Rushin: National Past-Bedtime

Like jazz pianists or night watchmen, big league baseball players work the graveyard shift, especially in October, when the biggest games are played at the smallest hours, and the National Pastime becomes — in the words of the late journalist Jane Bachman Wulf, writing 26 years ago in Sports Illustrated — the national past-bedtime.

This isn’t a complaint, or not entirely at least. To judge by the TV commercials — for pharmaceutical companies, retirement planners and sensible cars — baseball’s aging audience is up anyway, to pee. And the drama is almost always sufficient to keep younger viewers awake on the East Coast, where the World Series is the exception to mom’s warning that nothing good happens after midnight. There’s an illicit thrill to the late-night cable series that postseason baseball has become—Throwtime After Dark.

And yet . . . 31 years since the last World Series day game was wasted beneath the Teflon sky of the Metrodome in Minneapolis in 1987, it remains a little odd that baseball’s greatest moments — its gaudiest spectacles — play out after midnight on the East Coast, in the way that Ringling Brothers used to parade their elephants into Manhattan at 3 a.m., as if trying to sneak them past prying eyes.

West Coast viewers must be accommodated, of course, and Major League Baseball and its rights-holders are targeting the largest maximum audience, even if that audience excludes children, and many of the grownups are dozing in front of the set, incorporating the games into their REM sleep. 

Am I having a fever dream, or did second base umpire Joe West just stand there, rooted to the ground, while waiting for an errant Christian Vazquez throw to drill him in the shoulder? Days later, it’s still hard to say. But it’s an E-2 if you’re snoring at home.

FS1 threw to commercial during one American League Championship Series game while Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive” played as the outro music. But Wright’s other ancient hit, “Dream Weaver,” is more apt: “I’ve just closed my eyes again, climbed aboard the Dream Weaver train.” That’s because baseball in October is a nocturne — music inspired by or evoking the night — and Ron Darling is on lead vocals, singing of “the swivel-hipped Mookie Betts” as I drift off to dreamland, the wall-mounted TV standing in for the AM/FM clock radio that once served up games from the West Coast. Baseball as lullaby.

The first World Series night game wasn’t played until 1971, in Pittsburgh. Almost immediately, the canon of postseason moments shifted from sun-dappled and shadow-shrouded to klieg-lit and after-hours. Carlton Fisk waving it fair in 1975. Chris Chambliss fighting his way around the bases in 1977. Mookie Wilson igniting bedlam in 1986. Gene Larkin driving in Dan Gladden in 1991. Francisco Cabrera pinch-hitting Sid Bream home in 1992. Joe Carter walking it off in 1993. The Red Sox and Cubs exorcising demons in 2004 and 2016 . . . they all happened at an hour that was once considered indecent and is now accepted as normal.

The World Series clincher has become a venerable late-night institution, as Johnny Carson once was. It joins paid programming for the MyPillow and Wonder Cooker as things you watch very late in bed, while dreading the impending 6 a.m. alarm, at the time of year when the days get shorter and we turn back the clock, making Yogi’s famous statement a reality: it really is getting late early out there.

The greatest baseball dynasty of the last half-century was grown without sunlight. The home victories of those Yankee teams from 1996 to 2000 all had the same coda—Sinatra singing about “a city that doesn’t sleep.” It might as well have been a nation. But the real punctuation mark to those games came earlier, when closer Mariano Rivera arrived from the bullpen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Exit light. Enter night.

Long after Rivera’s retirement, and the dissolution of that dynasty, the sentiment remains in the late innings of every Fall Classic, when drama and dreamscape intersect. Forget “Play ball” in October. The invitation I hear is: “Take my hand. We’re off to Never Neverland.”

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