Czar Selig’s balancing acts

As I write it is Labor Day, comrades, and so we make the turn into the home stretch of another baseball season with the promise of a ripe and rollicking September upon us. Or is it, rather, the illusion?

It’s been another goofy season, never more so than in the last few weeks. By the end of the dog days, the shape of the pennant race should be defined and we should understand what makes the contenders tick and what distinguishes them from the pretenders. That’s the way it used to be. But again this year we come pounding past Labor Day without a keen sense of any of that. Increasingly in this brave new era of intensely fitful baseball under the “Selig Watch” it simply doesn’t happen. It’s difficult to say “why”; difficult even to pin down the dilemma.

But it’s clearly a hodge-podge. Teams rise and fall from week to week. Some collapse overnight, with nary a whimper. There is no rhythm to the thing; no beat. So many are so streaky. There are inexplicable blowouts, bizarre sweeps. Too many games are absurdly lop-sided, ridiculously high scoring, and badly played. Too many teams are too deeply flawed in the fundamentals. Even the best play in fits and spurts. There are no wagons; nothing close to a “great” team with maybe only two (including your own) that could be reasonably considered “quite good” (but not “very good”). The gamblers must be going nuts.

A marvelous logic has always been the key to baseball’s charm. The numbers are supposed to rule. But all of that is askew. Performances are so erratic. Are there a dozen truly consistent players in either league? Sometimes you wonder. Take a look at those earned run averages some day when you truly have lots of time to waste on utter nonsense. Or if self-loathing and ritual debasement are your thing, treat yourself to a game between the Nationals and the Astros some evening on cable. Better still catch the White Sox playing any other AL team any time. Horrifying! Keep in mind that only the year before last, the White Sox beat the Astros in the bloody World Series. This season they are respectively last and next-to-last and a combined 34 games under .500 and counting! The art of the excruciating ‘‘meltdown’’ is another baffling specialty of these curious baseball times.

So there is the question, can anyone legitimately win this thing this year? After a plodding St. Louis Cardinals team that finished the regular season only two wins above .500 did the trick last year, it is a legitimate question. Agonizingly, we have the spectacle of that same team still in the race this season with a record -- naturally of precisely .500. On Labor Day that was good enough to find the Cards only two games off the top in the godawful NL Central where the leader is the eternally snake-bitten, forever vulnerable, and sure to screw it up Chicago Cubs. I tell you, friends, this parity stuff is a mess.

And that’s what it’s mainly all about; a matter of a willfully contrived parity gone wild. In its ultimate manifestation this season, precious parity could eventually produce as champion of all the baseball world the intensely mediocre Milwaukee Brewers who -- as of symbolically huge Labor Day -- are but one game over .500 (69-68) and yet only a game and a half behind those infernal, first-place, Cubs.

Not that one would begrudge Milwaukee such joys. It’s a rock-ribbed town populated by the most red-blooded of Middle-Americans. But this team which has been pretty consistently a joke since Aaron & Matthews and company waltzed away some 40 years ago has no business being a factor in September Baseball, as we have always known and loved it. Nonetheless, we pull for someone -- even the Brewers -- to win the NL Central this year with a losing record if only because it would make baseball a laughingstock. It’s an honor the game, under Czar Selig -- who in his former incarnation was the fairly inept owner of the Brewers -- richly deserves.

Selig is, of course, most responsible for this shallow artifice. Good old Bud is the proud poppa of parity. He made it happen and one admits he’s been quite clever about it. The effect is the illusion of an almost guaranteed garrison finish and a wild and wacky September made possible by a combination of contrivances capped by the sly legerdemain of the wild card concept.

The wild card is the key. But it’s buttressed by a gamut of factors including the wily construction of divisions, creatively imbalanced scheduling, and a dose of interleague play. All these contrivances plus the profound influences of free agency, luxury taxes, and a cleverly rigged amateur draft make certain there will be no dominate teams while in any given year any collection of mediocrities can actually go all the way. Toss in imponderables like the ongoing fiasco regarding biological enhancements...i.e. “drugs”... plus the de-stabilizing impact of money, bad contracts, agents, injuries --bogus and otherwise -- spreading like wildfire, and the crumbling of the cannons that long ruled the game. The net result is a witch’s brew that guarantees something pleasingly off the wall and therefore dramatic.

Selig and the game’s so-called “new breed” love it. It can’t get too irrational, unpredictable, or topsy-turvy for good old Bud. The owners of the Red Sox are charter members of that ‘new breed’, even though Boston is arguably the most traditional of baseball towns. It’s a matter of convenience. If you are in the same division as the Yankees, you gotta love the wild card. Everything is relative. Even in baseball. But there remains a diminishing minority of traditionalists who insist that in a 162-game season covering six full months only the teams with the best records should ever advance to a postseason tournament while a pennant race should have genuine integrity no matter how many little divisions you carve out. It’s that simple.

As we barrel toward the wire, there are only two valid pennant races, both in the NL. The new breeders are chortling about the wildness of the wild card chase while claiming upwards to 11 teams are still viable with less than four weeks to go and saying, “Ain’t it grand!” But that’s nonsense. Realistically you have only five teams contending for the last two playoff spots in the two leagues and all five are gasping and lurching and faint of heart. In the end, it will be mostly a matter of which two are the least pathetic and that ain’t pretty.

Take the Yankees, if you will. This strange team’s death wish has been slugging it out with its better impulses daily since March. Now, with everything on the line, their odd duality looms as ruinous. The Yankees are inscrutable. No alleged contender in memory can feature more marvelous play and more miserable play in the one and same series. When they win they are impressive. When they lose they are awful. There is no middle ground.

In the most recent striking illustration they sandwiched a stunning sweep of the Red Sox with a 16-0 loss to Detroit and a 9-1 loss to Tampa. With a chance to take a firm grip on the wild card, they swooned against the Devil Rays, baseball’s worst team, then rolled over against Seattle, the team they have to beat. In a 19-game stretch of August they posted losses of 15-4, 12-0, 18-9, 10-1, and 16-0. This is a valid contender? What alone gives the Yankees any hope on this Labor Day is the fact that they are dueling with the Mariners, fresh from a nine-game losing streak, and the Tigers, who have lost 27 of the their last 40 games. Thus the wild card becomes “a booby prize.”

As a Red Sox fan you are beaming. But consider that since May your dear boys have been not as good as the Cubs, among many others. And how did they observe the holiday? By edging the Jays, 13-10, with mighty Daisuke-san looking rather less imposing than Andy Sonnanstine. I tell you, it’s downright weird.

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