The Promise Of a Wild Ride
The baseball playoffs don't start until today and we're already out of breath. Only four weeks to go. Send oxygen.
On Sunday, the Mets completed the second-worst late-season collapse in history, behind the '64 Phillies. Not only did they blow the NL East to Philadelphia but they squandered a wild-card spot that never seemed in doubt, until suddenly it was gone.
Then, late Monday night in a one-game playoff, that vacant wild-card ticket was punched when San Diego scored twice in the 13th inning, then watched in horror as the Rockies rallied for three runs off all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman in the bottom of the inning. As a twist to spice our appetite for more madness, the winning run probably never really scored as catcher Michael Barrett appeared to block Matt Holliday off home plate by perhaps three inches.
If the rest of this month remotely resembles the last few days, then this season, which already set an attendance record, will be one of the most entertaining ever. To show how delicious the possibilities are, consider this prediction, which is both irresistible and as sensible as most others. The Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies reach the two league championship series. The haughtiest franchise as well as the three most frequently humbled in baseball history. Boston and Chicago then meet in the Series, where the Cubs win their first title in 99 years. And America goes nuts.
If the Red Sox ('04) and White Sox ('05) can erase their curses, why not the Cubs, who have the fewest wins (85) of any team in the playoffs? All four AL teams may be better than any NL team, at least on paper. And the Cubs may look like the weakest of the NL bunch. So what? That didn't stop the Cardinals last year, did it? What's sanity got to do with October baseball? If, the last six years, you had parlayed the best stories, not the best teams, to win the Series, you would own a hotel in Las Vegas.
Even if the Cubs disappear by next week, the potential for the outlandish is almost limitless this month. We not only have perhaps the four most written-about franchises in the sport. We also get a go-go team from the huge Los Angeles market (Angels), a young mystery club from the booming Southwest (Diamondbacks) as well as the power-packed, pitching-bereft representatives of the Rocky Mountains. The best balanced of all eight entrants is from Cleveland, which hasn't won a World Series since '48. You couldn't pick story lines any better. Except for an Indians-Rockies Series, almost everything else plays.
While this may be one of the most-watched and discussed postseasons ever, it has almost no chance of being one of the best played. Sorry. This is an era of revenue-sharing parity in which, for only the second time in history, no team played over .600 or under .400 during the regular season. Dynasties, forget it. Seven of last season's eight postseason teams have already gone home. With the Mets and Pads out, the most feared lineup and the most glamorous rotation in the NL are on vacation.
What's coming probably won't be exemplary baseball or the anointment of a champ worthy of discussion in 20 years. More likely we'll get pure unalloyed silliness, unpredictability and, with a new elongated TV format, the possibility of the most exciting postseason in couch-potato history. Sit back and enjoy your coronary. But, on most nights, don't expect more than one game.
Under the new schedule, the game's star pitchers will work a higher percentage of the games. For some teams during key parts of this month, it will feel like we're back to the '70s and early '80s, when rotations were often trimmed to three pitchers in October. Except that now it will be today's five-man staffs, not the old four-man rotations, which will be sheered to a trio.
Also, the strung-out schedule will give the sport far more prime-time exposure in midweek, with no football competition. Here's the theory: Fall in love with a series in midweek, follow it if you want through the pigskin-saturated weekend, then return for the final games in the middle of next week. And, in the process, become addicted to baseball. (Or sleep deprivation.) If several of this October's series go close to the maximum number of games, then water coolers will probably boil over all month. Hypothetically, if you're a sports fan, what else will you watch next Tuesday and Wednesday nights but the Game 5s that determine whether the Yanks and Red Sox, or the Cubs and Phillies, will advance to the League Championship Series. Baseball popularity may hit a steroid growth spurt. (Sorry.) October Madness could be born. Ad dollars will rain like manna.
Yes, I've pulled a punch. If baseball's scheduling crapshoot rolls snake eyes, it will be a public relations disaster. And there will be plenty of idle off days to pillage the sport. In fact, there won't be anything else to do, except to ask Manny Ramirez if he still remembers the names of any of his teammates. So, I saved the bad news for last.
With its new schedule, baseball is rolling the dice. If too many playoff series are wrapped up too quickly, this October could become a wasteland of off-days that stand as a testament to TV-ratings greed. How bad could it get? Theoretically, baseball could face eight straight idle days before Game 1 of a World Series that does not even begin until Oct. 24th.
The new format can be quickly summarized. The best-of-five division series are spread over a maximum of eight days (assuming no rain). That's one more day than in the past and is probably sane. The World Series, if it ever starts, will have its usual rhythm -- a best-of-seven series in a maximum of nine days, ending Nov. 1, if it doesn't snow.
However, to make the games fit the best-possible TV-ratings dates, the new structure for the LCS has been stretched by two days with every team getting three off days before a Game 6, far more than any team needs. From Oct. 16 through Oct. 19, Tuesday through Friday, there's only one game per night, maximum. Why? TV ratings, ad money and, maybe, new fans.
If both LCS go six or seven games, few will notice and many will applaud. But if neither series goes more than five games, somebody better buy Commissioner Bud Selig a suit of body armor. In that scenario, the game lies idle for five days before the Series. If both LCS are sweeps, then you get the eight-off-day plague.
That's not a postseason; it's an offseason. By the time the Series finally arrived, would anybody still care?
For now, lets finesse that possibility. Instead, stock up on snacks. Given a normal number of long series, we're all going to gain 10 pounds this month.