When ace Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals climbs the mound at Busch Stadium and delivers the first pitch of the 2005 baseball postseason to San Diego Padres leadoff man Dave Roberts at approximately 1:09 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, it will kick off another edition of what is surely sports' greatest and most unpredictable crapshoot.
In the NBA, the best team almost always wins the title. In the NFL, the team with the best quarterback, more times than not, prevails in the Super Bowl. But in baseball, especially in recent years, the best regular season team rarely wins the World Series. In fact, the last three world champs -- and four of the last five -- were not even good enough to win their division, qualifying for the postseason via the wild card.
"Every postseason is wide open," owner John Henry of the defending world champion Boston Red Sox told reporters after his team clinched the wild-card berth Sunday afternoon. Henry made his fortune as a commodities trader, aided by a secret formula he devised, so he knows something about numbers. "When you have eight teams get in, no one team can have even a 20 percent chance of winning."
Indeed, crazy things tend to happen in October, such as the Red Sox staring at an 0-3 deficit to the New York Yankees in last year's American League Championship Series, with the best postseason closer in history on the mound for the Yankees, three outs away from completing a sweep, then coming back to beat Mariano Rivera in that Game 4 and going on to stage the greatest comeback in history.
The reason baseball was sweating out the Padres' final few games last week, as the team struggled to get above the .500 mark, was because baseball people know that even a sub-.500 team can get hot in October and win it all, and no one in the sport relished such a prospect. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the Padres rallied to finish the season at 82-80.
Still, the Padres are the first team to get into the postseason with fewer than 88 victories since the 2000 Yankees won the AL East with only 87 wins. Of course, the Yankees won the World Series that year.
The Padres' opponent in the first round, the Cardinals, won more games than anyone else in baseball this season, 100 of them, but that hardly guarantees postseason success. In fact, in the last 15 postseasons, only one team (the 1998 Yankees) with the best regular season record went on to win the World Series.
The Chicago White Sox led the AL with 99 wins, but Manager Ozzie Guillen was reduced to pleading for respect on the eve of his team's postseason opener against Boston.
"With 99 wins we should get a little respect, a little love," said Guillen, who was a coach on the Florida Marlins' 2003 world champions. "But honestly, I kind of like [not getting any]. I was with a team a couple years ago that wasn't supposed to win one game, then all of a sudden won the world championship."
It is fashionable this time of year, and perhaps even useful to a certain degree, to speak of advantages -- of historic trends that would seem to favor one team or another in a specific postseason. In recent years, October has tended to favor teams loaded with two or more dominant starting pitchers (so, congratulations in advance, Houston), or teams that are capable of manufacturing runs (congratulations to you, Chicago).
One might also examine the events of the past weekend and determine that both the Yankees and Red Sox were hurt because, needing wins to clinch their playoff berths, they were forced to use their respective aces on Saturday and Sunday.
Thus, while teams that clinched long ago, such as St. Louis and the Los Angeles Angels, were able to set up their postseason rotations long ago, New York won't have Randy Johnson until Game 3 against the Angels, and Boston, likewise, must wait until Game 4 to throw Curt Schilling against Chicago. And neither will be able to start twice in the first-round series.
Still, that didn't prevent the Yankees and Red Sox from speaking Sunday evening as if a rematch of their classic 2003 and 2004 battles in the ALCS was preordained.
"It's inevitable," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said, in what was surely a startling bit of news to the Angels and White Sox.
If examining pitching matchups is too seamhead-y for your tastes, perhaps you would prefer the "team-of-destiny" theory, whereby fate chooses in advance a team to smile upon and guide through October -- much as it seemed to do a year ago with the Red Sox.
Who might be the choice in 2005? How about the Astros, who became the first team in history to qualify for the playoffs after being as many as 15 games below .500?
Or how about the White Sox, who tend to be overlooked when fans speak of long-suffering franchises, but who haven't won the World Series since 1917?
Or how about the Braves, who have qualified for the postseason 14 times in a row (all via the division title), but have only one World Series title to show for it? There's no way the Braves should win it all this year, after using 18 rookies during the course of the season -- so maybe that's why they will.
If there's one thing you can count on in October, it's that you can't count on anything. Which is why only a fool would dare predict the outcome. But sometimes fools cannot help themselves.
Yankees over Angels. Red Sox over White Sox. Cardinals over Padres. Astros over Braves.
Yankees over Red Sox. Cardinals over Astros.
Cardinals over Yankees.