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Post-season frolics


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If sports are your thing Octobers can be special with all the acts flowering at once. But maybe not so much this year.

Pro-football grinds heavily toward mid-term, but there's as much talk of bounties and concussions as of whatever ails the Patriots.

The hockey season, which normally would be unveiling with glorious promise these increasingly nippy days, can no longer be held to even technically exist. Thanks a ton, Mr. Bettman.

Basketball is gearing up but most of the attention has been on the prancing of all-stars on the continent. What pray tell is that about?

As for the collegians, Boston College -- the alleged local standard bearer -- is 1-5 and sinking, although fair Harvard again fights fiercely. Maybe they can atone for the academic indiscretions of their basketball brethren.

And then there is baseball. No doubt the subject has become anathema to you as you choose to ignore the mood swings at Fenway. Not since since Pinky Higgins got run out of town near a half century ago has there been such skepticism.

Be honest with us, chum. How much precious angst are you prepared to shed over the search for a new manager for the Town Team from a roster of candidates you've never heard of? The game they seem to be playing in the olde ball yard's inner sanctum resembles "pin the tail on the donkey," which may be apt given that's how their last two managers have essentially been treated.

Elsewhere, however, the game thrives and for those lucky towns that qualified this year for the ever expanding post-season cotillion the argument is being made that it's never been better. One concedes some truth to this claim with great reluctance because the obvious contrivances of the new playoff system remain infuriating. There has to be a better, fairer, more honest way of doing it. But until that elusive nirvana is achieved we are left with what we got and however flawed it's working; or at least it has so far this October.

The first two rounds -- including that quirky "play-in" thing staged by the wild-card winners -- have been near spectacular. There was surpassing drama in all four division showdowns.

In the National League, there were the stunning comebacks of the Giants (from two games down) over the Reds and the Cardinals (with a four-run rally in the final inning) over everyone's sentimental choice, the wunderkind Washington Nationals.

In the American League, there was a near classic in the Oakland-Detroit series nailed down by the Tigers only when their ace, Justin Verlander, finally stashed the furious uprising of Billy Beane's upstart A's. Even better was the Baltimore-New York passion play, decided by an Homeric performance by CC Sabathia, and along the way there was after that unforgettable evening Raul Ibanez became a folk hero. But then "heroes" have abounded all over these playoffs, to be out-numbered only by "goats."

Many felt cheated by the demise of the Nationals and Orioles. Government is on the defensive and the nation's capital is getting trashed in this lamentable election season but the two baseball teams that reside there have become immensely popular, and with good reason.

The Orioles' rise under the inspired tutelage of Buck Showalter may have been baseball's nicest rags to riches tale since the Red Sox "Impossible Dream" saga of 1967. But it was the Nats who became the entire region's true sweethearts. A brash young crew, they were thought to be a year away, but under the sage and feisty direction of old-pro Davey Johnson their quantum leap earned them baseball's best record. It was the Capital's merriest summer since the 1933 Senators of Joe Cronin, Heinie Manush, and Goose Goslin, copped their last pennant only to lose the Series -- naturally -- to Bill Terry's Giants.

But you need a silver bullet to thwart the relentless Cardinals who have perfected the dubious art of lying in the weeds for months, biding their time, then striking lethally for a playoff post as the regular season expires. It's quite an act. They've done it four times in the last seven years winning two championships including last year's which they virtually stole from the Rangers. The taming of the Nationals, however, may have been their ultimate coup.

It wasn't pretty. Five times Washington's fuzzy-cheeked kid closer Drew Storen had the Cards down to their last strike in that epic ninth inning Game-Five meltdown and five times he lost the hitter as a dazed Manager Johnson, totally out of options, watched in horror. It was the biggest ninth inning comeback in the deciding game of a playoff series in baseball history, and that's a lot of history. It's also a distinction that only the town that so long prided itself as being "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" could fully appreciate. The Nationals are young as well as foolish. They will be back. Maybe!

The same, alas, cannot be said for your New York Yankees who are certainly no longer young and promising and whose fatal flaws are being dramatically revealed as they tangle with the Detroit Tigers in the AL finals. (Please note: that as this is written they are down two-zip and heading to Detroit to face Grand Master Verlander having been able to score in only one of the 21 innings played the first two games and looking helpless on offense en route.)

It comes as no surprise. We've been trying to bury the Yankees in this space all season. They labored mightily to bury themselves for two months before barely managing to stay the course which admittedly took some grit. That they somehow survived this far -- leading the AL in wins, winning their division, and rebuffing Baltimore's mighty honest first-round challenge -- is rather more inexplicable than remarkable. Sometimes they seem to prevail mainly on reputation. But the Tigers look like they'll buy none of that.

You can say this much for the Yankees. They didn't disgrace themselves with a total tank-job like their erstwhile blood rivals from Boston. But in the end, they may not be much better off. The serious holes in this aging Bronx edition are swelling by the hour.

So far, the playoff's most astounding revelation is their vastly overrated lineup of alleged sluggers. It's not easily verifiable but I'd gladly wager that never in playoff baseball's history have five marquee batsman of the reputation of Brothers Cano, Rodriguez, Granderson, Swisher, and Chavez looked more pathetic. After seven playoff games, they were hitting a collective .108 (12 for 119). The fast fading A-Rod gets all the grief but Robinson Cano (two for 32 in the first seven games) who's allegedly at the top of his game, is the more egregious failure having set in these playoffs a new post-season record by making with his patented nonchalance 26 consecutive outs. Wow!

It's been wonderful theatre and it's not even half over. Indelible are the works of Raul Ibanez, a humble and classy veteran of the baseball wars who can now slide away knowing he'll never be forgotten. Equally a joy to watch have been all the little things Ichiro Suzuki has so long done so well. To get to know the likes of an Ichiro better is ever a pleasure. Then there is Buck Showalter, yet another dandy revelation, nor has his surge in stature been in any way diminished by the fact that his gallant Orioles, were losers in the end. This guy is a leader.

This is the stuff -- alternately wonderful and painful --that sets the playoffs apart, gives them their special character and makes you wish they could last another month.

Though there's still much to come, have we already witnessed the moment that will most endure? That would be the sight of the indomitable Derek Jeter writhing in the dust, the hopes of his team shattered as well. Might his career also have been ended? We have the winter to wonder. There is still much more to come. But in terms of what's memorable that, alas, will be hard to top.

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