ST. LOUIS -- It's hard to say exactly when it became clear that there was something going on in the 2013 National League Championship Series that wasn't just baseball.
But we're there.
Boy, are we ever.
It's etched all over the faces of the Cardinals, no matter how carefully they choose their words.
It's flying right at you every time Yasiel Puig bats, gestures, chases a fly ball, doesn't chase a fly ball or flips his bat halfway to Santa Monica.
Heck, we can even thank this series for giving us a full-fledged, talk-show-worthy debate over Mickey Mouse ears.
Well, you don't get that every October.
But what you do get -- what you should get -- is emotion.
The kind of emotion that wells up in caring, passionate, hard-working human beings who are playing the biggest games of their lives. While millions watch. And tweet.
So why have those shows of emotion somehow become a source of so much anger, so much controversy in this sport? That makes no sense to me.
This just in: Emotion is good. Emotion is great. It's exactly what every fan should want to see on the faces of the men caught up in the powerful ebbs and flows of these games. It's what players should want to see in the eyes of other players.
It's always been one of my favorite things about October. It's the one month it seems to be OK for baseball players to can the super-cool veneer of April through September.
And it's replaced by the raw, visible fervor of great athletes playing postseason baseball, where every day, the next pitch could produce a moment for which they'll be remembered forever.
So what went wrong in this sport that real displays of joy, of feeling, have become a heinous violation of the code of baseball?
If the culture of baseball won't allow the expression of personality, especially at times like this, it isn't the "crimes" we should be examining. It's the culture itself.
But here in this NLCS, we have a battle of two teams with very different takes on that culture. The St. Louis Post Dispatch's Joe Strauss wrote a fantastic column on that topic after Game 5. I recommend it highly.
What has made the tension in this series so complicated is that the celebrating hasn't just come from the Dodgers. The unfiltered emotions of a number of Cardinals players have erupted many, many times already in this postseason. And why wouldn't they?
They've got guys over there who show emotion, too. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's the playoffs. I actually think there should be more of that.
"-- Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr.
As someone who has seen every postseason game they've played over the past three Octobers, I found the expression of those emotions awesome and refreshing, coming from a team that is normally so cautious, so controlled, so deliberately low-key.
But then they got themselves matched up with a Dodgers team full of players who seem to let you know exactly how they feel about, well, everything. And it has become vividly clear the Cardinals are almost offended by what they're seeing.
In fact, there might not even be any need to include that word, "almost."
The closest any Cardinal came to actually saying that came after Game 3, following the Yasiel Puig Bat Flip Heard Round Chavez Ravine, when Carlos Beltran gave a review of Puig's shtick that included lines like: "He just doesn't know [how to act]," and: "He must think he's still playing somewhere else," and, "You don't want to wake nobody up."
And this was Carlos Beltran talking. As calm, as cool, as dignified, as careful with his words as any player in the game. So no wonder we all snapped to attention.
We haven't had any similar words uttered by his teammates since, because there has obviously been a conscious effort to avoid them. But when you watch that Cardinals dugout react -- to everything from Puig-a-mania to Will Ferrell's introduction of the Dodgers lineup -- it's those faces that tell the story. Not the words they utter in public.
"Here's what I don't get," said Jerry Hairston Jr., one of the most articulate, most thoughtful men in the Dodgers clubhouse. "They've got guys over there who show emotion, too. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's the playoffs. I actually think there should be more of that [in this sport]."
Tremendous. Could we slap those words on a billboard, please? Wait. Make that 30 billboards. One outside every ballpark in the big leagues.
This. Sport. Needs. More. Emotion.
That, however, is a big-picture conversation, on the culture of baseball and the issues it's creating, some of which go beyond the NLCS. But meanwhile, the forces at work in this series go beyond that. In fact, they seem to have taken on a life of their own.
The Cardinals might not be managed by Tony La Russa anymore. But they sure do have a lot of core players who were shaped by the La Russa years. And one way they were shaped was this:
In those years, anything that went on that could be perceived as a slap, an insult, a sign of disrespect, or an all-out Nyjer Morgan declaration of war, always became a "thing."
If one of the greatest managers of his time could possibly use it to motivate, to incite, to energize, to fight back, it was on, man. Always.
And it's happening now -- except for the part where the manager puts his feelings into words.
It was never a big challenge to know what La Russa was thinking at times like these. But the manager who succeeded him, Mike Matheny, continues to choose his words with remarkable precision, considering that some variation on this topic seems to come up every time he gets led in to face the media.
Asked about it again Thursday, Matheny said his team's only concern was to "make sure we're going about it the way we want to go about it. It's not our right and responsibility to dictate how other teams go about theirs. We're not out there to do anything except win. That is our job. We'll go about it the way we can, and that's going to be our goal and our initiative."
That, of course, is what they ought to do. But would it be all right to make the point that the Dodgers are allowed to do that, too?
And in the beginning, that's all the Dodgers were up to. But then Beltran shared a few thoughts. And Adam Wainwright mentioned that he wasn't a fan of Adrian Gonzalez pulling that "Mickey Mouse stuff" at second base the other night.
Next thing we knew, Gonzalez -- one of the most mild-mannered baseball players who ever lived -- was flashing his teammates the old mouse-ears sign after going deep Wednesday. And despite his relentless insistence afterward that it was all in good fun, the truth is: No it wasn't.
But what started all that was the Cardinals taking offense in the first place to Gonzalez celebrating a big hit in a crucial game, in his home park. And it spread from there.
"Look, there is a Cardinal Way," said another one of the most thoughtful men in the Dodgers clubhouse, longtime ex-Cardinal Skip Schumaker. "We know that. They're very professional over there. I'd like to think that a lot of us over here are, too.
"But," Schumaker went on, "you don't want to take the emotion out of the game. You start taking the emotion out of some of these guys, and they're not going to be the player that they are."
Exactly. Let the emotion of these games shine -- by allowing the emotion inside the men who play these games to flow however they need it to flow. This sport needs every ounce of that emotion.
Or even from Yasiel Puig.
The presence of Puig
I saved Puig for last for a reason. Because he's a category unto himself.
I often wonder whether all the heat he takes for his theatrics is about those theatrics or just about him. To be honest, I think they're mostly about him.
I could do without him flipping the bat 50 feet after he hits a ball that doesn't even leave the yard. I'm not a fan of a guy who misses a fly ball, then jogs after it -- in the ninth inning of a postseason game. But other than that? This game needs Yasiel Puig.
It needs everything else about him.
When he arrives at home plate in Dodger Stadium, an electric current ripples through that park in a way unlike any other fan base in baseball reacts to any other player.
You have 53,000 people feeding off every watt that comes surging out of his turbine. And you have him feeding off every ounce of love they show him.
Let me tell you something people don't seem to want to admit: Baseball needs that. More of that. All of that it can get.
When you have a player you can't take your eyes off, every minute of every game he plays, this sport should be embracing that. And that's Yasiel Puig. We can't stop watching him. We can't stop talking about him.
"He's definitely kind of a lightning rod," Hairston said. "During the course of a generation, you'll have a couple of guys that always are that lightning rod. And he's one of them. I've never been around a guy who had this much energy, but it's a good thing."
So please, repeat those words after him: It's a good thing.
And the emotion he brings, and the reactions it inspires, are a good thing. They're making this series more interesting. They're making this sport more interesting.
So as we get ready for Game 6, Friday night in St. Louis, and those passions begin to stir anew, some people may look at this series and see a problem. But what I hope we're really seeing is the beginning of a whole new way to look at this sport.
Especially in October.