Across this fair land, baseball's regular season will come to an end Sunday -- unless it spills over into Monday with a one-game playoff. But at that point, the season will definitely end -- unless it carries over to Tuesday with another one-game playoff at a location that won't be determined until Monday's one-game playoff is settled. But then, it will absolutely, positively end -- and a handful of fortunate teams will begin trying to figure out where they must travel to open the playoffs on Wednesday.
Could baseball have drawn this up any better? In a pair of season-ending, three-game series that begin today, the New York Yankees face their arch rival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park and the Chicago White Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians, in what amounts to a three-team scramble (Chicago is already in) for two spots -- which may be far from over at the end of Sunday's play.
"No matter what the result is," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said yesterday, "you couldn't set up a better scenario for sports fans."
This month, as a fascinating stretch drive reaches its conclusion, baseball has held no fewer than 17 coin flips trying to figure out home-field advantage for all these possible one-game playoffs. However, at September's end, all but four of them -- Red Sox at Yankees, Yankees at Indians, Indians at Red Sox, Astros at Phillies -- have been rendered moot.
By clinching the AL Central title yesterday, the White Sox ensured they would not be faced with one of those dreaded one-game playoffs, but they also cheated baseball out of a head-spinning scenario whereby the White Sox, Indians, Yankees and Red Sox all finish with the same record -- necessitating a two-tiered system of three different one-game playoffs on Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in the National League wild-card race, the Houston Astros still haven't shaken the Philadelphia Phillies, whom they lead by two games. The Astros close out the season at home against the Chicago Cubs; the Phillies finish here against the Nationals.
Baseball has not seen a one-game playoff of any sort since 1999, when the New York Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds for the wild card. But this year there is still the possibility of multiple one-game playoffs in the AL in the event of a three-way tie in the final standings between Cleveland, Boston and New York. Under that scenario, the playoff for the AL East title would be played in New York on Monday, with the loser playing for the wild card on Tuesday in either Cleveland (if the Yankees lose Monday) or Boston (if the Red Sox lose).
Follow all that?
Although the White Sox' clinching of the division crown yesterday robbed the Cleveland-Chicago series of much of its drama, the Indians are playing for their postseason lives -- and may have actually gotten a break because the White Sox now might rest their top pitchers in preparation for the Division Series.
Being eliminated from the division title race "just simplifies our focus a little bit more," Indians Manager Eric Wedge told reporters in Cleveland. "The wild card is our path to the playoffs."
Should the Indians and Red Sox meet Monday in a one-game playoff for the wild card, could there be a better ending than the game coming down to Cleveland's Aaron Boone at the plate with the game on the line? Would the hero of the Yankees' dramatic win over the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series end Boston's season for the second time in three years? Or would the Red Sox exact their bitter revenge?
The Red Sox' dramatic victory last night -- in which they trailed 4-1 to Toronto, only to come back and win on a walk-off RBI single by most valuable player award candidate David Ortiz in the bottom of the ninth -- means they enter the weekend trailing New York by only one game, instead of two. Instead of needing a sweep, they need to win two out of three.
Still, if Cleveland wins a couple of games this weekend, the Red Sox-Yankees series at Fenway Park presents the delicious possibility of being a winner-take-all, loser-go-home affair, with one of the teams thus becoming the most expensive team in history to miss the playoffs. The Yankees, in fact, have not missed the playoffs since 1994 -- the year there was no postseason because of the players' strike.
Not since 1949 have the Red Sox and Yankees met on the season's final weekend to determine which team goes to the postseason. The Yankees swept both games to win the pennant. In 1978, the teams finished the season tied in the standings, forcing a one-game playoff that the Yankees won on Bucky Dent's famous homer.
For those who believe in karma, Sunday -- the final scheduled day of the regular season -- marks the 27th anniversary of the day that will always be remembered in Boston as the "Bucky [Bleepin'] Dent game."
Your starting pitchers this weekend in Boston: David Wells, Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling, respectively, for Boston; and Chien-Ming Wang, Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina for New York.
"It feels," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said this week, "like we've started the playoffs already."
"It'll be exciting," Torre said, "to the point of anxiety."
Since the start of the 2003 season, the Yankees and Red Sox have met each other 68 times in the regular season and postseason combined. Each has won 34 times, including seven apiece in the postseason.
By the time the season comes to a climactic close on Sunday, that tie will be broken.
Unless, of course, the season doesn't end on Sunday.