Until television, baseball players didn't celebrate their victories -- even World Series-clinching victories -- on the field. They went to the dugout, shook hands with each other off the field, and then punched in to their offseason jobs as mail carriers.
But professional sports are performative as well as competitive, and athletes adapt their performance to the audience. World Series celebrations got more elaborate with broadcasts. Then the broadcasts got more elaborate, then enhanced, then arguably superseded by cable and the internet and social media. Content expanded outward, and the performances followed it. It's a meme world now, baby.
Every team that goes deep in this postseason will have a meme. Think "Party at Napoli's" for last year's Indians. Or the 2015 Royals' 1738 obsession, where players were fined for not inserting Fetty Wap lyrics into postgame interviews. The Machine. The Idiots. That's What Speed Do. Rally Thong. Hunter Pence. Beard Tickling. Chocolate Syrup.
The memes will entertain you, they will keep teams loose, they will bring teams together, and they will affect how you process each team's achievements. In 60 years, you will try to tell your grandkids about this year's World Series champion, and you'll find yourself describing how, like, they filled all the water coolers with milk. Drinking milk from Dixie cups. Milk showers during the postgame interview. Disgusting milk beards. A custom-made Paul Goldschmilk bobblehead, if it's the Diamondbacks; or Milkie Betts, or Lactose Severino, or Yu Dairyvish, or whatever infuriating thing. Anchorman outfits on the road. The whole clubhouse redesigned to look like the Korova Milk Bar. A whole big thing.
The only problem with all this is that baseball players aren't funny.
Most of us aren't funny, but the world doesn't strain to act like most of us are. For baseball players, we do. You will never get these postseason teams' inside jokes out of your head.
So: Which team is best prepared for meme season? Which team is actually funny? Which team should you want to spend four weeks in a meta-relationship with? This, friends, is a postseason preview.
Wild Card Game
New York Yankees
Mode of humor: Meme factory
In that clip, three 2017 Yankees memes are on display: The fake press conference in the dugout, the thumbs down, and "Judge's chambers" in right field. The fake press conference is the main one: It's probably the most viral Funny Joke of the 2017 baseball season; even the coldest hearts have thawed for it. It's funny! It's an original twist on the home run tunnels and bubble machines and other dugout home run rituals.
It's also not actually original, which is the problem with most baseball humor: Anything funny is quickly adopted by the entire sport, from the 30 major league teams down to your nephew's Little League team. The fake press conference was not created last week by the Yankees; it was created earlier this month, by the Cubs. Look:
Camera man, boom mic, avoidance of eye contact between reporter and athlete, the whole deal.
Now, we can live with the same joke appearing twice, and the Yankees get credit for execution: The prop camera is an important addition (though the Cubs had a better fake boom mic). But the Yankees are explicitly claiming that Ronald Torreyes invented it last week: "He was sitting in the dugout, watching the game. He wanted to do something different." But no! He took it from the Cubs! It's unacknowledged joke thievery! This is, in my opinion, worse than using steroids.
Also, the execution of the pun (Torreyes' nickname is "Toe," so this is generally reported as being named Toe-Night Show) is all jumbled:
Is the pun that Toe sounds like To, or that Toe looks like The? It's not clear, and it therefore will get very, very annoying if we spend four weeks with it.
The press conference is part of a very crowded memesheet for this year's Yankees. The thumbs down -- a response to a Mets fan who, like a sort of modern day Umbrella Man, lodged a serious silent protest against Todd Frazier -- is a pretty good entry in the post-basehit-hand-motion-from-first-base genre, and makes a lot more sense than Antlers and Claws and whatever Zack Greinke was supposed to be doing. That's a solid bit, but it probably peaked a little too early, and now they are literally forcing it into the shot.
The Yankees have a million of 'em. There was also the time the Yankees made a habitat for a dancing praying mantis. And the time they did a special celebration line for Torreyes, who is notably short. Judge's surname is also a common word, which leads to jokes. And so on. This team has gone all in on jokes, and if they make it deep into the postseason they will come up with new ones. Joke-theft aside, it's mostly endearing, especially coming from an organization that has traditionally been stultifyingly self-serious.
Mode of humor: Gum; embarrassment
My earliest memory of Baseball Players Being Funny was Bert Blyleven pulling pranks, as seen on most episodes of "This Week In Baseball" in the late 1980s. I'm sure he was the first player I saw pull off the hot foot, for instance, and I vaguely recall gum often being involved in his fun. Blyleven was a Twin during those years. Gum's still big in Minnesota.
