Welcome post-season

Much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so apparently is the value of finishing baseball’s interminably arduous regular season with the most wins thereby ending atop your division in what was -- once upon a time -- loftily proclaimed the bloody pennant race. Nowadays it’s lightly regarded as an amusing trifle and perhaps a bit of a bore.

For, it’s all about October. Only October counts. All the rest, stretching over six months of relentless give and take, is so much “pre-season.” That’s the prevailing wisdom.

It’s also the message coming loud and clear from Red Sox Nation which chooses not to be impressed by the spectacle of the Yankees in their new bullring of a ballpark rising like a clenched fist to re-claim their familiar dominance. “Big deal,” says the Nation. Strikes me they may be whistling their way past the graveyard.

Because what the Yankees have accomplished over the last four months is both arresting and significant. For such few Red Sox adherents who have not yet become addled by the childish hype and twisted propaganda that Fenway’s new regime peddles so brilliantly the resurrection in the Bronx should properly be considered chilling. Diminishing it is delusional.

The facts, as ever, are useful. With a week of garbage time left (as this is written) the Yankees’ lead is eight and a half games. That means their record since early July is 14 games better than the Red Sox mark over that span. When you lead a team over fully half a season by 14 games you are steam-rolling them. Since mid-May -- and the now celebrated return of Alex Rodriguez from his own little Elba out in the Rockies -- the Yankees have a record of 85-39 for a winning percentage of .686 which projects over a full season to 111 wins. Only about a half dozen teams in the entire history of baseball have played at a better clip over a full season.

Finishing the division race with another sweep at the new Stadium giving them nine wins in their last ten meetings punctuated New York’s resurgence. It could not have been more satisfying. And you have to think -- their protestations aside -- that the Red Sox very much wanted to deny the Yankees the great pleasure of a champagne bath while they were still on the premises.

But they simply could not do it and that cold fact is instructive. Ignore the brave talk of the fans from whom such talk is cheap. Dismiss the rationalizations of the players who play such games out of necessity. Spurn the silly ravings of the media apologists, too many of whom are too beholden to the owners. Why, there was one high-priced local columnist who actually argued -- presumably with a straight face -- that the Red Sox were being ‘smart’ to arrange to finish second. As if it were a tactical advantage. Such utter nonsense! For the Red Sox, the long season’s odd twists were not pleasing and the final sweep in New York cut deep. If in the end it didn’t mean that much, it was no less humiliating.

The playoffs are different. Everyone insists on that and it’s true. Home field advantage is less meaningful, as the success of wild-card teams -- notably including the Red Sox -- attests. Two dominant pitchers can carry a team all the way and many pundits believe the Red Sox have the premium pair of aces in Brothers Beckett and Lester. Experience is a huge factor and the Yankees key new operatives collectively have little. Above all there’s the axiom holding that a hot team can run the board, thus making less relevant whatever anyone did all season. Keep in mind no team approaches the playoffs hotter than the newly re-minted Bronx Bombers.

Of course they have -- as of this writing -- 10 days to cool off and it has happened before. A decade ago the Seattle Mariners were torrid for an entire season winning at an historic clip only to bow out with barely a whimper in the playoffs. It was, of course, the Yankees who did them in. But then that was a very different Yankee team. More recent editions have been faint-hearted when the going gets rough.

Have Messrs. Sabathia and Teixeira changed all that over-night? Has the reformed, more humble, less celebrity driven A-Rod acquired post-season fortitude to go with his new, less frivolous slant on life? Will the manic Steinbrenners come out of the closet and ratchet emotions to intolerable heights? Will the exaggerated demands and outsized expectations of the Manhattan merry-go-round yet devour Joe Girardi, an intense baseball scholar from Northwestern, a serious school.

There are so many intriguing questions and anyone who says he knows the answers you should neither believe nor trust.

Ordinary teams can get lucky and ride a hot hand for maybe a month. The Colorado Rockies of two years ago are a wonderful example. They blazed through September and stole some playoff rounds only to look like the Bad News Bears in the World Series against Boston. But it’s a rare team (other than the Mariners) that can stay hot for four months on luck alone.

It was the next to the last week of the regular season that may have established the measure of these Yankees. They had begun to squirm losing a series against Baltimore and another in Seattle while Boston won 10 of 11 chipping four games off what had been a nine game New York lead. It seemed the door of doubt about this team might at long last be opening; whereupon they decisively slammed it shut by winning five straight taut, well played, highly emotional games against their two bitterest foes, the Angels and Red Sox. If the Yankees hold up and go all the way, this short but revealing stretch will be seen as their passage to championship stature.

We should keep in mind that it’s not just about the Red Sox and Yankees, the temptation to see their relationship as the yardstick, not withstanding. But it’s hard to conceive of either the Tigers or Twins beating the Yankees in round one even if it’s indisputable that anything can happen in a short series. Still, if A-Rod implodes again and Sabathia loses the opener all hell could break loose in Gotham.

More possible is an Angels triumph over the Red Sox if only on the grounds that it’s not likely for it to take 86 years for the gritty Angels to rid themselves of their Red Sox hex, now 23 years in the running. Somehow the suspicion holds that it won’t happen this year. Another round of cosmic Red Sox-Yankee bloodletting rife with all the usual epic folderol seems written on the wind.

With the winner -- inevitably -- a sure shot to go all the way. Rumor persists the NL is improved and has closed the quality gap with the long, vastly better, more interesting AL. Moreover, it’s a fact Philadelphia’s Fighting Phils (that’s what they like to call themselves) are the defending champs having prevailed a season ago over those one year wonders from Tampa, the Rays, who have lately disappeared altogether.

The Phils are back in the post-season but they’ll find either the Red Sox or Yankees a rather more formidable foe, should it come to that. With a week left, the Rockies and Braves vie for the NL wild card. Pull for the Braves in a tribute to the noble Bobby Cox. Moreover, the Rocks should be indefinitely banned from the Series for their pathetic showing in ’07. People rave about the Cardinals’ pitching but in a short series it would be too easy to pitch around Albert Pujols, who composes near their entire offense. And then there are the Dodgers.

No doubt LA is the sexiest possibility. Consider the box office and ratings appeal of the match-up of Joe Torre versus the Yankees? Or Manny Ramirez versus the Red Sox? But frankly I’ve had enough of both of them. With apologies to W.C Fields, all things considered I’d rather play Philadelphia.