Sunday, September 30, 2007

A great day . . . for parity

Today was a great day to be a baseball fan, no doubt. There was excitement all across the National League, as two playoff spots were pursued by four teams. The American League was sewed up a while ago -- it should be Red Sox/Angels and Indians/Yankees in the ALDS -- but the National League came into this weekend with no teams having clinched a postseason berth. The D-Backs and Cubs clinched a spot on Friday, and they will face each other in the NLDS. But the NL East and NL Wild Card came down to today and, amazingly enough, only one race was settled.
The Mets got blistered by the lowly Marlins and lost 8-1, with Tom Glavine getting knocked out of the box in the 1st inning. So the Mets had to hope for the Phillies to lose, which would result in a tie and a one-game playoff tomorrow (it actually could have been even more complicated; if both teams had won today, there was a possible 4-way tie with the Rockies and Padres for 2 playoff spots. I don't even want to contemplate what that would result in; there's never even been a 3-way tie for a postseason spot before, let alone a 4-way tie for two spots).
Instead, the Phillies routed the Nationals and clinched the NL East, their first postseason berth since 1993. The Phillies were 7 games back with just two weeks left in the season and somehow managed to come back -- perhaps the most amazing comeback in baseball history. Which, conversely, makes it one of the worst collapses in history for the Mets, right up with the '64 Phillies, '51 Dodgers, and '95 Angels. The borough of Queens might spontaneously explode with anger pretty soon, so I expect ownership to throw some sacrifical lambs to the crowd (Willie Randolph, first of all) to prevent an armed uprising.

In the race for the Wild Card, the Padres entered today a game ahead of the Rockies and Phillies/Mets (the two teams were tied). With the Met loss and the Phillies winning the division, it came down to just San Diego and Colorado.
The Padres went into Milwaukee and had their behinds handed to them 11-6. This meant that if the Rockies could beat the Diamondbacks in Denver, they would finish tied for the Wild Card and force a one-game playoff for the first time since 1999, when the Mets beat the Reds at Riverfront Stadium in Game 163 to win the WC. With the most lively crowd at Coors Field in over ten years, the Rockies dispatched the D-Backs 4-3 with late-inning heroics and an explosive celebration.
The Padres will fly to Denver tomorrow to play the Rockies in a winner-take-all matchup. The Padres will have Jake Peavy available on full rest, which should give them an edge even at Coors. But even if the Rockies lose, their 89-win season -- the first contending season since they won the Wild Card in 1995 -- will be a huge leap forward for them. I may have said it before, but if any franchise needed an energetic revival like this, it was the Rockies. Win or lose, they've become relevant again and will be right back next year, and their 13-1 finish to the season will always be there.

As the title implies, it wasn't just a great day for baseball (outside of Queens), but a great day for parity. The season finished with no team winning 100 games (Boston and Cleveland were tops with 96) and no team losing 100 games (the D-Rays bottomed out with 96 losses). The absence of extreme performances either positive or negative is by definition a sign of competitive balance. In fact, no one in the NL won more than 90 games (Arizona was the only team to reach the mark at 90-72). The last time that happened was in 1959, when the Dodgers limped to an NL pennant with an 88-68 record. Of course, that's not just parity, it's also a statement on the relatively dismal state of the NL, but even in the AL, no team was dominant and no team was dominated.
This is reflected as part of the trend that began when the Yankees dynasty stopped winning the World Series in 2001. In fact, since 2000, 7 different teams have won 7 World Series (Yankees, D-Backs, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox, Cardinals), an amazing sign of competitive balance. And if the Indians, Padres, Rockies, Cubs, or Phillies win the Series this year, it will be 8-for-8. Never, since the creation of the modern World Series in 1903, has a decade passed with no team winning more than 1 World Series (in the 80's, only the Dodgers were mutliple winners, in 1981 and 1988).
In the AL, 9 of 14 teams have made the postseason since 2000 (the Blue Jays, Rangers, Orioles, Royals, and D-Rays are still waiting). Three of those teams at least made the postseason in the 1990s. And there is still 2008 and 2009 for these teams to make the '00s the most balanced decade in the game's history (10 AL teams made the postseason in the 90's). I wouldn't count on the D-Rays or Orioles, but the other five teams at least have a vague chance of making the postseason in the next two years.
The NL has spread the wealth, too, with 11 of 16 teams appearing in the postseason since 2000 (if the Rockies win tomorrow, it will be 12 of 16). The only exceptions are the Rockies, Reds, Expos/Nats, Brewers, and Pirates. Of those teams, the Rockies may yet make the postseason, the Brewers will be contenders next year, and even the Reds might stand a chance in the NL Central. Only the Nats and Pirates are beyond hope for the immediate future.

