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Opinion
Stretch-bol

By Clark Booth
Posted: 9/9/2011

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In addition to proclaiming the end of summer and the beginning of another school year while offering a sentimental nod to the working class, Labor Day sounds the gun-lap of the baseball season. This year -- as never before -- that traditionally electric moment is being greeted with a lengthy and resounding yawn.

It would take a battalion of nerdy researchers from the Bill James School of aimless and pointless statistical minutiae to either affirm or deny the proposition. But it says here that the 2011 rendition is the most thoroughly and utterly boring batch of MLB pennant races in modern baseball times which roughly means, since WW II. In terms of entertainment value, it borders on the pathetic.

As Labor Day is reached there is only one legitimate division race; the annual and highly uncivil tong-war in your own backyard, my dear Nation. But its importance is negated by the certainty that the outcome (aside from the bragging rights of the yahoo's) is relatively meaningless. Some hope the AL West race yet lives but given how harshly they slapped around your town team over Labor Day weekend you probably agree the prospects of the Rangers choking on a five-game lead over the Angels is unlikely. As for the NL races, forget about it. The same goes for the wild-card shenanigans. As of Labor Day, the wild-card pace setters in both leagues held leads of eight games. Ridiculous!

For sure it's true that now and again when the tides and planets are properly aligned and the cow is jumping over the moon there is some sort of epic comeback that combines with a monumental swoon producing a titanic pennant race conclusion for the ages. The last time it happened was only a couple of years ago when the Mets staged an epic meltdown. But such anomalies are rarer than you think and must be abetted by lovable losers of a classical bent, which is why we remember the 1951 Dodgers and 1964 Phillies and above all the 1978 Red Sox so tenderly.

Face it. This year's conclusion to the six month regular season is the dreariest of the Wild-Card era. Since the concept was introduced 17 years ago it has often artificially juiced late-season interest by perpetuating the illusion of playoff contention well into September, usually for teams that are hardly deserving. It's the cock-eyed notion of Commissioner Selig and his working majority of owner cronies that doubling the wild-card field next year guarantees double the excitement. Ho, Ho, HO!

They are wrong, of course. Adding more wild-cards will inevitably backfire which can be asserted with confidence because every gimmick floated by Czar Bud and his buddies has emphatically failed in the end. No matter, there will be two more wild-cards next year and there's no way of stopping it. Because it creates another playoff tier which guarantees more television money and that has always been what Bud and his fellow hucksters have always been all about.

But this year, they will take a bath and there's almost no way that can be avoided. In the most important month of the season, big games will be few and big crowds rarer still with the usual September buzz building the post-season to a fever pitch being pretty much muted. On Labor Day, the playoff field is virtually set. It will be the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and Rangers in the AL; the Phillies, Braves, Brewers, and Diamondbacks in the NL.

If there was a race that had a faint chance of a revival with a classic collapse remaining a remote possibility it was in the NL West where the scrappy Arizona D-Backs, who lost 97 games a year ago, have been staving off the defending champion Giants the last two months. But on Labor Day weekend, the D'Backs probably finished off the Giants, winning three straight in San Francisco and stretching their lead to seven games. It's a pugnacious team, the mirror image of their manager, the old gridiron groomed Tiger and Dodger slugger, Kirk Gibson.

In the key game of that series, Ian Kennedy, the Yankee's reject, bested Tim Lincecum, the scrawny and floppy haired character who gallantly carried the Giants to their championship last year. With near a whole month to go that was likely the last meaningful game the NL's regular season will feature. Even with a revived Albert Pujols, the Cardinals are not catching the Brewers in the NL Central while the Phillies are running away in the NL East as are the Braves in the wild-card. It's over. Ho hum!

In quaint old Red Sox Nation, little of this will be noticed because -- as Dan Shaughnessy is fond of correctly observing -- "it is always all about us." We live in a bubble, blithely ignoring the extraneous antics of the rest of the rabble. All that matters is that "we" defeat "them." It can get pretty silly. But here we go again with the Red Sox and Yankees contesting furiously over what virtually amounts to -- Absolutely "nothing."

Separated by only a game and a half as Labor Day dawns, the ancient adversaries will again scratch and claw to the wire. Cleverly, the schedule-makers have arranged for them to meet three times the last weekend of the regular season, and it will be at Yankee Stadium as luck would have it. The odds are strong -- maybe even certain -- that the winner of the AL East and the regular season champion of all of Major League Baseball will be decided that weekend.

Can you begin to imagine what that final series might be like if it were not for the bloody miserable wild-card nonsense? In the old world that made so much more sense, we would now be anticipating a world-class opus on the order of those timeless classics of 1949, 1978, 2003, 2004. It would be looming as a "sudden death" showdown with the loser shuffling off in humiliation leaving us to agitate over the thing for the next 50 years and justifying every inch of the interminable bombast that makes this bloated rivalry the best in all of sport. That single series might have proven to be as big as a Super Bowl.

But it won't. Because however interesting, it will have little ultimate relevance while but barely impacting the post-season scenario. They'll be playing for nothing more than home-field advantage in the playoffs and a division title that means little to anybody. Stop the presses!

For this regrettable state of affairs we can thank the infernal wild-card business which essentially guaranteed these two power-houses their comfortable playoff niche back in April. If you live or die for the dear old Rays or Jays it must make you rather sick.

What meaning we should ascribe to the most recent series in which the New Yorkers fought back and won two of three at the lyric little bandbox is vague at best. Doubtless it means little more than their first dozen meetings, ten of which were won by the Fenway's. Media heavyweights who have little better to do, given the boring state of affairs elsewhere in baseball, are working overtime on the question. But in the end it will be clear, as it always has been, that what happens in the regular season is mere foreplay. If they meet in October we will at least and at last have for about one week baseball at its best.

We scrupulously reject making too much of that last series, although the games if too long and tedious were no less fascinating. But it's worth noting that the Red Sox, with all their lofty pretensions this season, rumble past the Labor Day marker and stumble into the home-stretch two whole games behind the Yankees in the ''all-important'' loss column.

When the Red Sox were running wild last winter acquiring choice hired guns at considerable cost while the Yankees were consistently blundering much to the Nation's amusement this is not what the Conventional Wisdom had in mind. It was widely predicted your pets would romp this year.

As of Labor Day, they have not. That much -- if alone -- is clear. And indisputable.