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Tigers, Orioles Give Meaning to Meaningless September Baseball

Monday's Tigers-Orioles matinee only impacted the win-loss column, but the game meant everything.

On Monday afternoon, while walking home from work, I found myself doing something that automatically—acutely—made me question my own sanity, which is to say that I found myself listening to the radio broadcast of a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers

There was a superficially satisfying answer to the question of why I would have voluntarily done this to myself: It was the only game on. The 4:10 p.m. ET start was Monday’s only afternoon contest. There was no other baseball, and I wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing either the minor self-betterment of an educational podcast or the mild dread of a half-hour inside my own mind. I was going to listen to afternoon baseball. But this answer was, again, only satisfying in a very shallow sense. Sure, it was the only game. But it was still the 2019 Orioles (49-100) against the 2019 Tigers (44-104) (!) on September 16. It was the sort of game that seems to exist primarily as a prompt for the question of why baseball exists at all; as an affront to the very idea of decency; as proof positive for the belief that nothing really matters. That Baltimore and Detroit were even allowed to play in late September felt fundamentally absurd, or, at least, worthy of some kind of trial at the Hague.

It was also very lovely.

It was a classic example of the baseball often described as “meaningless”; that’s in direct contrast to the baseball described as “meaningful,” which is, generally, baseball with postseason ramifications. It’s a convenient shorthand—widely understood and plainly useful. But it’s built on a very particular idea of “meaning.” It’s meaning that can be derived only from winning. This is the most obvious kind of meaning. It’s the objective, macro, big-picture kind. It’s self-explanatory. It’s just not the only kind that’s out there.

Monday’s Orioles-Tigers game was not good—not in the sense that the term is typically used in Major League Baseball, anyway. (This is another kind of meaning; it’s aesthetic, or statistical, depending on your personal standard for “good” baseball, but either way, this game was not that.) Yet nor was it bad. It was baseball. There was a two-run home run in the first inning. Both sides went down one-two-three in the second. I listened to the radio broadcast describe a foul ball clanking off an empty seat in the upper deck, and I noticed the sun turn to the kind of golden haze special to the window between late summer and early fall. I listened to advertisements for schools, medical centers, the lottery. Miguel Cabrera jogged out a soft grounder to first, and I tried not to think about aging. The broadcast discussed the afternoon’s “Bark in the Park” event. (Such well-behaved puppies!) Both teams called to the bullpen. Rio Ruiz pinch hit for Richie Martin; Baltimore’s infield juggled itself to accommodate him. There was a lazy pop-up, a slow grounder, a double nearly stretched into a triple—a 12-pitch at-bat between Anthony Santander and Buck Farmer. Trey Mancini debated balls and strikes, because he cared, because how couldn’t he? The crowd buzzed a steady static noise. They stood and cheered for the final at-bat.

The Tigers won, 5-2. It mattered as much as a game between baseball’s two worst teams can matter in September—which is to say, not at all, in any technical sense, unless you’re particularly concerned about the potential draft order for next year. But this technical sense is the objective, macro, big-picture sense. This technical sense may be why professional baseball exists as an enormously profitable business, but it is not why baseball exists. And, of course, there is no one clear answer to that second question—but whatever there is, it’s probably closer to the texture of a game between two terrible teams on September 16 than it is to anything else.

When I miss baseball in the winter, I do not miss the postseason. I do not miss the highlights, I do not miss the debates over who will deserve the Cy Young, I do not miss anything that seems as if it is meant to be remembered. I miss the cadence of games. I miss MLB’s copyright disclaimer on broadcasts. I miss background noise. I miss the Orioles versus the Tigers on September 16.

Listening to Monday’s game between the Orioles and Tigers was not an especially productive use of time; there was nothing efficient, or instructive, or beneficial in it. There was no point. And it was great: It meant something.