What the Washington Nationals did tonight with their 4-1 victory over the Marlins was to claim the best record in the National League for 2014. No big deal, right? After all, it was last night when they assured themselves of home field advantage through the NCLS, because they split a doubleheader, accumulating just enough victories for the season to clinch at worst tie with the Dodgers for the NL’s best record. But the Nats held the tiebreaker, having beaten the Dodgers 4 out of 6 head-to-head. Success was theirs. Tonight they merely kept their surging momentum going, and gained “bragging rights” over the Dodgers.
What a sad situation the whole idea of a string of short series to determine the two Major League World Series representatives has wrought. No longer is a team given any substantive credit for having the best won-lost record in the league. To achieve that goal that team has to be superior over 162 games, as the Nats were this year. They needed a full five-man rotation, not just the attenuated four-man version designed for the playoffs. They needed a deep, reliable bullpen, with a variety of middle-inning relievers, a designated setup man, and a closer who was dependable, efficient, and free of ninth-inning drama. And when he got tired they needed to find, and did so, a successor in their own bullpen. They needed a strong, resilient lineup top to bottom, one with enough depth to overcome the (all too frequent) injuries and the slumps. They needed some reliable subs to rest their regulars. They needed good performance, successful decisions and unflappable confidence, day in and day out, from their coaches and manager, through streaks and through slumps.
In ye olden tymes this was called “winning the pennant.” People as old as I remember hearing the frenzied, ecstatic call of Russ Hodges in 1951 when the Dodgers and Giants had a one-game playoff, won by the Giants on Bobby Thomson’s 9th-inning 3-run homer. Or the last game of the 1967 AL season, when Jim Lonborg pitched the Red Sox to a last-game-of-the-season victory. And if we want to go way back in time, this year is the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle Braves,” a Boston club that was in last place on the fourth of July, but won the pennant by going a staggering 70-19 over their last 89 games and winning, nay, sweeping, the World Series from Connie Mack’s heavily favored Philadelphia As. Winning the pennant was what every team yearned for, fought for, and celebrated.
For pennant winners it was the long haul, regular season performance that assured the memorability of the season, the championship. Now, thanks to the money-grubbing, TV-oriented policies of MLB, this unique achievement has been reduced to bragging rights, to home field advantage. All that really counts is the quirky unpredictability of a sequence of short series, best 3 of 5 or 4 of 7. Now it’s all about one post-season hot pitcher, or a couple of hitters on fire.
So now in baseball, a major league sport unique in having a long, long, 162-game season, and in measuring success by statistics accumulated over the months, years, and decades, the substantive success of a whole season’s dominance by one team is thrust aside to create a sequence of trivial, almost contrived, dramatic moments, the most intense of which are usually experienced in late October at night with high wind chills, not the environment in which the Boys of Summer were destined to achieve their most characteristic, best, work.
So three cheers for the Washington Nationals, who have already achieved the highest level of success which baseball offers, no matter what October may bring.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.