An article in the Oct. 5 Sports section should have said that Anaheim Angels pitcher Bartolo Colon was 5-8 with a 6.57 ERA before the All-Star break. (Published 10/12/04)
Welcome to the baseball playoffs, the most fun-packed month that any sport provides us. Sit back and relax, because the peace and quiet won't last long. Prepare to be driven beautifully bonkers for the rest of October.
When baseball canceled its World Series in 1994, little did the game imagine that, when it returned in 1995, it would introduce an attendance- goosing gimmick that would become the best postseason format in sports.
At first, purists groaned at the hideous sight of two wild cards, eight teams in the postseason and three tiers of playoffs. Then, we grudgingly accepted. Finally, over the last three years, we cheered wildly as we realized that an October format that virtually ensures upsets, controversies, instant heroes and continuous nightly madness for four weeks with barely a chance to catch our breath is a good thing. A really, really good thing, in fact.
What baseball has created -- by accident and after a century of resisting its tackier impulses -- is a capricious carnival of a crapshoot that produces the maximum number of thrills and shocks. Instead of "may the best team win," baseball has come up with a different but marvelously marketable credo: "May the most fans have fun." After all, maybe that's the point.
Of course, when the pursuit of pleasure becomes your goal, aberrations tend to arrive. For example, the Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox still haven't won a World Series since women got the vote. But the Florida Marlins, a team that has never finished in first place in any season in its brief existence, have won two titles in seven years.
At first, teams didn't grasp that winning the Series was no longer reserved for teams loaded with future Hall of Famers or dressed in pinstripes. The Yanks themselves kept us from grasping what was afoot. By winning the '98, '99 and '00 series with contemptuous ease, their juggernaut made it seem nothing had changed. But it had. Those classy Yanks were the exception. Our recent scruffy champs are more the rule.
Anybody can win. And usually it's some gate-crasher with a big heart. In the nine seasons since wild cards arrived, the team with the best record during the regular season has won the World Series one time. That, however, has left the door ajar for the unlikely Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins the last three years. This month, it could provide us a Series matching the game's two hottest teams -- both wild cards -- the Astros (36-10 to end the regular season) and Red Sox (40-15). Those just happen to be favorite teams of our two baseball-loving presidential foes.
Why, then, we could even have a Game 1 Series matchup between the same two historic fastballers who met in Game 7 of the '01 Series: Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens. Except that Schilling then played for Arizona and Clemens was a Yankee. Oh, the stars change uniforms so fast that the scorecards can't keep up. It's not your grandfather's baseball anymore.
Schilling (21-6) and Clemens (18-4) are symbols of the current itinerant kaleidoscopic game. Every team in the playoffs, except the essentially homegrown Minnesota Twins, is led by players it grabbed in the offseason or even in midseason. Vlad Guerrero and J.D. Drew are the home run leaders for the Angels and Braves, respectively. Steve Finley (36 homers) and Carlos Beltran (38) ignited the offenses of the Dodgers and Astros in midyear. Three of the Cardinals' four 15-game winners never pitched in a St. Louis uniform before this season. The Yanks, of course, take the cake for shamelessness. Their two top home run hitters -- Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield -- as well as four of their five 10-game winners played for other teams just 365 days ago.
Anybody who imagines they can foretell what's coming is delusional. Before the '03 postseason, who knew Cub fan Steve Bartman's name? Who thought that the managing of Grady Little and Jack McKeon might prove as important, or catastrophic, as any plays on the field? And how many of us predicted that a 9-8 pitcher for the Marlins, Josh Beckett, would be Series MVP?
This October, the potential for insanity seems almost as great, especially because of which teams, and which pitchers, are very hot or very not. All eyes tonight will be on Johan Santana, who has been the best pitcher on the planet, by a wide margin, since the All-Star Game, going 13-0 in 14 starts with a 1.18 ERA. That's not good. That's God. The unlucky Yanks may get to face him twice in their five-game playoff with Minnesota. Santana's foe will be Mike Mussina, one of the rare people blessed with a superiority complex. It galls and inspires Moose if anybody believes that anybody is better than he is at anything.
In their matchup with the Angels, the Red Sox find themselves in the same uncomfortable situation that unhinged the Chicago Cubs last week. There is no reason whatsoever that Boston shouldn't win. That, however, didn't stop the disgustingly talented Cubs -- with the best five-man rotation in the game and four 32-homer sluggers -- from losing seven of eight when it counted most. The Red Sox have Schilling (8-0 in his last nine starts) and Pedro Martinez against a four-man Angels rotation that has been pitching on three days' rest for the last two weeks. Anaheim's starters either aren't too good (Jarrod Washburn and Kelvim Escobar) or have been slumping lately (Bartolo Colon, 5-8, 6.57 ERA since the all-star break). And now they're all pitching on fumes. But the Red Sox in a postseason series that they should win almost always provide fine farce.
The Cardinals (12-13 down the stretch) and Dodgers (26-24) both came to the wire playing without inspiration. St. Louis coasted with a huge lead; L.A. almost blew its. Even without injured Chris Carpenter, the Cards can't lose this one. (That ought to fix 'em.) The best first-round series promises to be the suddenly scalding Astros, who have two superstar starters, an inflammable closer (Brian Lidge, 157 strikeouts in 942/3 innings) and five sluggers who averaged 30 homers against a grossly underrated Braves team that has been on fire since late June (63-25).
Nobody knows how the Braves do it. They have no 100-RBI man and no starter with more than 15 wins. And even Bobby Cox probably can't name his four highest-batting-average hitters.
They hit a combined .313 with 133 extra-base hits: Johnny Estrada, Eli Marrero, Marcus Giles and 300-year-old Julio Franco.
Let the divine madness begin. Unleash that Murderer's Row of Estrada, Marrero, Giles and Franco on those poor unsuspecting Astros sluggers Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman. Anything can happen. Everyone's predictions will be wrong. (Mine are Yanks, Red Sox, Cards and Astros.) And it all starts tonight.
Break out the tranquilizers.