Down in the clubhouse, the game is as it ever was.
They come and go from the showers and from the trainer's room. They slump on the sofa. They tuck their phones to their ears. They tape, they powder, they scratch, they swagger, they dress. They undress. They dress again. They eat. They talk. Half a dozen gather at a table, young men talking about young women, talking about cars and movies and nightclubs, talking over one another, laughing, whispering, grab-assing scatter-plot printouts of someone's last 100 hits, playing with a deck of dog-eared cards from the Mirage. A docked iPod shuffles everything from Garth Brooks to Chris Brown.
Spanish, English, Japanese -- more than any other sport, baseball runs on talk.
There's a crisp Friday Times and a wrinkled Friday Post -- "Car Bomb Alert" front page on the Late City Final -- and a 2-month-old SI. There's an undone crossword collection, a pile of fan mail and this month's DuPont Registry. The cover touts wristwatches as complicated as a marriage and a Ferrari 458 as red and simple as lust. Players swap tablets and argue apps and sit two by two at the clubhouse computers. The screensavers, red and blue, read "NYPD" and "FDNY."
The reporters hover and wait.
All rosewood veneer and leather and indirect lighting, the clubhouse looks like a business-class lounge at Heathrow. Both are models of institutional modernist aspiration; the clubhouse smells a lot more like fabric softener. This team is 23-and-a-half games out of first place. The one down the hall has been out of the running since July. Of 2009.
Mets vs. Cubs. Second weekend of September. Another lost season. What's at stake when nothing's at stake?
Up on the concourse, the game is as it ever was. Fans come and go in that state of ballpark exaltation, half a step faster in every direction and with a sharpened sense of everything around them. The colors more vivid, the lights brighter, the talk louder, the beer colder, the jokes better, the night deeper and finer than anything outside these gates. In here, nothing can hurt you. Nothing can even touch you. The moon smiles down on everyone.
Far away from here, a pennant race boils, and everything is at stake in every moment. Those stadiums ring with ambition and heartbreak. In here, it is only baseball, baseball in its purest form, baseball disconnected from intention and result. Here, in a stadium half full of aesthetes and theorists, true believers and half-mad pilgrims, is only gesture and grace. Run, swing, throw.
Seen from the press box, seen from the stands, these are the ineffable charms of September baseball. Of baseball out of the hunt. Of baseball that represents only itself. This is the 143rd game of the season.
But the big league game still spins off numbers and money and fame; so down there on the bench, every player bears his share of worries. His own fears. Pride in performance and professionalism and the game-within-a-game punch-outs between pitchers and hitters, sure, all that upbeat stuff; but careers hang on the outside part of the plate, too, and earnings and the future of entire families. Ask what they play for when there's nothing to play for in September and big league pitcher Dillon Gee will look at you as if you're insane. "There are guys playing for their jobs up here."
The catcher across the room, Ronny Paulino, as dour and mindful as the village priest, explains patiently that, "Everything starts getting heavier. The bats get heavier; the legs get tight, heavy; the hamstrings and the knees get tight." He is a 30-year-old ballplayer in a contract year on a losing team who has to work his pitchers like mules every day, pitch by pitch and row by row and whose quadriceps won't stop screaming. "I'm focused on today's game. The last two weeks of the season are," and here he stops himself too late, "terrible. But the most important. You can be having a great year but start struggling. ERAs can go up; batting averages go down."
All of a sudden, he looks like a man trying to defuse a bomb.
The .330 optimists and the distance hitters with long-term contracts set new challenges, they say. They smile and imagine small goals, individual goads to show up every day and improve. They want to turn better on the curve, want to prepare better, stretch better, hit one point higher for the year. "It's a range of individual challenges, sure -- but it's also more fun to win," says matinee idol 3B David Wright. "Even if you're 20 games back, it's a lot more fun to win than it is to lose."
He's one of the guys Mike Quade has in mind when he calls baseball "a wonderful grind."
So against mental and emotional and physical exhaustion, big league doggedness is self-selecting. Major leaguers who can gut out an empty September are rewarded with more chances to gut out the empty Septembers.
The rest of us watch and take refuge in the imperfection. Run, swing, throw. These are the charms of baseball in September.
You play because they give you the chance to play. You watch because someone's playing.
We're all here because the game is as it ever was.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.