There's another gum clip in the Twins season, which is probably not worth embedding: Brian Dozier is doing an in-game interview and Eddie Rosario sticks gum on his shoulder. The "disrupted in-game interview" is one of the most enduring genres of baseball humor. There were better executions throughout baseball this year -- Adam Jones taped Dylan Bundy's mouth closed, for instance --and the Twins are arguably hamstrung by their strict reliance on gum for jokes. But it's less the material than the canvas that's the problem. As Alex Cobb put it this week, when a teammate tried to interrupt his interview: "Stop. Stop. It's a tired act. We don't need it."
Root for: The Yankees.
Division Series 1
Mode of Humor: Scowls
The Astros don't really do anything. One running joke is a wrestling belt that Josh Reddick ordered for the clubhouse, which is given to the player of the game each night. That's (surprise!) not an original gag, but the crucial detail in that is "Josh Reddick." Whenever I've seen Reddick in a clubhouse, he has reminded me of a wrestling villain, serious to the point of scary. He rarely smiles; he sometimes feints intimidatingly at people walking past. Near as I can tell, he is also a popular teammate. He's totally in character. That's why it was Actually Funny when he started using the soft-rock ballad "Careless Whisper" as his walk-up music a few years back, and why it totally missed the point when other players copied him. So, when the Astros did do a big team joke this year, it's not surprising that a) Reddick led it and b) it was explicitly a dark, unfunny premise: Death. The only way a funeral joke works is if it's uncomfortable.
Boston Red Sox
Mode of humor: Sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds are a pretty dexterous prop, comedy-wise: They're oddly shaped, edible, two-thirds trash, omnipresent, and, because of their lightweight and asymmetrical construction, they fly in unpredictable ways and they often stick to fabric and skin. The best baseball GIF of all time was created with little more than a handful of sunflower seeds and a well-paced panning shot.
I've got here four different highlights of Red Sox players using sunflower seeds for entertainment. Besides Brock Holt's flicking, there's Hanley Ramirez throwing them at a sideline reporter, Chris Sale tossing cupfulls in the air and trying to catch them, and David Price and Holt trying to flick them hard enough at Ramirez's back to get their teammate to notice. (They fail.) None of these is particularly strong, and thus far the Red Sox haven't turned this shared obsession into a teamwide narrative. There's at least some potential, though.
The Red Sox's other meme -- the whimsically elaborate post-win celebrations by the outfielders, immortalized last year as Win Dance Repeat -- have, in my opinion, stalled out, not in an annoying way but in an everything-comes-to-this way. Here's the latest.
The dominant aesthetic in modern American culture is the acknowledgement of the existence of wit. Not actual funniness, but simply acknowledgement that humor is a thing and that what you are consuming follows the basic rules of humor. That's why we have so many pun headlines, even though almost nobody finds puns funny; that's why people use joke hashtags; that's why we have sitcoms that never, over the course of eight-season runs, make anybody actually laugh out loud, yet have laugh tracks. It's all designed not to make you laugh but to make you say "that's funny."
There's nothing at all wrong with this. It's a way of showing that we don't take things too seriously, that we recognize the farce of civility, and that we're all friends. I'm glad the Red Sox outfielders make elaborate stage plays that don't make me laugh. I'm glad that they are hamming it up and smiling. I'm glad it's fun for them and that they care to make it fun for us. It's all OK. It's very American. I love America.
Root for: Either one, whichever suits your temperament.
Division Series 2: Wild card winner vs. Cleveland
Mode of humor: Knowing your brother's vulnerabilities better than he knows his own
The most notable Cleveland meme this year was the Carlos Carrasco Teammate Baseball series, in which the starting pitcher made baseballs look like his teammates. It was genuinely brilliant. Genuinely brilliant, not baseball-player brilliant. To really capture somebody in caricature you have to be able to identify that one subtle detail that makes him or her unique, and it's hard.
This postseason, you'll hear a lot about how the Indians have been through this before, they're stronger for it, that they're a stronger group because of it. Which may or may not be true, but which is suggested by their humor, which has a persistent sense of familiarity to it. It's there in the infield's teasing of Carlos Santana in the video above; it's there in Terry Francona's on-mound revelation to Joe Smith that Smith was wearing the wrong pants.
Here's a hypothesis I have: What drives most baseball players isn't the quest for a World Series ring. It's not money. It's not making the Hall of Fame. No, baseball players are (like us) basically the same people they were when they were 7, and they want two things: They want to bat again, and they want to avoid being embarrassed in front of their teammates.