Recent years have seen the destruction of curses (Red Sox and White Sox win World Series), and the potential destruction of two curses in this postseason (Cubs and Indians). The past few years have seen the turnaround of previously moribund franchises such as the Tigers, Brewers, and Rockies. Former powerhouses have fallen, to one extent or another, whether it's the Yankees (no World Championship since 2000), the Braves (streak of division titles broken), or the fall of other powerhouses of the past 10 years, such as the Cardinals, Astros, A's, and Giants.
The number of hopeless franchises in the game is dwindling. The Expos/Nats may not be run by extremely competent people, but they're moving into a new park next year and may be able to spend their way out of mediocrity (although that rarely works). The Pirates have a new CEO and new GM who seem to be very competent people, even considering the considerable task ahead of them. The Devil Rays have finally developed some good pitching prospects to go with their good young hitters, and while there's still quite a long way to go, things are definitely looking up. And even though they still lost 90 games, this season was a small step forward for the other bottom-feeding franchise in baseball, the Royals.

Reports of baseball's death have been gravely exaggerated. That's why I find it so humorous that the MLB is actually considering implementing a blood test for HGH next season. This may be off-topic, but why haven't more people blistered the league office for a policy that's awful on so many levels? If you're going to hideously invade a player's privacy, shouldn't you be doing it to test for a drug that has some research backing up the idea that it's a performance-enhancer? And shouldn't you wonder about the efficacy of such a test, which is far from a sure thing even now?
I mean, really, who the f*** is the MLB (you know who you are) trying to pacify with such an inflammatory and misguided announcement? The fans? The same fans who, in the wake of another batch of players implicated in illicit drug transactions, set a new major league attendance record with a week to spare?
What about the players? While I'm sure that most players want to remove the fog of suspicion that hangs over them all, I doubt they'd consider it worth a needle in the arm. And if Don Fehr and the MLBPA even consider going along with this, they should be bludgeoned into unsconsciousness by Marvin Miller.
No, the only people in the world who are really up in arms over hGH is the sports media. The same people who should be writing columns and going on TV to expose the lack of evidence of hGH as a performance-enhancer are doing the exact opposite; doing everything in their power to spread false information and perceptions among the fanbase. Kudos to the fans who are -- judging by their attendance -- telling sanctimonious baseball writers to go to hell.
We all know that baseball is sensitive to sudden bursts of rage against its perceived integrity -- look at the shamefully thrown-together Latino Legends team -- but I think that we would hope for a leadership that isn't so wishy-washy as to be swayed by the mildest of breezes. The outcry against hGH is not only amazingly misguided, it's also amazingly shallow; just try and gauge the depth of the perceived "outcry" against it.

Things are going quite well. There are problems out there, and serious ones at that; but so many things about the game have improved in the last 10-15 years that we have to admit that even if baseball isn't coming back, neither is it going away.


Branan Whitehead said...

Great blog.

Anonymous said...

Great column. What about those Mets and how far they have fallen? Omar Minaya was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this summer for creating a powerhouse and now he is being villified for bringing together a team of old men who can't win. Better enjoy MLB fame while it lasts. It can be very fleeting.