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Opinion
October-ball

By Clark Booth
Posted: 10/5/2007

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 A madcap finish that turned the National League into a shambles over the last 72 hours of the regular season has the poobahs of baseball beaming. That bloodied but unbowed and bespectacled chap wearing the Cheshire grin, stretching ear to ear, is Czar Selig, chief poobah.

He has much to exult over with all three N.L. races being decided in the last desperate hours; one of them via an agonizing playoff. Major market towns of New York and Philadelphia are left scorched with emotion as heroes and goats are minted by the dozen in the spectacular afterglow of summer’s fading embers. It’s just like old Bud dreamed it could be when he set in motion the sequence of contrivances that have brought parity to full flower.

How does it get any better than that, they ask? With all of it but a prelude to October and -- as they keep hammering into our heads -- ‘‘there is only one October.’’ Indeed! But does the raucous run to the wire promise an epic-post-season? Probably, not.

All the last second melodrama not withstanding, the N.L. remains stunningly mediocre. Only one team (Arizona) staggered to the level of 90 wins, considered the minimum for mere contention. In the N.L., teams make the playoffs by default. The ‘‘Fighting Phils’’ -- as the league’s eternal punching bag from the ill-tempered city of brotherly love calls itself -- will forever testify to that.

That was not an ordinary, old-fashioned collapse that was so quaintly executed by the New York Mets. It was a nuclear meltdown. Give the scrappy Phils credit for having hung around long enough to pick up the pieces. But you should also weep for the Mets, no matter your antipathy for all things New York. What happened to them was horrific.

In fact it becomes officially the most egregious swoon in the game’s near infinite annals, eclipsing even the Phillie’s fiasco of 1964, the Dodgers’ legendary nightmare in 1951, and the Red Sox epic gag-job in 1978. Our Town Team led by six and a half on the 2nd of that infamous September while in the process of rolling over for the Yanks, whereas the Mets still led by seven with only 17 games to go. The point is a bit technical, perhaps. But the Mets become only the third team to swallow a full seven-game lead in September. Some wonderful baseball folklore is associated with the luckless teams that share the distinction. 

In 1934, the Giants under Bill Terry were rolling merrily to the pennant. Along the way Memphis Bill, who had a slashing wit to match the sizzle of his batting stroke, insulted the Dodgers with whom he had a raft of games yet to play. “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” quipped Salty Bill. The wisecrack graced the headlines of every tabloid in Gotham and there were then about 13 of them. It inspired the Dodgers, an otherwise lousy team, to hammer the Giants down the stretch as the Gashouse Gang Cardinals, primed by Medwick, Frisch, Martin and the Deans, stole the prize.   

In 1938, it was the Pirates who wilted before the on-charging Cubs. The Bucs had a lovely team skippered by Pie Traynor and featuring Arky Vaughn and the Brothers Waner, ‘‘Big & Little Poison.’’ The Cubs with a sore-armed Dizzy Dean providing the moxie simply ran them down. The key moment came at Braves Field the last week. With darkness descending (and there being no lights) Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs player-manager, hit one that the umpires deemed a homer, while everyone else in the park (no more than 1,000 people) insisted the ball was foul. There was a considerable fuss. Guess who won? Gabby’s shot -- forever to be remembered as ‘‘the homer in the gloaming’’ -- put the Cubs over the top. They’ve had no comparable giddy moment since.

Alas for the Mets, no such colorful folderol redeems their atrocious el-foldo. They lost six of their last seven games to three teams with losing records. They lost to the Phils the last eight times they met. It was catatonic and will properly go into the books as the most mindless and inexcusable tank-job of all-time. En route, the reputations of fine baseball men -- Willie Randolph and Tom Glavine chief among them -- are sure to be smeared. We know all about that stuff in this town where the likes of Grady Little, Denny Galehouse and Billy Buckner have been hung out to dry for eternity.

The Phillies got lucky. They have plenty of offense, sparked by Jimmy Rollins whose Yaz-like September may have snared him an MVP.  But their pitching may be the worst ever to grace MLB’s post-season proceedings. Their number two starter is 45 years old and has an ERA over 5.00. Their number three starter won eight games. Their number four starter had an ERA over 6.00. This is a crazy team but it may be the best the senior circuit offers. Louie Piniella’s Cubs, survivors in the demolition derby of baseball’s weakest division, were only four wins over the .500 mark.

Sort of reminds you of last year -- does it not -- when the Cardinals finished only two games over the break-even mark having just barely eluded the ignominy of winning a division with a losing record. So who proceeds to win the whole bloody 2006 tournament? The Cardinals, naturally, as the patently inferior National League prevails in a boring finish. This much you can take to the bank. It won’t happen again.

Because the gap between the leagues has never been wider. There are four superior (relative to the times) teams battling for a World Series berth in the A.L. If there’s no great team or clear favorite, there’s no ringer either. Every one of them -- the Red Sox, Indians, Yankees and Angels -- belongs in these playoffs. There is neither a clear favorite nor a huge underdog. They’re roughly equal. The first round should feature baseball that’s as good as it gets. More to the point, I doubt there’s an N.L. team that could have made the playoffs or even finished higher than ninth (overall) in the A.L. Are the Arizona D’backs, N.L. division winners, better than the Toronto B’jays, who finished 10 games out of the A.L. playoffs? I don’t think so.    

Prospects for a torrid October are valid. The contrivances -- designed to encourage parity and produce season-ending fireworks -- have worked wonders. But Smiling Bud ought not get too cocky in his cozy little universe. There’s room for improvement, beginning with that ‘‘wild-card’’ thing. It remains poorly conceived and thoroughly unfair.

How to fix it? Joel Sherman, a columnist for the N.Y. Post, has the best suggestion I’ve yet seen. He proposes that there be two wild-card teams in each league and that they meet immediately after the regular season for best two out of three showdowns with the winners being obliged to jump directly into the regular playoff rounds against fully-rested opponents the day after the shoot-out ends. This would heavily tax the wild-card team, placing monumental stresses on its pitching staff while burdening the survivor with a beastly travel schedule. All of which would be a just penalty for not winning a division title.

As presently configured, the wild-card scheme gives the bearer a virtual free pass with the loss of home-field advantage -- an elusive factor at best -- being the only penalty. It’s unfair to teams that win divisions. It cheapens the pennant race and robs meaning from the regular season, which is the backbone of the product and source of most revenue. Protecting the integrity of the long season is vital. Wild-card winners are effectively rewarded for accomplishing less, which may explain why so many have lately been winning the World Series.

Sherman, who like your host detests the wild card, argues that if we must be stuck with the bloody thing we might as well make it fair. He’s absolutely right! Somebody pinch the bloodied but unbowed and bespectacled baseball czar to see if he’s listening.