Seasonal Cycles: Baseball

And so it’s over one more time.  Major League Baseball has completed its regular season.  There have been many gray, transitional October days like this for me in past years, days when I remember with sorrow that there will be no new box scores in tomorrow’s paper, that my favorite pitcher is not going to get one more shot at a 20-game season, that my favorite hitter is not going to make it to 30 home runs, that there will be no more evenings of watching games evolve, each individual contest new and unique, like a snowflake in a blizzard of baseball action.   Every major league team will have offered and received a total of upwards of 41,000 pitches this season, roughly half of which will have been swung at, for almost 21,000 swings.  All that action, all that strategy—sacrifice bunts, delayed steals, hit-and-runs, intentional walks, pickoffs, balks, arguments, walk-off hits, brushbacks—all of it is packed away until next year, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mid-February 2013.

Gray October days are often wistful for other reasons.  Bucky F. Dent’s weak home run spoils a great Red Sox season.  Bobby Tomson assures Ralph Branca of a long winter of regrets.   The Phillies blow a 6.5 game lead with 15 remaining in 1964.  The Sox lose two in Yankee Stadium to finish 1 game behind the Bombers in 1949.  And that’s before the World Series even begin.

Trouble is, the World Series is now the “playoffs.”  Back in the old two-league, sixteen-team days, the teams with the best record in each league won the league flag, or “pennant.”  Then they played each other best-of-seven in the World Series.  There was honor, but not postseason play, for those teams finishing in the top half of each league, the “first division.”   This setup gave proper emphasis to the importance of the regular season.  Baseball is unique among professional sports in playing a long schedule.  Then it was 154 games; now it’s 162.  Over such a long stretch, there are not usually great differentials among the teams of professional ballplayers.  Few teams play worse than a .400 won-lost percentage, and few much above .600 (this year it ranged from the Washington nationals at .605 to the sad-sack Houston Astros at .340).  But the small differentials really create contrasts as big as night and day.  Those pennant winners deserved to be the ones to reap all the October glory, and the rest of the league and their fans could look forward to next year, and more sunny days and warm evenings of give and take on the diamond.

Now the best teams get less advantage, and more teams get a cut of the revenues to be had by extending the season.  But baseball is not baseball when it is played in cold weather, especially at night.  And now that we are starting with five teams in each league all kinds of inequities arise.  The Washington Nationals, owners of the best record in baseball (am I dreaming?  Could I imagine typing that last phrase even 5 months ago?), have to begin their postseason with two games on the road at the home of the Wild Card team.  Given the vicissitudes of baseball and the strength at the top of the Atlanta pitching staff, the Nats could be shuffling home next Tuesday on the verge of elimination.  The Braves, on the other hand, have to risk immediate postseason elimination in a single sudden-death game, though they were distinctly a better team this season than St. Louis.  Similar situations exist in the AL.  Even worse are the threats from frosty nights and autumn storms.  As the playoffs go on, the weather gets worse, especially in northern climes.  If the World Series goes seven games this year, Game Seven will be on All Saints’ Day evening.  Yes, that’s right—November!

Ending up with the best regular season record requires more consistency, more resourcefulness, more persistence, more “true grit,” than any post-season achievement.  The only luck involved is the uncontrollable demon of injuries.  In the postseason, with its short series, quirky schedules, sometimes violent and hostile weather, and three/four man rotations, all sorts of twists can ruin the best teams and raise the most lowly ones.  It’s more a matter of drama and chance than consistent quality.

So the Washington Nationals already have something they can be very proud of.  They’ve had a grand year, made grander by its being largely a surprise.  They have risen faster than we thought, and have given us many thrills, whole reels of flashy highlights and small satisfactions.  I think they’ll do well in the playoffs.  But I would argue that their biggest achievement of 2012 will be that .605 record, no matter what happens between now and November 1.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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