On the eve of another "October Classic" that may, with a rain out or two, end in November, I find I have little difficulty containing my excitement in anticipation of the first pitch, to be thrown at about 8:30 on a frigid and/or soggy late October eve in the Windy City. For those of you who have been tuned out for the past three weeks of "post-season" play, it’s the Houston Astros, another wild card "champ" that made it to the finals, against the Chicago White Sox in the best of seven.
I used to wonder about people who only look in on baseball during the World Series. For many of us old-time baseball fans, each baseball season is like a great drama or a symphony, played out over eight months. The exhibition games, played under a warm and friendly Florida sun in the otherwise morbid month of March, is the prologue, or the overture. The "real" games, beginning in April and played through the spring and summer, are the individual scenes or movements, advancing the plot or expanding the theme. It builds to a climax or crescendo in late August through September. And then comes "post-season play."
Now I know there are people who like to arrive "fashionably late" at the theater, but few, I suspect, want to wait until the last act. I know of many people who would not walk across the street to see an opera free of charge, but I know of no one who wants to get there only moments before "the fat lady sings." And much of the great drama known as baseball comes in determining who gets to go to the World Series, that spring-through-summer struggle formerly known as the "pennant race." If you wonder why I say "formerly," consider the following:
The final weekend of this year’s "regular season," — Friday through Sunday, September 30 to October 2 — had the top two teams in the American League East and the top two in the American League Central going head to head, with a first-place finish on the line. It would have been a perfect ending to a marvelous season, but for the fact that it did not, in the end, mean anything.
The Cleveland Indians could, with a three-game sweep, finish the long 162-game season in a flat-footed tie with the Chicago White Sox. No matter. The "ChiSox" would enter post-season play as AL Central Champs. In the East, the Boston Red Sox took two out of three in their bitter rivalry with the New York Yankees and did, in fact, finish with a record identical to the New Yorkers’. Time for a one-game playoff, with the ghost of Bucky "Bleepin’" Dent lurking in the background, right?
No, not anymore. Thanks to the "hockeyfication" of baseball, it didn’t really matter on the final weekend of the season who won what at Fenway Park. The teams finished in a tie, so the Yankees, who beat the Red Sox ten times during the regular season, went into the Divisional Series as the AL East champs, while the Bostons, who beat the "Evil Empire" nine times from April through October, entered the same round of playoffs as the American League Wild Card Champion. So what was decided in that mock-epic, season-ending battle in Boston was which team would fly to Anaheim and which would fly to Chicago to start the "post-season." Ironically, the Yankees, who emerged as AL East champions had to fly roughly twice as far to open on the road as Boston’s Wild Card champs did.
Yes, in this egalitarian age, second place can be a "championship" finish. Baseball used to be different. As recently as a dozen years ago, a season-ending tie for first place would have been high drama and excitement for the fans of the teams involved and, indeed, for fans all around the baseball world. For one day, that world would stop as the two teams met in a "sudden death" playoff for the top spot and the right to go on to post-season play. Thus, that season-ending series in Boston would have had fans on pins and needles, some even on bridges and window ledges. No more. Now we have a "formula" for figuring out who gets the championship and who becomes the wild card. The formula is called a "tiebreaker." Welcome to NFL baseball.
Welcome also to the winter game, the Brrrr! Series. The World Series used to be played in early autumn, on warm, sun-drenched October afternoons. Fifty autumns ago, Brooklyn won its only World Series, defeating the Yankees, 4 games to 3. Game 7 was played on October 4. That was before the phrase "post-season play" was invented. There was only the World Series and only pennant-winners, those teams that finished the regular season in first place, were invited. Now, after a 162-game regular season, there are two rounds of playoffs just to get to the World Series, which begins in late October and ends, if all goes well, sometime around Halloween.
Now, I know my beloved Red Sox would have had to go home last year under the old pre-Wild Card rules and would not have been around to knock off AL East Champ New York and go on to sweep the heavily favored Cardinals in the World Series. In fact, none of the past 3 World Series winners would have made it to the Fall Classic in the old days. It has become commonplace now for the runner-up from one of the better divisions to win the whole ball of wax. But it’s still not right.
But it is OK. This year, I was again rooting for the American League Wild Card Champion. I may be a traditionalist and a baseball purist, but I am not disinterested. I’m still a Sox fan — the Red Sox, that is, the 2004 World Series champions who this year were eliminated in the first round of post-season play.
Wait ’til last year!
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.