The Stretch

And so we reach Labor Day, comrades, whereupon the rallying cry of the stretch run on to the post-season is sounded. You may dimly recall when this season was being heralded as wildly promising and shaping up, as late as the all-star break, as a scorcher to the very wire in at least four of the six divisions.

Instead we have a ho-hum September with all six pennant races almost certainly decided and even the wild-card contrivances virtually resolved. This season was over in August. It’s such a fascinating game, this baseball. It’s possessed of utterly no logic.

As of Labor Day, the average lead held by the six division front-runners was almost eight full games. So much for Chairman Bud Selig’s precious parity. No doubt the Chairman finds even more discouraging the fact that the six teams comfortably nestled in the division cellers -- the Orioles, Royals, A’s, Nationals, Bucs and Padres -- are the very same wretched and hopeless band of six who won the booby prizes last year. How very depressing!

This is not the way it is supposed to work. At least 20 teams are expected to be in meaningful contention over the last month with the battles for the wild-card turning livid. This year some say there are 10, but I think that’s a stretch.

All the little tricks that have been adopted, led by the devilishly clever sharing of the wealth schemes, are supposed to guarantee constant turnover, curb the growth of dynasties, and insure a happy competitive balance for all those miserable small market teams. Last year, the gallant Tampa Bay Rays were exhibit “A” and everyone’s pet. This year, they were last seen being wasted by the Yankees in an old fashioned holiday double-header while free-falling a mere 17 games out of first place.

If the shape of things on Labor Day holds up -- and that’s a virtual lock -- six of the game’s top eight payrolls will be merrily featured in the post-season frolics with the top four payrolls in the American league all making it and doing so rather casually, if you please. This can be politely described as the honorable Chairman’s worst possible nightmare. Although only in baseball could it come as some sort of surprise that you get what you pay for.

More to the point, this bummer of a September will cost everyone a chunk. Given solid races, baseball invariably draws huge houses the last month of the regular season. But with only a tender few enticing match-ups these last four weeks the hit will hurt and it’s a bit of a shame because it takes some of the luster off what’s been a remarkable showing by the game, at least in the business sense.

Through August, MLB attendance was down only 6.8 percent. There is no industry under the sun that would normally consider such a dip in sales ‘‘minor.’’ But this is no “ordinary” industry, nor are these remotely “normal” times. MLB owners were scared silly over the winter when the prospects of what was being predicted as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression (that classic misnomer) had them bracing for potential disaster.

Baseball games are, after all, a luxury item in most budgets. With the squeeze on everyone’s disposable income, the expectation was for baseball to get whacked. During the off-season experts were predicting the dip in attendance to be a lot closer to 20 percent, some three times what it has been. It was on that basis that player’s salaries were actually driven down a tad, for the first time in memory and you can look for the players union to have a lot more to say about that in the coming off-season.

There are solid reasons for the fact that disaster appears to have been averted. The hit on the economy -- bad as it has been -- was not as grave as many anticipated and the bend in that road came earlier too while the national spirit, which was totally in the pits only nine months ago, has improved markedly. In the end, though, much of the credit should go to the game itself. It is a tribute to Baseball and its magical hold on the national psyche. Despite the hard times and the vulnerability of sports in general in times of stress, and the abominable publicity wayward characters in the game continue to draw, and the incessant bleat of the doomsayers, Baseball prevails. Once again!

Average attendance through August was 30,532 per game. That’s every game. Not just the ones played by the high and mighty for lofty stakes in fancy and highly endowed baseball towns like Boston, New York, Philly and LA but also in all those tired third world baseball outposts like Pittsburgh and Seattle, Toronto, K.C, Washington (Amen) and Miami. It is quite remarkable.

Can a fabulous finish with a superb post-season struggle capped by an epic World Series place with great gusto a flaming punctuation point on all of this reaping both financial and artistic rewards for the game that much exceed whatever anyone might have hoped for in these especially trying times? This is what we yearn to see.

Here is an early handicap on our probable post-season combatants, as they are viewed on Labor Day.

National League

Colorado Rockies. Although possibly San Francisco -- led by the indominitable Brad Penny -- could make it instead and one rather hopes so given Colorado’s abominable effort in the series two years ago. As long as it is not Miami (aka Florida). Be thankful it won’t be the tiresome Cubs. It hardly matters. Whoever it is they’ll be gone in about four days.

St. Louis Cards. Great Pitching. Tony LaRussa at the height of his powers with Albert Pujols in orbit and seeking a cosmic moment. Some say this is the dark horse. Many ex-Red Sox starring for them adds to the drama. Call it the revenge of Julio Lugo.

LA Dodgers. They were steamrolling until Manny came back from Elba. Since then they have been a quite average .500 team and Joe Torre has blown up another bullpen. Baseball’s most over-rated team managed by baseball’s most overrated manager.

Philadelphia Phillies. Everything is going their way and yet why is it so hard to see this team as a “repeat?” Given the disparity between the two leagues a second straight NL World Series coup is unthinkable.

American League

Detroit Tigers. You will always get your money’s worth from a team managed by Jim Leyland but these Tigers have merely prevailed over baseball’s most disappointing division. They might not last as long as the Rockies.

California Angels. The smart choice. They laughed off crippling injuries to breeze, wire to wire, in what proved to be a much tougher division than expected. They may not have yet played their best baseball which is scary. What if they get healthy?

Boston Red Sox. Somewhat inscrutable. By every measure, they are in big trouble. The mysterious evaporation of Daisuke Matsuzaka speaks volumes. The offense does not inspire the dread it once did, no matter the statistics. But the manager is better than many recognize and they have players like Pedroia, Lowell, Lester and Youkilis who do not lightly pack it in. Less mighty than the ’04 and ’07 champs, they may yet be even spunkier. One writes them off with peril. On the other hand, they led by five games over the Yankees not so long ago and now, as of the writing, they trail by 14. Make of that what you will.

New York Yankees. Since mid-May, when they were 13-15, they have a record of 74-43 for a winning percentage of .691 which translates to 112 wins over the full season and if they continue the pace they have played at since the all-star game they will finish with 105 wins which has been surpassed only a handful of times. This is very impressive. But did they peak too soon?

Now that is the question. Truly!

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