August's dog days on the diamonds

Upon us are the dog days of August, so named by the Romans because the withering torpor for which the month is justly famed invariably drove the stray mutts that roamed Rome's streets back then to a pathetic howling that apparently drove everyone nuts.

Skip forward a couple of millennia to a world in which there's no end to the woes that can much more deeply infuriate us with the more colorful and welcome of August's laments coming from the ball yards of the Republic. A passion for baseball creates a splendid diversion from the assorted drudgery the real world routinely conjures and maybe that's never been more the case than in this intensely forgettable summer of 2011.

August brings about baseball's inevitable reckonings. By August, the illusions of spring are spent, the men have been separated from the boys, and reality has dawned. If the proverbial Joe Hardy has not miraculously arrived from Hannibal, Mo. by V-J Day, it is time to start waiting for next year.

For probably 18 of the 30 teams presently composing the major leagues of professional baseball that agonizing moment has officially arrived. It comes a bit earlier than usual this year; more evidence that the disparities that afflict MLB continue to widen.

As this is written, there are eight weeks left in the regular season with every team having nearly a third of the schedule -- roughly 50 games -- left to be played. Technically that's too early either to crown or dismiss any team. At about this point in the 1914 season, the "Miracle Braves" were barely out of eighth and last place and just getting started. In August of 1951, Leo Durocher's Giants were 13 games behind the "Boys of Summer" Dodgers. You need hardly be reminded that in 1978, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox this late by almost as much and the rest was history.

Alas, 1914 was a long, long time ago and so too -- in terms of the harsh realities of baseball -- was 1978. The game's relentless math nowadays is much more binding, and less forgiving.

Realistically, only 12 teams remain in contention for the eight playoff spots in the two leagues. No team, obviously, has been eliminated yet and all 18 of the rest of them will vigorously insist they have the legs for a magnificent surge down the stretch and for about 16 of them they have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup.

It's the usual suspects that dominate the ranks of the true contenders. The perennial dogfight of the high-spending Red Sox and Yanks is, as ever, a given in the AL East, with the loser virtually guaranteed the wild card berth. The race in the west is comparable thanks to the brilliance of Angels' Manager Mike Scioscia. Given their substantial edge in wherewithal, the Rangers should be running away with it. One of these four -- most likely the Angels -- won't make the playoffs and that's probably unfair.

In the end, maybe no Central Division team will deserve a playoff berth but the rules --- soon to be amended -- require it. The Tigers and revived Indians will likely scratch it out to the wire in a gritty battle of deeply flawed mediocrities with the winner dutifully serving as a first round punching bag for whichever titan prevails in the AL East. Technically, the White Sox also contend in the Central but if you've seen them play lately that would seem inconceivable. It's probably a mistake to say so, but you can forget about the Twins.

MLB must be praying whoever wins in the Central finishes with a winning record. The NFL can get away with having a playoff team with a losing record, as in the case of Seattle (7-9) last season. But MLB -- ever held to a much higher standard -- would get crucified.

On the other hand, it was not so long ago that the Cardinals snuck into the post-season barely above .500 and proceeded to go all the way. If either the Tigers or Indians pull off that stunt this year you can officially proclaim that the Age of Miracles has not passed and there may even be hope for Congress.

In the NL, the pitching-rich Phillies are actually meeting the spectacular pre-season expectations that were set for them and rather more so than the Red Sox, one might add. The Phils are on a pace to win 106 games with the second place team in their Division -- the Atlanta Braves -- likely to make the playoffs as the NL wildcard while finishing about 15 games behind the Phils. That's amazing!

In the NL's Central Division -- where mediocrity thrives much as it does in the AL -- the Brewers and Cardinals should grapple to the wire but the Cinderella Pirates, everyone's favorite until they hit the skids in late July, will probably enjoy a record-smashing 19th consecutive losing season. The dismal distinction notwithstanding this franchise is reborn, happily. The decline of the Reds seems irreversible, at least for this season, while the eternally mystifying Cubs finally got their act together much too late.

In the NL West, defending champ San Francisco and uppity Arizona remain cheek to jowl although it would surprise no one if 'Frisco takes off any hour now leaving the D'Backs, who've been goaded much beyond their potential by Manager Kirk Gibson, groveling in the dust. The Giants found adjusting to the loss of superb young catcher Buster Posey notably painful but they're about done with the dilly-dallying.

Overall, it's hardly an ideal scenario. By September, when the pennant races are supposed to be aflame wowing the entire nation, there could be only one great race and that would be our own eternal AL East tong war which for all its exaggerations remains baseball's most compelling theatre.

But think how much better it would be if the Yanks-Sox battle royale were a winner-take-all, life or death epic. In other words, think of how the temperature of the thing might rise if one of these teams faced the prospect of not making the playoffs even though both may well finish with at least 100 wins.

This is the downside of the bloody wild card. In wily and insidious ways it destroys the very concept of the traditional pennant race. The Red Sox and Yankees may continue to slug it out right to the first of October but with both teams already a post-season lock they're only fighting for home field advantage and the bragging rights of their addled constituencies. It will remain interesting. But how much more so might it be if survival itself were at stake.

The wild card is here to stay. Convinced it adds to the drama and swells their profits the moguls will never abandon it. Moreover no team will ever agree to be stranded in the same division with the likes of the Yanks and Red Sox without it. Face it, we're stuck with the wild card. But it can be modified making its effects more reasonable and the best way to do that is to double it. To those who also loathe the darn-fool contrivance that may seem a contradiction. But it's the best choice, at least in the short term, so it's going to happen.

A year from now there will be two wild cards in each league and they'll be forced to engage in an immediate and bloody two out of three showdown with no breaks and a painful travel schedule. In theory all that will make the wild card a much greater burden and therefore something to strive to avoid. All of which "might" juice-up the pennant races. Or at least so goes the theory.

Right or wrong, it's coming. Some prefer a one game shoot-out. But that's just too hairy and raises still more issues. It will be two out of three and it will be here next year and if the resulting extra tier of playoffs stretches the festival on to near Thanksgiving, so be it. Hey, a World Series that ends in a snow storm might get boffo TV ratings.

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