A Pennant Race For the Ages

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, September 29, 2005

So here's the scenario you want: If the Indians, Yankees and Red Sox all end up with the same record after 162 games Sunday night -- and believe me, this is possible -- baseball would be looking at a two-day playoff before even starting the first-round series. Monday, for instance, the Yankees and Red Sox could play for the AL East crown.

And on Tuesday the loser of that game would get another shot in the one-game playoff for the wild-card spot.

Want to confuse yourself even more? There are several ways to end the season in a three-way tie. The White Sox, Indians and Yankees could finish with the same record, and the White Sox, Indians and Red Sox could finish with the same record. Is it likely Sunday's games between the Indians-White Sox in Cleveland and Yankees-Red Sox at Fenway will determine the division winners? Yes, it's possible, but far from a certainty. Sunday afternoon, because the schedule-maker is equal parts lucky and genius, could end up as one of the great days in baseball history. The afternoon will involve such traditional teams and is likely to be so full of possibilities baseball could win a Sunday afternoon from pro football, unthinkable as that may seem.

Of course, the unpredictability of it all makes these final four days even more dramatic. The poor White Sox had beaten the Tigers 12 of 15 games this season. By sweeping the pathetic Tigers, or even winning three of four, the White Sox could have rendered the season-ending three-game series in Cleveland meaningless. So what do the White Sox do?

They lose back-to-back one-run games in Detroit before winning last night. How often has a team with the best record in its league (which the White Sox have at 95-63) looked so fragile? Yet, the Indians couldn't cut into their -game deficit in the AL Central because they were busy losing to last-place Tampa Bay. Perhaps Cleveland, while it is the most complete of the four teams battling in the AL, is feeling a little pressure for the first time now that it plays these final days with expectations.

Okay, we're accustomed to the White Sox and Indians blowing it; they've got zero pedigree. Historically, they're losers. But they weren't alone Tuesday night in blowing chances, and when all four teams lost (only the third time all season all four lost on the same day) it lent the race a sense of panic that makes the whole thing more frantic. The Yankees and Red Sox, of whom we expect better, looked fairly ordinary Tuesday night as well. Fortunately for the Yankees they bounced back after an embarrassing loss Tuesday to beat the Orioles last night and take a one-game lead in the division. The champion Red Sox are now reeling after losing two of three, at home , to Toronto.

Of course, all this has overshadowed another division championship won by the Atlanta Braves, who are now up to 14 consecutive division titlesThis time the Braves shrugged off injuries and bad seasons by veterans and kept doing what they always do by utilizing 17 rookies. Some journeyman dude named Jorge Sosa, 24-29 for his career, is 13-3 right now for Atlanta. So how can anybody not vote for Bobby Cox for manager of the year? It's all very impressive -- except that nobody expects the Braves to get past the Cardinals and into the World Series.

It's more likely Donald Fehr and the players' union will accept Bud Selig's steroid punishment proposal than the Braves will win the World Series. It's a shame, really, that six months after the congressional hearings the union is still dragging its feet on the issue of penalties for steroid use. It's a shame Selig and baseball Hall of Famers are back on the Hill, this time before a Senate committee, talking about what the game needs to do to regain its credibility. It's a shame the House and Senate feel the need to get involved in this issue, but they indeed need to, because this is so much bigger than just a baseball issue.

No way should Selig give in now and adopt some lightweight counterproposal from Fehr and the union. A 50-game suspension for first-time users, a 100-game suspension for second-timers and a lifetime ban for third-timers is just fine. Three strikes, get out. For once, Selig has the union pinned, if for no other reason than U.S. lawmakers have his back. See, without the House and Senate, Fehr would stonewall the tougher penalties until MLB threw up both hands and took some lesser punishment. With the lawmakers threatening both parties, Selig has all the leverage. Personally, I wouldn't call Sen. John McCain's bluff on this. He's got too many lawmakers in his posse, too many tough guys still angry about the lies Rafael Palmiero told them in March.

McCain's guys aren't going to bully easily, which is what Fehr usually counts on. "We're at the end here, and I don't want to do it, but we need an agreement soon," McCain told Fehr yesterday.

"It's not complicated. All sports fans understand it. I suggest you act and you act soon." Sounded more like promise than threat to me.

Fehr, though, apparently thinks lawmakers are bluffing, even though as he proposes a 20-game suspension for first-time steroid users, the Senate is proposing a two-year suspension for first-time offenders and a lifetime ban after a second failed test. Perhaps you don't think the threat of a two-year ban is a deterrent; I do. If Fehr looked a little shaken during his time before the Senate committee yesterday, well, he should have.

It's a sorry spectacle, watching Henry Aaron and Ryne Sandberg talk about catching cheaters in the last week of September when the games and the races ought to take up 100 percent of baseball's agenda. It's hard to watch Barry Bonds, who was a fabulously great player long before steroid allegations, pull his team within striking distance of front-running San Diego without wondering what he did and when he did it, or if some substance that is illegal in this country is the reason he's still out there at 41 years old chasing Aaron. And if Bonds miraculously leads his Giants into the postseason, we'll be wondering in October, too.

Fortunately for baseball, the first days of its grandest month may be so full of single-elimination playoff games involving some of the sport's oldest teams that not even steroids can distract from a stunning conclusion.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company