Home stretch

Labor Day having passed it is time for the gun-lap of a baseball season more grand than usual in terms of twists that are improbable and turns that are downright bizarre.

There’s no figuring the thing so why not assume it will end in something entirely ridiculous like the Dodgers, under Joe Torre, seizing a post-season berth with a losing record and then whacking the Cubs, Mets and Red Sox, successively, to win it all as Manny, the much despised, is proclaimed a savior. To conjure the ultimate indignity let’s raise the prospect of Manny becoming MVP of the World Series again, and this time actually deserving it. You might regard that as unspeakable. But the scenario does allow for some grand baseball theatre.

At the Labor Day turn into the stretch run, 16 teams (seven in the AL and nine in the NL) remain in contention for a post-season berth with a “contender” being defined as a team no more than six games out of the playoff derby (i.e. “the wild-card”) with four weeks left to play. The friends of Czar Selig will find in this dramatic arrangement much reason to exult, the “wild-card” being Boss Bud’s very proudest concoction.

But in this space it will be forever argued that it’s a mere contrivance that’s too gimmicky, dilutes the authentic pennant race, and devalues the historically cherished goal of a bloody pennant. Selig, of course, clipped the concept from football where it works mighty well because an entire season in the NFL is little longer in terms of actual contests on the field than an arduous road trip in baseball.

The glory of baseball is the grueling and interminably long season featuring half as many bells to answer as there are days in the entire year. The wild-card winner can finish 20 games behind the team that performs best from March to October and have equal rights in the post-season. That’s absurd. A team with a losing record can make it into the playoffs over seven or eight teams that have wining and even substantially better records, which is something the Dodgers are striving to prove even as we speak, needing only to outlast the equally mediocre Damondbacks. That’s asinine.

It has become arcane, rather like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and it is an issue that -- however dear it remains to traditionalists -- was long ago lost and has a snowball’s chance in hell of being corrected. The baseball moguls love the wildcard. It fattens their wallets. And the television poobahs love the wild-card. It guarantees great melodrama in September, exciting legions of viewers who would otherwise ignore the subject. And if you know anything about television you know that September is the most important month of the year.

Oh, yes! It should also be noted that once again this season your Boston Red Sox would probably be expiring on the last Sunday in September were it not for the wild-card because the Tampa Bay Rays, the nicest baseball story conjured in the last four decades, don’t appear to have any intention of folding.

Interesting. Some believe that the original proponents of the wild-card mainly had in mind the likes of the Red Sox on the grounds that it was unfair for a team to be stuck in a division perennially dominated by an eternal powerhouse, like the Yankees, and thus have no hope of making the post-season even when said team was better than all the other teams in the league. In theory that notion works nicely, but not always in practice.

Whatever, Selig should be delighted this season. Once again, his beloved Red Sox stand to benefit hugely from his clever gimmick. And so do the Milwaukee Brewers, the team of perennial and less than loveable losers that he so long ruled and which his family only recently surrendered. Very interesting!

The list of fascinating little subplots festering as the regular season roars hellbent for election to its climax include:

1.Those astonishing antics in Tampa. What a lovely team the Rays are becoming. Not since the Mets in 1969 and the Red Sox two years earlier has there been a Cinderella tale so fetching. Joe Maddon, their manager, is as compelling a character as Dick Williams, who orchestrated the Red Sox glorious “Impossible Dream” in ’67. Like Williams, Maddon is a surprisingly sharp even faintly intellectual baseball lifer who is shrewd at divining baseball talent and most adept at motivating it. Yet Maddon retains a certain humility, further graced by a splendid sense of humor. An uncommon fellow, Joe Maddon is baseball’s “Man of the Year.” You gotta love these Rays. In August they lost three key performers -- Longoria, Crawford and Percival -- and everyone nodded wisely and predicted they would finally collapse. Whereupon they went 15-4. This team has precious essence.

2. The Minnesota Twins. Is Rod Gardenhire, another crusty lifer straight out of central casting, second only to Maddon among the game’s most learned skippers? As of the writing, his collection of earnest youth you’ve never heard of are but a half game off the top in the AL Central. This was a team so poor it had to degrade itself last winter by raffling off its best player -- Johan Santana -- for roughly fifty cents on the dollar. Yet they are back, brinking on the playoffs as usual. Of all the third-world franchises, the Twins remain the best...

3. Although this year they get an argument from the good burghers of Milwaukee. Can the enormous C.C. Sabathia, at least 75 pounds overweight, drag this tattered franchise which has never, ever won anything to the heights of eminence and then prance off to a nine-figure payoff with the Yankees? Probably not. But if he does, you can be sure that when he gets to the Yankees he’ll be a bust.

4. The Anaheim Angels. They had baseball’s best record all year only to find themselves second to the astounding Rays at the Labor Day marker. It’s a nice team, encountering too many injuries at the wrong time. Look for them to roll over once again should they meet Boston in the post-season.

5. The LA Dodgers, featuring Ramirez, Nomar and the rubber-armed Derek Lowe. Might this be Joe Torre’s sweet revenge?

6. The Mets. Haunted by their epic choke a year ago, all the baseball world roots for them to do it again. After all, this team comes from New York.

7. The Cubs. Stand by for a lot of raffish tales about the 1908 champions starring Tinker, Evers, Chance, Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown and the infamous Harry Steinfeldt. We should root for the Cubs to dispel the ghosts that have ragged on them the last 100 years. The entire sporting world is tired of hearing about it.

8. The Red Sox. Not the best cast they’ve featured since the birth of The Nation but surely the pluckiest. Their resilience of late has been fairly stunning. Terry Francona is having his finest season.

9. The Yankees. They’ve become an inexplicably bad team wrought in the mirror image of the inexplicably flawed Alex Rodriguez. Might Joe Girardi be the latest gaffe in a long line of dumb Bronx blunders?

So there are nine story lines to chew on as we ramble through the month when the days grow short. It’s meaty stuff.