Friday, March 2, 2012

the 2012 mlb playoffs: the best ever. wait, what?!?!

“One toke over the line, Sweet Jesus!
One toke over line!
Sitting downtown in a railway station,
One toke over the line!

Waiting for the train that goes home, Sweet Mary,
Hoping that the train is on time!
Sitting downtown in a railway station,
One toke over the line …”

(*: in case you don’t know, Allan H. “Bud” Selig made his money selling used cars as the head of the Selig Executive Lease Company.  In his defense?  I’d gladly pay a couple grand to Bud long before I’d shell out a couple grand to (insert first name here) Franklin or the late, great Bill Gehr.  “When you need credit?  You get it!  At Bill Gehr!”, a man who tragically does not have a Wikipedia page …)


I should probably note up front, that when it comes to baseball, I am a staunch traditionalist.  As a fan of an American League team, that is somewhat surprising.  Given my viewpoint on most issues of the day, be it politics, social, or other agenda items, me admitting to being a traditionalist in regards to anything is downright shocking.

I personally hate the DH.  I get that its here to stay, because the players union will never sign off on losing (soon to be) fifteen high-paying jobs that extend veterans careers.  Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.

I despise interleague play.  Look it, I go to a few interleague games every summer, and I generally enjoy them … but part of the fun growing up (ok, at least for me) was that one magical weekend each summer when Dad would load me and a couple buddies in the car and drive 4 hours to St. Louis to watch “the other league”, the stars of the National League who would never make an appearance in Kansas City. 

But the most repulsive “progress” of the game of all to me?  Was the wildcard.  The beauty of baseball, at least to me, pre-1994, was that in order to win a championship, in order to win the Series, you had to BE a champion of your division.  It didn’t matter that you occasionally wound up with an 85 win World Series champ (the 1987 Twins), because they (a) had won more games than at least six other teams in direct competition with them, (b) had outlasted another division champion in the playoffs, and (c) had defeated the other league’s champion in the Series.  I always, always, always loved that a second place team could NEVER do anything better than finish second.

Up until today, I refused to embrace the wildcard.  Look it, there’s no doubt it’s delivered some epic postseason moments, none more so than in 2004, when the second place Red Sox, trailing three games to none, four runs to three, in the bottom of the ninth, used a simple stolen base to spark the greatest comeback in the game’s history.  And yeah, I cheered the hell out of that result, almost as much as if I was a Red Sox fan.  (The Yankee hater in me shining through.)  But it didn’t mean I embraced it. 

Up until today, baseball’s postseason basically put a wildcard on a level playing field with a division champion, and in many regards, gave them preferential treatment, because a wildcard team couldn’t face a team from their own division in the first round.  So instead of the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees bashing each other’s heads in over five hard-fought games to open the postseason, instead, (usually) the AL Central champion got screwed by having to face the Rays, Red Sox, or Yankees right away, and the AL West champ got screwed by having to face (generally speaking) the second most talented team in the league, instead of the weak sister of the postseason known as the AL Central Division Champion. 

But then came today, as Major League Baseball announced that effective immediately, they are adding a SECOND wildcard team to the postseason.  I suspect, given my traditionalist bent, that this might induce a heart attack and/or a wild drinking binge to occur for me.

But I feel the opposite.  With this one (I’d argue) genius move, baseball has actually restored integrity to its postseason*, and more importantly, has restored the value of winning a division championship, in addition to doing what the NFL set out to do ten years ago: screw the wildcard royally.

(*: for the 2012 postseason, due to the schedule, some wacky rules apply that hurt the division champs potentially.  Basically, the 1995-1997 divisional round schedule is returning for one season, where the lower seeded team opens at home for two, then plays three straight on the road (if need be).  Come 2013, this will not be the case.)

Here’s four reasons why I love this decision, arguably the first in the Allan H. “Bud” Selig era I whole-heartedly endorse:

1. It ensures two “do or die, winner takes all” games EVERY postseason.  There’s a reason why in any of the three major sports that feature multi-game series, “Game Seven” has the aura of respect and hype that it does – because it’s the rarest of circumstances.  Winner Takes All.  There are way too few Game Sevens (or in the divisional round, Game Fives) in life in my opinion.