The Indians seem to have used their humor to make everybody unable to be embarrassed. You know when you trip and you look around and hope nobody saw that? And when you see that somebody did, it's super embarrassing? It's the moment of hope, and that hope being extinguished, that is so devastating. The Indians have made being laughed at harmless because of its inevitability. There's no hope that it'll turn out otherwise. Look at Francisco Lindor's stupid slide on this play, and then notice how fast he's laughing at himself, and how he looks into the dugout to share the joke. He knew somebody saw it. He never bothered to hope they didn't. He was happy they did. One more joke.
Root For: The Indians.
Wild Card Game
Mode of Humor: Role-breaking
I love this. I love the funny faces. I love it too much to intellectualize it. Well, but OK: Baseball is a game that has a lot of roles. The dominant hierarchies within a team are service time and roles. Roles have some real value: they make decision-making simpler, they make players' preparation more predictable, and they provide a baseline stability to everyday social interactions. They get teams through the grind of a season. They also create rigidity and, in some cases, inflexibility and inefficiency.
The postseason in particular is a time when teams benefit from making roles less rigid. This is the time when the starter might pitch in relief, the closer might pitch in the seventh, the star might need to be sidelined and the last man on the roster might need to come up in the biggest moment. David Peralta, as I understand the origins of this gag, had a role in the Diamondbacks dugout: He was the first person to give high fives to people returning to the dugout. (This is already a pretty good gag!) He had a place. It was a good role and a good place. But it also meant that nobody else could be in that role or that place, and Gregor Blanco, subverting Peralta, reminded him and everybody else that you never know which night you will be the hero or which way you'll be called to be the hero.
Seriously, though, the slow motion.
Mode of Humor: Rosin
The Rockies are mostly joke free. But Bryan Kilpatrick of Purple Row points me to one thing: Apparently, after walkoffs, Gerardo Parra covers teammates in rosin and then acts innocent. Bryan says Parra then blames it on Carlos Gonzalez. (I have not seen proof of this, but if it is not a thing, it should be.) In the above video, somebody -- presumably Parra -- actually covers CarGo.
Post-walkoff dousing is extremely common, but rosin is sticky and really uncomfortable. I'm not sure there is anything in a baseball stadium that would be worse to be covered in. That's the joke.
Root for: The Diamondbacks
Division Series 1
Mode of humor: Yes, and ...
Things go wrong sometimes. You can kick the dirt, you can yell at yourself, you can take a long walk and consider where life went wrong, or you can literally fake it until you absolutely do not make it. The Nationals do not, as far as I can tell, have a team running joke. But they do, uh, joke while they're running:
"Might've been the funniest thing we've seen Ryan (Zimmerman) do in a long time, by the way," Nats announcer F.P. Santangelo says. What I'm getting at is lots of teams use humor to keep things light in the dugout, or to keep things light in the clubhouse, but once they take the field they're all business. Meanwhile, the Nationals keep things light on the field. They're always ready for something funny. Every time you see a National on screen, there's a part of that National thinking about how to make the next moment funny.
Mode of Humor: Try-hard
The rain delay dance party is not original; clips of college teams doing it have been going around for a while. But the Cubs' rain delay dances, as well as their celebration dance parties, are just so good. Like most physical comedy, it's less about inventing something and more about being able to summon something raw and loose. Just watch this and ask yourself why you haven't been dancing like Pedro Strop (front left) this whole time:
Joe Maddon and his Cubs can be a little too twee for every day, and they quote "Anchorman" like everybody else, but there's almost always a good Cubs joke happening when you're in the mood for it. They also invented the fake press conference in the dugout. Never forget that.
Root for: The Cubs
Division Series 2
Los Angeles Dodgers
Mode of Humor: Fake journalism
Example: Yasiel Puig interviews Kenley Jansen
The Dodgers a few years back had the bubble machine that would cover the dugout in whimsy after home runs. Then for a couple years, Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner would pretend to take selfies after home runs. Those were cute. The bubble machine was sort of perfect, and so fun that The Man had to kill it. The selfies became a bobblehead.
This year's Dodgers are still looking for their memorable joke, though. The closest thing to a running gag is Puig bothering teammates during postgame press scrums. He "interviewed" Jansen last week. In August, he blew in Hyun-jin Ryu's ear? While Jansen held a water bottle microphone (?) in front of Ryu? It's not totally clear what the intent here is, and the guys being interviewed never really seem to take these gags (which aren't original!) very well. But that's what we've got. That and Puig kissed a baseball and his hitting coach.
Root for: The Diamondbacks, who also showed very well in the bullpen rain delay.
Then the Diamondbacks in the NLCS, the Indians in the ALCS, and either one in the World Series. Alternately, you can watch the whole postseason a little bitterly, and if anybody asks why you're in a bad mood, just tell them that it's because the Brewers didn't make it into the playoffs.