Whoa! Finally, a World Series game that felt like a World Series game. Unfortunately, it may be this season's one and only example of the form. The Tigers look for all the world like a team fate just seriously doesn't want winning a championship, and who could forgive them for packing it in after this one? Outfielder wipeouts! Yet still further pitcher defensive miscues! Dropped third strikes! Curtis Granderson trying to hit the curveball! (Was I right about Detroit awaiting a colossal karma boomerang from those absurdly overblown celebrations upon winning the ALDS and ALCS, or was I right?) Call it the Leyland follies, and also call it the game of the postseason so far, with apologies to Endy C. In keeping with my affection for lost causes, I try to support Denver's local music scene as well as the Rockies, and I went out to see some bands at a bar tonight assuming that this game would operate on the same level as the three previous half-asleepers and thus command no more than one-third of my full attention. Not so much. My apologies to the timid folksinger I mostly ignored and occasionally upstaged with my uncontrollable Granderson-provoked laughter.
I don't want to incur the wrath of thousands of Cardinals fans for jinxing this thing, but hey, this is the age of instant analysis, and if you don't start wrapping things up before they're actually over, everyone else on the interweb will beat you to your own ideas. So I'm going to go ahead and weigh in on the whole debate that is sure to rage, or indeed rages already, about whether a team with only 83 regular season wins claiming a championship banner is bad for baseball. Here's my nuanced take: no. It could well be a generational thing. If you grew up watching the Reds, A's, and Yankees of the 70's, well, yeah, the Marlins, Angels, and (presumptively the) Cardinals of the 00's are not as good. Baseball was first introduced to me in the golden era of collusion, where underwhelming teams like the '85 Royals, '87 Twins, and '90 Reds won championships all the time. What was great about the 80's is that a different team won every year. Granted, the mechanism through which baseball delivered this desirable parity was the systematic chiseling of a generation's worth of players out of the rewards they deserved and a breach in labor-ownership trust that is only beginning to get repaired now some twenty years on.
So, what accomplishes the same thing as collusion only without the unpleasant, illegal, and borderline Communist elements? The wild card does. You want to hate the wild card, fine. When you double the number of teams that make the playoffs, you greatly increase the chances that some dicey teams are going to get invited to the dance. Hey, I'll be the first to admit it. The 1995 Rockies? Not a playoff team. This is not the space nor am I the sort of analyst to get all stat-funky about it, but if you play enough seasons with a shaky team or two getting into the final eight every year, eventually one of them is going to win it. I'm no mathemagician, but I'm miles smarter than the average "Deal or No Deal" contestant, and I believe this to be true.
Baseball is different than than football, which gives huge postseason advantages to the teams with the best regular-season records to offset the inherent randomness in having one game decide each round. (That said, when the sixth-seed Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC and then the Super Bowl last year, nobody complained. Except Seahawks fans.) The NBA invites twice as many teams to the playoffs as baseball does but it's a different game; over the course of a seven-game series in basketball the better team will win far more regularly than under the same conditions in baseball. Six-, seven-, and eight-seed hockey teams make deep Stanley Cup runs all the time, but this doesn't bother anyone. For one thing, nearly everybody except the completely hopeless teams made the playoffs for ages in the NHL. For another, the idea that the postseason is a completely separate entity is more prevalent in hockey than in other North American pro sports. There's different rules, different intensity, and beards. There's a trophy for accumulating the most regular-season points that they don't take away if you wipe out in the first round. And finally, Canadians are just a mellow people in general. I think it's because many of them are part moose.
Baseball culture is different, for certain, but it's not forever unchanging. The game grows and develops. We're not likely to see complete teams on the model of the 1929 A's ever again. There were 16 teams then, something like half of which were fiscally insolvent, there are 30 now, and only the Pirates and Royals are completely hopeless. They also don't travel by train so much anymore. And they let black people play. Onward and upward!
You know what, I'm a fan of a team that's not so good and not so rich. But I have hope. I'm crazy with hope right now, because while they aren't a perfect comparison for a potential Colorado world champion, these Cardinals do illustrate one vital fact that a lot of struggling franchises are going to take to heart this offseason. All you have to do is get in. If you get in, you could win. Maybe there's no way to build a 105-game winner for fifty million bucks these days, but get a break or two, draft smart, keep everybody healthy (one area where the young, poor teams actually have an advantage), and you can win 85 games, back into the postseason and win the World Series. The real one! The MLB one! How cool is that?
I suppose if you're a Yankees fan this argument doesn't make you feel at all better, but you know what, to hell with you. Also, I don't see any way of directly blaming Jim Leyland for the inexplicable collapse of what was baseball's best defense all year, but maybe I will think of something tomorrow morning. Could he make it rain? Wait, I've got something. Obviously, the net effect of the millions of cubic feet of cigarette smoke that Leyland has exhaled over the years was the cold pressure front leading to the rain in St. Louis which proved so deleterious to Craig Monroe, Fernando Rodney, Ivan Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson's efforts to field their positions. Oh, Jim, I'm going to miss you when this series is over. You suck, though.