But here’s the deal.  WHEN those moments happen?  They tend to be very anti-climatic … because Game Six tends to be the turning point of the series.  Think 1985 World Series, an 11-0 Royals victory that was over the second the parking lot gates opened for business.  Why?  Because the Royals had destroyed the Cardinals confidence the night before, rallying from down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth to gut out the victory.  Or take 2011, for you Cardinals fans reading this.  There wasn’t a SHOT IN HELL of St. Louis losing Game Seven of the World Series this year.  Not a SHOT IN HELL.  Why?  Because of game six.  Just like the Boyz N Blue destroyed your will to win 26 years earlier, you destroyed the Rangers will to win last October.

Off the top of my head, I can think of about a dozen Game Sevens of meaning.  (1) The 1994 Stanley Cup Finals that the Rangers won 3-2 over the Canucks, and before that (2), the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Rangers won on Stephane Matteau’s double OT goal to oust the Devils.  (But even that was upstaged by Mark Messier’s guarantee and three goal game six on the road to force game seven.)  (3) The 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks rallying off Mariano Rivera to win 3-2.  (4) The 1997 World Series, the Marlins beating the Indians in extra innings.  (5) The 2002 Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers beat the Kings in overtime.  (6) The 2003 ALCS, when the Yankees beat the Red Sox on Aaron Boone’s 13th inning homer.  (7) The 1994 Eastern Conference Semis, when the Knicks finally beat the Bulls, and (8) the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, when they outlasted a 25 point quarter by Reggie Miller to reach the Finals.  (And (9) the 1995 Eastern Semis the next year, when Patrick Ewing missed a layup as time expired to propel the Pacers into the Eastern Finals).  (10) The 2010 NBA Finals, when the Lakers outlasted the Celtics.  (11) The 1991 World Series, possibly the greatest baseball Game Seven ever, when Jack Morris threw ten scoreless innings, and the Twins scored in the bottom of the tenth to win 1-0.  (But even that was overshadowed by the greatness that Game Six was, Puckett’s bottom of the eleventh leadoff homer that left Jack Buck screaming “We’ll see you tomorrow night!”)  And (12) the 2006 Western Conference Semis, when the Spurs rallied from down ten points with two minutes to go to force overtime … only to see Dallas seize victory from the jaws of a collapse in that overtime on an incredible Dirk and-one as time expired.

I’m sure I’m missing some, but there’s a dozen.

In thirty years of sports watching, a dozen monumental Game Seven’s.

That ain’t much.

By adding a second wildcard, baseball has ensured at least TWO “Win or Go Home” games a year.  (Here’s a hint to the clueless: if you wonder why the NFL Playoffs and the NCAA Men’s Tournament are the two biggest ratings generators in sports today, it’s because EVERY GAME is “Win or Go Home”.)  Baseball has ensured two of these for themselves, AT LEAST, every season.  I love it.

2. No more mathematical tiebreakers!  Hey, a bone to us traditionalists!  Sweet!  The wildcard system as it was should have been exposed as the sham that it was in 1996, when the Dodgers and Padres entered the final game of the season separated by a game, the Padres in front.  However, Game 162 was MEANINGLESS, because even if the Dodgers won, there would have been no one-game playoff, because the Padres had “clinched” the division via some insane tiebreaker, and the Dodgers, having the best non-divisional champion record in the NL, had “clinched” the wildcard. 

Now?  Winning a division is HUGELY important, because it buys you (at least) TWO days of rest, allows you to set up your rotation as you see fit, and (other than in 2012) ensures a wildcard team is coming into your stadium (if you’re the top seed) on little rest, a rotation in shambles (as the wildcard team is going to throw the best pitcher it has available out there to simply stay alive a day earlier), and you get the first two at home, and if need be, the clincher at home.  I can dig it.  And while I’m hammering home that point …

3. Winning a division championship matters again.  Why?  Not only for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph … but, wait for it … wait for it … the rule preventing a wildcard team from facing a fellow divisional rival?  Has been tossed to the trash pile where it deserves to be!

