Labor day marker

Bearing down on the Labor Day marker signaling the turn into the stretch run of another baseball season the urgency of the hour is overwhelming. It's been a wacky season. So, with a month to go, in what passes for pennant races nowadays, we have the following phenomena, ranging from the improbable to the downright silly.

Of the teams that have either dominated or perennially contended over the last decade -- the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels in the AL and the Dodgers, Cardinals, Phillies, Cubs and Mets in the NL -- it's likely no more than two will be around to belly up to the bar come this October. And it's possible there will be no more than one; either the Phillies or Yankees.

On the other hand, those riding high and appearing to be for real include such long term sob sisters as the Padres, Rangers and Reds, all having a firm grip on a playoff spot with a month left. A fourth 21st century outcast -- the Giants -- are but a game out of the NL wild-card, as of the writing. Of the usual suspects (along with the inevitable Yankees) only the Twins and Braves -- neither of them heavy spenders -- top their divisions heading into the stretch, although Atlanta is vulnerable should the Phillies snap out of their season-long sleepwalk.

So, what does it all mean? Seemingly, that the riches are spreading. Even though abuses persist, profit-sharing gimmicks are working. The renewed fierce devotion to development and youth looks wiser than ever. While the premium on free agency and the oafish big-footing with big-bucks looks chancier than ever, although admittedly that may come as news to such as the Yanks and Red Sox.

Bud Selig's so cleverly contrived parity isn't as much a factor this year. This September, only a dozen teams realistically vie for the eight playoff posts whereas in recent years 20 or more has been the norm down the stretch. Concomitantly, the ranks of the sad sack teams are swelling. At least seven are hopelessly adrift and were effectively eliminated by Mother's Day; the Orioles, Royals, Indians and Mariners in the AL; Pirates, Nationals and D'Backs in the NL. Honorary mention in this dreary category goes to the Cubs as a means of congratulating them on their latest ritual sacrifice of a fine manager who deserved much better, Lou Piniella.

If there is to be good old-fashioned pennant race hysteria at the end of the regular season it will have to be in East. In the NL, the Braves will have to scratch to hold off the Phillies who are finally getting healthy. And then there is the AL East where the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays rank as three of the entire game's five best teams and the Blue Jays are the best of the spoilers. Why, even the Orioles under new no-nonsense boss Buck Showalter are no longer patsies. It's essentially a lock that two AL East teams will make the playoffs. Which two and in what order remains the best regular season story yet to be told.

Credit the Red Sox for spunk. Having endured manpower losses totaling almost a thousand games to the disabled list they should be totally tuned out by now. For refusing to allow that to happen Terry Francona should be manager of the year. But if it's not Francona it has to be Joe Maddon, the delightfully urbane and witty sophisticate who pulls the Rays' strings. I remain convinced this Tampa team is not as good as it plays, although their young pitching is dandy. Maddon is the key. He's your veritable breath of fresh air, although he does tend to over-work his bullpen.

Still, it's not so much what these two have done but what the Yankees haven't that shapes this race. Clearly, Brian Cashman outwitted himself in the off-season. He messed needlessly with a nice winning equation somehow failing to understand how vital slick role-players Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Jose Molina and Jerry Hairston Jr. were to the subtle chemistry of a champion. Cashman's major off-season deals for Curtis Granderson and Javy Vazquez, costing him promising young talent, are beginning to look disastrous. He may have scored well on the acquisition of reliever Kerry Wood at the trade deadline but the more notable deadline pick-up of aging slugger Lance Berkman is backfiring big-time.

While they cling to the top they increasingly look to be rescued by the young and unproven likes of Eduardo Nunez and Ivan Nova even as their own share of nicks and bruises mounts. This was not in the Bronx masterplan. They'll get little sympathy from those left to wonder what might have been had the Red Sox not limped into September with five regulars -- including their three most important offensive forces -- on the DL for the duration.

Injuries are the season's wildcard. No team is immune. But as an excuse, few want to hear it, even from a team like Boston that has a legitimate gripe. If Andy Pettitte, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, and Alfredo Aceves don't get healthy and rebound promptly the Yankees may survive the regular season but won't make it past Columbus Day. And if that happens it's the GM who will get tagged as the ''goat.'' It's the price he'll pay for oddly reckoning he was better off with Nick Johnson and Randy Winn than Messrs. Damon and Matsui.

For those of you lusting for a garrison finish, the September schedule greatly favors the Rays, does little to encourage the Red Sox, and most heavily burdens the Yankees.

The Yankees meet the Rays and Red Sox 13 times but also have six games with those tough cookies, the Jays and Rangers and only six with teams with losing records. The Red Sox have nine with the Yanks and Rays, three with the Jays, and seven with Ozzie Guillen's wild, crazy and still contending White Sox, freshly reinforced by Manny Ramirez. Who needs that? Along with nine dates with Boston and New York the Rays have 16 games with four losers, three of them -- the Royals, Mariners and Orioles -- being doormats. Tampa's schedule advantage is huge.

So, here's betting it will end up with the Rays, Rangers, Twins and wildcard Yankees making the AL playoffs with either the Twins or Rangers going to the Series as the powerful influence of the AL East begins to wane. To make it, the Rangers must get healthy. Presently they have mainstays -- Brothers Kinsler, Cruz, Young and MVP favorite Hamilton -- either down for the count or playing hurt. Remember! It's all about the injuries.

The choice here is the Twins skippered by that old fox, Ron Gardenhire, one of the best. If he steals a crown for his low budget, small-market, heavily traditional, god fearing, and stoically mid-western Twins it would be a terrific story.

One would like to come on strong about the National League contenders. But who ever sees any of these guys in action other than in stray, chopped-up, clips on ESPN. What you mostly hear from the senior circuit has to do with scandal, despair, and chronic futility. Biggest NL stories include the misadventures of the Dodgers' dancing divorcees, the Mets meltdown, the Pirates 18th straight losing season, the Cubs 102 year championship drought, Stephen Strasburg's two-month flirtation with immortality, etc.

Some rise above such clutter. The Braves have been gallant in seeking to send Bobby Cox into retirement on a high note. The Phillies gasp but the Giants, left moribund by Barry Bonds, are revived. The Padres dare try to match the epic stunt of the Red Sox in 1967. Charming but unlikely! The growing rage is the Reds and their Bunyonesque slugging sensation, Mighty Joey Votto. The myth precedes him.

The Twins and Reds in the Series? Why not! The network will love it.

It's Baseball's "September Song" that we're singing and, with apologies to the estimable Kurt Weill, the bottom line in our variation goes; "It's a long, long time from March to November. But the days grow short when you reach September." Indeed!

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