I love baseball. One of the things I love the most about it is that it has such a long regular season. 162 games. Almost 6 full months.
Growing up, one the most anticipated times of year for me was the April start of the baseball season, when my beloved boys in blue would take the field “for reals.” As a kid, I would live and die on any given day depending on how the Dodgers did. When they won, I felt like all was right in the universe. And when they didn’t, well, to put it mildly, I was crushed.
I got in the habit of following the numbers on a daily basis. I would actually begin most seasons by clipping out the standings and box scores, game by game, and gluing them in a special notebook I kept. When the Dodgers hit a slump–or worse–the pain became too unbearable for me to keep up with my record keeping effort. Even on a good season, I might make it only to mid-May, the ups and downs often being to much to cope with in a portable notebook.
Likewise, for me, the baseball season didn’t end until the Dodgers lost in the playoffs or until all mathematical possibility had been exhausted for them to make it to the postseason. After that point, I would briefly fantasize about all the teams ahead of the Dodgers becoming impaired in horrible traveling accidents. Once the postseason began, if the Dodgers weren’t in it, I was looking toward the next April again.
As I grew up, I began to better appreciate the rhythm of the game. I began to realize baseball, as much as anything, is a game of momentum. There are key times in the season when it is imperative that your team clicks on the field. If they don’t, nothing else will really matter in the end.
This is hard for a numbers kid to grasp. When you’re up at the top, you’re always following the number 2 or 3, almost as much as you follow your own. When you are the number 2 or 3, you want that number 1 to lose as much as anything. It all gives the impression that it’s all connected. And in most sports, it probably is. But in baseball, well…the only standings that really matter, are the ones at the end of the season. All you got to do is win more games than the other guys and, while that only happens when you beat the other guys more than they beat you, it’s not as direct a thing as it appears.
That’s when I started to think of the baseball season in quarters rather than in halves. 162 doesn’t breakdown evenly into 4 parts, but I think of it as four groups of 40 games. As baseball fans, we spend so much time waiting for the first 40 that it’s hard not to give it too much attention. There are few things more satisfying than a strong start in the first 40. (For that matter, there are few things more annoying than a weak start.) But, for almost all of us almost every season, the first 40 is still warm-up. People are finding their groove; teams are finding their formula. It’s like the first mile of a race: what happens here is less important than what happens later on.
Instinctively, we also pay a lot of attention to the final 40. It is, after all, the lead in to the big show. We have a sense of its importance because we know it is the final stretch. But even more important than winning this sprint to the finish line is what condition you’re in at the end. Remember, beyond it is the postseason.
And that’s where momentum comes in. You don’t just want to win more games than the number 2 team, you want to finish the final 40 while playing well. You want your strongest players to be playing as well as they can, all the magical things that make a winning team to be happening on a regular basis, and all the intangibles to be, well, almost tangible.
I can’t tell you how many times the Dodgers have made it to the end of the season when you know they have the cards stacked against them in the postseason, not because of who they might face but because they’re not playing in that magical zone. When your team is there? Well, no matter how good the competition is on paper, they better get out the way.
This momentum thing is important in the rest of the season too. For me–and this is my childhood brain talking now–the second most critical time for momentum is in the 2nd 40. Around mid-May up until the All-Star break, when the Dodgers play like champs, it usually has meant a great season. I can’t think of a time they have done well in the postseason when they didn’t turn in a solid May and June.
Baseball is a long season. Any team in a season that long is going to have its ups and downs. The trick to becoming champs is for those ups to be at just the right times so that they expand on themselves rather than implode.
I’m feeling good this season, wishing I had a notebook and a glue stick lying around. But I also know it’s a long time until July.