No longer is the AL Central and AL West champs going to get screwed because the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays can’t face each other before the ALCS.  (Or in the National League, no longer are the NL West and East champs gonna get screwed because the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds can’t face each other before the NLCS).  MLB has finally entered the eighteenth century, and realized that the lowest ceded team remaining should face the highest ceded team remaining, regardless of divisional status.  As a Royals fan, this has me giddy, and here’s why:

Let’s run a hypothetical.  Let’s say the Tigers fail to live up to their lofty expectations due to (a) injury issues, (b) fielding the WORST defense in the modern history of baseball, or (c) plain bad luck.  The team most in position to poach the AL Central in 2012 if (a), (b), or (c) occurs … is your Boyz N Blue.  Let’s say the Royals sneak in at 86-76 (which is NOT an unlikely scenario, for what it’s worth). 

Under the old system?  We’d be screwed, and have to face whoever finishes second between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays (or possibly Blue Jays, who aren’t that bad on paper entering this season), because of the whole “divisional rivals can’t meet until the LCS round” rule.  Now?  As the likely lowest divisional champ, we’d draw (most likely) the Rangers or Angels.  And while you can argue that isn’t much of an alternative, I’d argue it’s a better alternative, because (a) it ensures at least ONE of the AL East teams is out of here in the divisional round, and (b) for at least 2012, we’d open at home as the lower seed!

I don’t type this next paragraph lightly, and I don’t type it as anything other than wishful thinking …

But can you IMAGINE the scene at the K on the first weekend of October 2012?  The Royals hosting the AL West champs on Saturday night, and turning around for a 3pm first pitch the next day?  I mean, it’s been 9 years since a meaningful baseball game has been played in that stadium, the 2003 pennant race that was over by mid-September.  It’s been TWENTY SEVEN YEARS since a postseason game was played there.  You think the crowd would be geeked up?  Christ, it’s been EIGHTEEN YEARS since ANY team that calls the Truman Sports Complex home has WON a  playoff game at home (or anywhere for that matter).

Which brings me to point four …

4. The Royals now HAVE to go for it in 2012.  If you figure the Rangers and Yankees are mortal locks for the playoffs (and at this point, I’d concur), and you figure the Rays or Angels will get the first wildcard (and again, I’d concur) … then the Royals still have an open road to the 2012 postseason.

Via TWO spots instead of one.

I firmly believe the AL Central is up for grabs.  The Tigers are loaded on offense … but that defense is ATROCIOUS.  They’re basically playing eight players of my defensive caliber behind their pitcher.  Now, to be fair, I do have a sneaky quick burst in me now and then, and I am one helluva third base coach in the softball leagues out at Longview when pressed into service*.

(*: cue the Dusty, Damien, Mark, "Deadbeat Ex Roomie", "insert softball player here" voice saying "well yeah, anyone can look good chugging a 40oz while standing motionless!" voice.)

But for God’s sake, if you’re fielding ME at third base – a lazy alcoholic, which Miguel Cabrera is … if you’re fielding ME, an out of shape “can’t run worth a damn” player at first base, which Prince Fielder is ... uum, how are you “fielding” ANYTHING on defense?

And yet, not only is the AL Central now on the table, but you can push that “Second AL Wildcard” hand into the pot as well … because as Jayson Stark notes in his column today on the playoff expansion, 89 wins is the “Willy Wonka Memorial Golden Ticket”.  20 teams in the Wild Card era have won 89 games and failed to make the postseason.  SIXTEEN of them would have made it under the dual wildcard setup.

The Royals won 71 last year playing not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six … keep going … not seven, not eight, not nine, not ten … not done yet … not eleven, but TWELVE players making their major league debut!  Jesus, half the f*cking roster was rookie talent!  And they STILL won 71 games (and Pythagorean had them at 78 wins).

If you figure we regress to the median (or in the Royals case, progress), then there’s 11 games we have to make up to get into a “winner take all” scenario on October 5th

11 games.  If you figure Jonathan Sanchez replacing Kyle Davies is worth what, four of those eleven?  If you figure a full season of Paulino is worth another two, then we’re down to five.  Figure Soria isn’t a train wreck early on, that’s another two, maybe three.  We don’t toss Vin Mazzaro out there for a sixteen run disaster, that’s (itzhak stern voice) wait, you aren't buying wins, are you?  You're buying them*?

(*: forgive me the bastardization of that amazing movie.  I really, really, really love the last 45 minutes of that movie.)

Which gets you to break even.

And at break even?  You’ve now got two chances at the playoffs.  A divisional title …

Or a one game “do or die”. 

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