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Last lap


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With their penchant for celebrating select nuggets from their rich history, the Red Sox may be girding to observe one of the choicest yet; the 110th anniversary of the first World Series ever played. That would be, of course, the 1903 epic waged amidst much controversy between the Pirates of Honus Wagner and the Pilgrims (then the BoSox pseudonym) of Cy Young.

Now -- light years later, in terms of baseball time -- there's the chance they could meet at the brink again, at long last. You can just imagine what a sentimental frolic they will make of that, should it somehow happily happen. And, as we bear into this season's stretch, that's plenty possible.

No team revels more in its history -- checkered as it may be -- than the Red Sox. But the process is highly selective. You don't catch them fondly recalling the sale of Babe Ruth in 1920, or the outrageously flummoxed Jackie Robinson tryout in 1945, or the playoff disaster forever to be remembered as the "Denny Galehouse moment" in 1948; even if all such occasions remain super salient in their rocky annals.

The magic of 1903, on the other hand, squares perfectly with the governing rubric obliging that only the sweet stuff need be recalled. Although at the time, controversy indeed abounded. The feisty upstart American League, then in its third year, remained deeply offensive to the venerable National League, which had been around since 1876, and with good reason. Most of the stars in the new league had been brazenly stolen from the old one.

To get rolling in 1901, the Pilgrims had essentially robbed the cross-town NL Boston Braves, swiping the illustrious Denton True Young, then averaging 30 wins a season, star third baseman Jimmy Collins, nicely doubling as manager and also ultimately ticketed for the Hall of Fame, classy centerfielder Chick Stahl, a .351 hitter just a year earlier, and the game's top slugger, Buck Freeman who in '03 would lead the AL in both homers and RBI. Compounding their felony they'd further stolen Big Bill Dinneen, a 20-game winner, and catcher Lou Criger from the St. Louis Cardinals. Small wonder the NL's contempt for the AL was off the charts.

Less than 20 years later, the baseball gods unleashed what the fair-minded might consider appropriate vengeance. But it's interesting to note that in all the weeping and wailing over the Yankee's theft of Red Sox treasure made possible by Harry Frazee's legendary skullduggery you hear nothing of the comparable crimes of those early Pilgrims.

Whatever, the suggestion that League winners should meet in October to decide the "championship of the world" were understandably met with the older league's total scorn in both '01 and '02. In what may have been Baseball's loftiest act of pure statesmanship the truly great Barney Dreyfus, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- braving the considerable fury of his fellow NL owners -- unilaterally buried the hatchet and accepted the AL's challenge in '03, thus giving birth to the World Series.

Proving once again that no such nobility ought go unpunished Boston's young hotshots stunned Barney's Pirates, five games to four. It was deemed both a shocking upset and a disgrace to the NL. Dinneen won three games; Young two. The next year, John McGraw's Giants told Connie Mack's A's to take a hike. No Series!

Still, Boston and Pittsburgh had ushered in a new age that would survive even the tantrums of a McGraw. Their bond was and is historically vital.

But if they were the first dance partners in the very first Fall Classic rooted way back in the first presidential term of Teddie Roosevelt, no less, the Bucs and Sox have since had no relationship; that is if you exclude from consideration as I do their fistful of little noted and meaningless interleague tilts lately played and quickly forgotten.

Granted, it's a stretch. But this wistfully conceived cosmic re-match of the Bucs and Bosox seems about the most fetching postseason possibility in what's been an alternately blah and troubled baseball season too much permeated by scandal, recrimination and doubt. A-Rod won't be MVP. But it's his role in 2013's miserable turbulence that will no doubt be better remembered, alas, than anything etched by a Miguel Cabrera or Yuseil Puig.

The possibilities of redeeming dramatics in September are not good. As the horn sounds on Labor Day proclaiming the stretch run we have two legitimate races and four foregone conclusions. That's not good if, as is the case with a significant majority, September is the time you get really interested! That could change. It sometimes does. But in three of the runaways, the lead on Labor Day is at least eight games and in two, it's in double figures. Forgetaboutit!

The fourth race that seems nearly resolved is the AL East rumble where for fully a decade baseball's best and hottest competition has been featured. We have news for you. That's no longer the case. Bragging rights have moved on.

On Labor Day, the lead of your Fenway Pets in the East stands at five games. They've blown bigger leads, of course. Unforgettably, they cratered a seven-game lead in about two weeks back in 1974. The memory of the epic meltdown of 2011 remains vibrant. We'll always have 1949 and 1978. The nagging possibility of the utterly unthinkable remains imbedded in their DNA. But it's not going to happen this year because none of their foes really wants it.

Two races -- one in each league -- remain viable and they could and should rumble hell-bent to the last weekend. Again this year, Maestro Billy Beane has his low budget, no name, merrily blissful overachievers from Oakland giving the much more touted and handsomely paid Texas Rangers fits. What does it say of the A's that they have four Red Sox rejects in their starting lineup? On Labor Day, the A's and Rangers are tied. One of these years the A's will go all the way and the entire nation will stand up and cheer.

It's in the NL that the best race persists in what's become baseball's best division and it's a dandy. With the sounding of the gun-lap, three games cover the Pirates, Cards and Reds with Pittsburgh momentarily on top by a single game. They'll be playing one another all month, again and again. It should be terrific and the sizzling finish could yield the best bet for the post-season. All three are virtually-certain to make the playoffs with the two that fall short near sure to be the wildcards as the next closest wildcard contender, Arizona, is eight astern. No way!

All of which leaves the question of the AL wildcard sweepstakes. The issue has become hyper-contrived and all the more bogus because the two teams that make it qualify for an utterly suicidal one-game winner-take-all playoff that leaves the survivor in terrible shape for the next playoff round. They've at last succeeded in whittling the wildcard concept down to size. But it raises the question; why even bother having them?

For the record, only five AL teams (three from the AL East) are legitimately in wildcard contention; all five clustered within a six game span, albeit fewer than has been the case in recent years. In what might be the seventh wonder of the modern baseball world, still contending are the totally ravaged New York Yankees encumbered by a Biblical siege of misfortunes all season long. If they yet again make it to post season Joe Girardi is the Manager of the Year and maybe the decade. Even if they survive only 24 hours.

The smart money says in the end it will be the Tigers against the Dodgers for all the marbles. But here we pull for that Boston-Pittsburgh showdown that might, in some curious way, vaguely satisfy the pangs of an unfulfilled history. In a season such as this, it's about the most you can hope for.

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