martinez-Esteve hits a three-run homer in each of the first two games, and the fans give a raucous response.

Curiously though, it still only seems half-real.  Its real in the sense that the games are being played—the balls and bats are certainly real and the umpires that call the pitches are certainly real.  But is it real in the sense that the World Series—or even the Little League World Series—is real?  Or is it simply real in the way that the Real World is real?  Part of me is reminded of the feeling of going to a math competition as a kid, getting up early on a Saturday morning, unsure whether I really even wanted to be competing.  Since I was indeed awake at that God-awful hour on a Saturday and because my parents and teachers expected that I be there, I did my best.  I put everything I had into it, partly out of pride and partly to please others.  Listening to my teammates, it seems they experience a similar feeling.

Perhaps it is the half-empty stands (half-full if you’re an optimist) or perhaps it is our ambivalent attitude delivered by hearts already lying elsewhere, but something does indeed seem missing.  The level of play is extremely high, as hitters and pitchers hone in on every pivotal pitch, but it seems that we’re simply pretending.

The celebration after round one borders on the perfunctory—we merely imitate other celebrations.  Our drive towards a ring falls into clichés as our preparation merely imitates other preparations.  Even our playoff mustaches and beards seem trite—we’re simply growing them either because we are bored or because that is what we as ballplayers are supposed to do.

I’ve heard many scouts say that part of being a big leaguer is looking like a big leaguer.  We imitate what we have seen from big leaguers throughout our lifetime and it’s no different in the playoffs.  Memories of Joe Carter racing around the bases and Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill spraying champagne on an already wet Tino Martinez guide our actions.

Still kids imitating our heroes, we reluctantly make a push towards a minor league championship.  Our hearts wish to be home, but we have a chance to win something:  “Un anillo.”  The ring that you receive is indeed real, and it’s something to be kept and cherished (but never worn, except perhaps at a boxing match), forever a reminder that you indeed were a ballplayer, that you and 25 other guys sacrificed a few extra weeks and won it all.

I am indeed jealous of those already home, but a few more wins hold the power to deliver a ring and turn the tables of jealousy.  Let the revelry begin, even if it’s of the insincere make-believe variety.

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