October Tricks: A Baseball Treat
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 11, 1999; Page D1
Most major sports events can be predicted. Or, rather, even the unpredictable elements of the event can be anticipated. We may not know who's going to win, but we know the general lines along which the battle probably will be fought. A Brett Favre or Tim Duncan is the issue. The second-string nickel back isn't. We know who matters and who's marginal.
Except in baseball in October. Then, nobody knows anything.
So far, some of the biggest heroes of the baseball postseason are Todd Pratt, Walt Weiss, Kevin Millwood, John Rocker, Lou Merloni, Ramon (not Pedro) Martinez and Don Zimmer's skull. Several of these guys are nobodies. None seems bound for Cooperstown.
After the first week of drama, the flops include Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez perhaps the game's three best pitchers as well as Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez, all of whom may hit their way into the Hall of Fame.
In other words, the situation is normal: October baseball has produced absolutely the opposite of what everybody expected and predicted. This happens almost every year (Scott Brosius, Livan Hernandez, Brian Doyle, Buddy Biancalana). But nobody ever seems to remember (Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey, Bernie Carbo, Gene Larkin). In baseball, the stars usually flop in October (Tony Perez, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges, Mark McGwire), while the nobodies suddenly become celebrities for a day or a week (Don Larsen, Mark Lemke, Jeffrey Maier, Francisco Cabrera).
It's always Billy Hatcher who hits .750 in the same World Series that Jose Canseco hits .083. Why not just call it The Bucky Dent Rule?
Over 162 games, baseball is the most predictable and statistically overdetermined of all sports. It's also the fairest. A team that wins 100 games is extremely good and no one in their right mind would debate it.
However, over a five-game or seven-game playoff series, baseball is absolutely unpredictable, statistically underdetermined and, thus to a thrilling extent pretty darn unfair. Anything can happen. The best team doesn't always win. So, as a result, the top teams and greatest players spend half their time trying much too hard and choking their brains out.
What we've got during this one crazy month in baseball and most of us love this goofiness is a setup in which the Nobodies have the maximum conceivable chance to be heroes. Conversely, the future Hall of Famers have the thumbscrews of pressure turned tighter every day and, as a result, have a dazzlingly high chance to be goats. And, boy, do they know it.
This is what always seems to happen in October baseball. The Mets desperately need to win Game 4 to complete their upset of the Diamondbacks, so that they won't have to go back to Arizona to face The Big Unit in a Game 5. But New York's best player, Mike Piazza, has a sore thumb and can't play.
So, what happens? Piazza's unknown backup, Pratt, hits a 10th-inning, sudden-death home run. It's not enough that the ball goes over the center field fence. It has to tick off Steve Finley's glove as he climbs the fence. "I should have caught it. It hit the end of my glove. ... I've caught a lot of those before," said a distraught Finley.
Don't worry about it, Steve. You hit 34 homers. Pratt hit three. This is postseason baseball. That ball is going to tip off your glove every time.
So far, my favorite proof of Dent's Law came in Game 3 of the Red Sox-Indians series. Has there ever been a playoff team more dependent on two stars than Boston? Without Pedro and Nomar, they're the Rochester Red Wings. So, Pedro's back goes bum on him and Nomar's hand swells up like a strudel. Ramon, who has 21 fewer wins than Pedro, pitches and Merloni, who has 13 RBI to Nomar's 104, plays shortstop. Ramon wins. Merloni hits like a mad man. It makes no sense. It's a thing of beauty.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of October baseball, however, is the total catatonic team hitting slump. No lineup, no matter how fabulous, is immune. Once such a slump begins, no other factor seems to matter. Anybody can beat you. Every pitcher is Koufax.
These may be the central postseason words in baseball: "My intensity was completely out of control." Roger Clemens had an amazingly poor postseason record until this week: nine starts, one win. Yankees Manager Joe Torre moved him back to a Game 3 start on the road. Less pressure, less demands, perhaps. "We just hope he doesn't get too pumped up," said Torre.
Clemens won with seven shutout innings, then said, "Skip keeps telling me, 'Calm down. Less is more.' I guess he's right."
Perhaps the most significant thing that has happened so far in these playoffs was a foul ball by Chuck Knoblauch that hit 68-year-old coach Zimmer in the same head that contains Zimmy's famous metal plate a souvenir of beanings that threatened his life and shortened his career.
Until that moment in Game 1, the Yanks appeared tight. Their 97-win season didn't look like much after 114 wins in '98. The pressure to repeat was intense. While Zimmer lay on the dugout floor, the Yanks were visibly shaken, almost stricken. Nobody is more beloved than Zimmer, who is a universal grandfather figure a symbol of bemused, stoic sanity in a game that eventually seems to drive everybody else nuts.
As soon as Zimmer returned to the dugout, patched up, bleeding a little, jaw swelling, but toughing it out and laughing at himself, the Yankees awoke. As soon as he grinned and rubbed Knoblauch's head, a bolt of energy went through the dugout. Thereafter, New York beat the Rangers for three games as if they were rag dolls. For Game 2, Zimmer sat in the dugout in a World War II combat helmet with a Yankees insignia on the front.
The world needs to see Bobby Valentine bring his Mets into Yankee Stadium for the World Series after the rockhead comments Valentine made in Sports Illustrated when he thought his team was dead.
"You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse. You're not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part," said Valentine. "A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to."
Now, after beating the Diamondbacks, Valentine says of his Mets, "It's a special group of guys." Yeah, right, Bobby. Special in what way?
Yankees fans, start painting those bedsheet insults now. Mine would say: "If You Kan Reed This, Your Knot A Met."
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