In Spite of Itself, Baseball Sizzles Again

Other than family, friends and Dirk Hayhurst — sorry, I don’t recall anyone by that name in the major leagues — I’m not sure if anyone is watching the baseball playoffs. Of the 12 highest-rated shows since the new TV season launched, baseball occupies as many slots as the Oakland A’s managed runs off Justin Verlander in Game 5: zero. In fact, all 12 programs were NFL game telecasts, proving again that life-and-death ordeals such as a concussion crisis and an accused murderer mean nothing to the American masses when compared to a fantasy football roster, a wager with Rocco and the replica jersey of your favorite player.

Baseball tends to burn off and fade away much like summer itself. Once the kids are back in school and your team is eliminated, there isn’t much interest in the playoffs — unlike the NFL, which commands universal attention during its Super Bowl lead-up. Sometime between the football boom of the ’70s and ’80s and the steroids era of the ’90s and ’00s, baseball became the national past-its-time, now ranking behind pro and college football and even the NBA in resonance.

That said, hasn’t this postseason been absolutely divine?

In one magnificent 12-hour stretch, we saw a rookie pitcher take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, a potbellied slugger hit a series-winning homer after twice failing to lay down bunts, an Australian-born relief pitcher spark a near-brawl because he didn’t like how someone was looking at him and a backup catcher hit a walk-off homer into a giant fish tank. Through it all, after two five-game series and two four-gamers, baseball is rewarded with a particularly compelling final four, something it hardly deserves after another scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs but typical in how the sport always rises above the rascals who try to ruin it. We have four of the sport’s biggest brand names, each oozing of tradition and pomp and starpower, all prepared to dazzle.

The Red Sox are the bearded behemoths who look like rogues but play with uncommon camaraderie and purpose, even if someone finds a squirrel and nuts inside Mike Napoli’s clump of facial hair.

The Tigers are loaded with studs in the rotation and lineup, trying to finally win a World Series as long as their ball-grabbing fans don’t sabotage the cause with a Steve Bartman moment.

The Dodgers are the raging fools who dared to spend big and think big and now are ready to conquer October with a Hollywood flair and Yasiel Puig conga line.

The Cardinals are the antithesis of the Dodgers, a Middle American fixture with a winning culture that carries on long after Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols departed.

In spite of itself, in spite of a Biogenesis scandal that left more juice stains on yet another season’s canvas, the sport is flush with a waterfall of profits. Simply, a baseball team can provide 162 games of live content in the DVR era, allowing networks to charge higher advertising rates — and cut richer national and local TV deals — at a time when we tape Mad Men and watch it days later. That’s why a nameless, faceless financial group called Guggenheim Partners could buy the Dodgers for $2.15 billion and sell the TV rights to Time Warner Cable for $7 billion. That’s why the small-market Reds can sign a fat regional TV deal and give Joey Votto a monster contract, and why three of the eight teams in the divisional round were low spenders from Oakland, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Some credit for baseball’s unprecedented financial prosperity goes to commissioner Bud Selig and the owners, who have committed to labor peace while insisting that attractive ballparks become fan destinations even when a team isn’t winnng. And some of it is attributed to sheer, dumb luck.

The regular season remains almost unwatchable, devoid of drama over a numbing, six-month taffy pull. You’d still like to put a 20-second clock on pitchers and hitters who drag out between-pitch rituals for nearly a minute, forgetting that the world operates at a breakneck pace in 2013 and that people look at their smart phones once every 2.1 seconds, or so it seems.

But come October, baseball rarely lets us down. And this October, baseball is at its entertaining best, the 49-second pauses giving us a chance to exhale and absorb the fun. In Oakland, the fans pay enough attention to pop culture to know that Verlander once dated model Kate Upton. They responded in Game 5 by chanting his name and taunting him by waving big-head cutouts of Upton.

“I did notice,” he said.

He was so rattled by the fuss, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

“We want to win a World Series, man,” Miguel Cabrera announced. “That’s our goal.”

We’re expecting the Dodgers and Red Sox to play in that World Series, but at this point, anything is possible. Maybe a few people actually will tune in.