For many years now we’ve been enduring the Postseason. Capital “P” Postseason (™). That’s the official brand name for Major League Baseball’s sequence of elimination games culminating in the World Series. The Postseason has its own logo, which is constantly displayed on broadcasts and promos, and these days when commentators or players talk about October or November (or someday December) baseball, they don’t call it the Playoffs or the Gauntlet or the Shitstorm, they call it the Postseason. The brand is strong. Players, managers, and umps sport the Postseason logo; the MLB app on my phone has a special Postseason icon; and you can still buy an official Mets hat that says POSTSEASON bigger than it says anything else, never mind that the Mets Postseason was no season at all.
The Oxford English Dictionary claims a venerable history for the word “postseason” or “the period following the regular season” chiefly used in North American sports. But the earliest reference, from 1882, has nothing to do with sports. It’s in the writing of Paul du Chaillu, an explorer. Du Chaillu was in arctic Norway among the Sami (whom du Chaillu referred to as the now-derogatory “Laplanders”), trying to get from Karasjok to Kautokeino. He went to the “post station,” the archaic word for a transportation hub. But it wasn’t post season. It was May, and there were no sleighs or reindeer to be found. Stuck, Du Chaillu hung around and observed. He watched a funeral. Burials, he noted, were often saved for the thaw, when finally you could dig deep enough. During post season, the dead were thrown in a pit.
The OED’s first Postseason baseball reference occurs more than 100 years later, in 1987. It refers to Dwight Gooden, who at the time was 0-3 in Postseason play (perhaps he needed that Mets hat). Of course, during most of that 100 years, there was no need for a special term for latter day baseball. There was just a World Series. Then in 1969 there were two more series, and then two more, and now four more games thrown in. The term Postseason clearly had a spike in usage after the introduction of the Division Series in the mid-nineties but (according to my unscientific searches of the New York Times) “Postseason baseball” really entered the lexicon in the 2000s when Fox took over a good deal of the broadcasting. It did not arrive through a slow, natural creep, but by force.
A Youtube search of TV promos shows one engine of the Postseason idea: Back in 1978 there was “playoff excitement” on ABC. By 1999 there was a low-fi logo-less Postseason on NBC, By the mid-2000s, the postseason logo was crashing the party after Bon Jovi’s or Kid Rock’s inspirational baseball ballads. A look in the dugouts shows another level of planned Postseason saturation. In 2012 MLB, in an attempt to get more of a March Madness vibe, made all the players wear essentially identical gray Postseason hoodies. This year they are still decked out in branded, if slightly less monolithic, Postseason gear. When I called Major League Baseball a few times to ask about the origin of the Postseason brand, no one called me back. The Postseason isn’t worth questioning. It’s now part of the corporate machine.
Postseason is a sad, bureaucratic term. The overall winner of the Postseason even wins a sad bureaucratic trophy, “the Commissioner’s Trophy,” named after sport’s CEO. It’s too bad because it’s a beautiful time of year. It’s October. The leaves are falling. There are tense at bats and strange pitching changes. The air is rich with possibility and dread. The Postseason does not evoke baseball’s magical transformation from languid to intense (and yet still fantastically languid). It reminds me instead of big and unsatisfying ideas from the late 20th century: postmodernism, poststructuralism, posthumanism. Perhaps this is just the academic in me, but Post-ness suggests a perpetually belated period that can only be defined by what went before, a period when everything always already happened, perhaps in a more organized and coherent way. Post history. Post mortem.
Maybe this is a good thing. After all, 162 games should mean something, and for those of us who root for teams that are probably most exciting in the preseason, when there is hope and promise, calling this playoff baseball post or after or extra or unnecessary could provide some solace. It’s only the postseason after all. By this logic, if the Cubs lose again, it may not be a big deal. We can all remember how great the Cubs were during the SEASON SEASON.