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Baseball’s Great Crescendo and New Beginning

I have become a baseball modernist.

This is no small evolution. Though I’ve been a fan longer than I can remember, I really started to embrace the history of the game, and the off the field aspect around the age of 12. In those years (1994-95, for those keeping score at home), I learned about the history of the game through books such as the Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 and October 1964, and Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer. I learned more about the business side of the game – and how we got to a place where the 1994 season was just cancelled – reading Lords of the Realm.

This growing interest occurred at a time when the game was going through significant structural changes. In 1994, the 25 year old two division format was replaced by a three division structure, with an additional wild card team (non-division winner with best record) qualifying for the playoffs. Revenue disparities between big and small market clubs were starting to become more apparent, especially when the uncrowned champions of 1994 – the Montreal Expos – traded most of their best players upon the end of the strike in what can only be described as a fire sale.

These factors grew as the ’90s went on. Baseball traditionalists like Bob Costas decried the changes to the playoff format, and the introduction of interleague play a few years later. Criticism of those changes, and previous innovations such as the Designated Hitter, resonated with me.

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Fenway Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Many would argue that much of baseball’s appeal is tied to its history and tradition – and romantic notions thereof. This is probably best exemplified through the great ‘People Will Come’ speech from Field of Dreams:

As I get older, I realize that, like with most forms of nostalgia, baseball romanticism harkens back to a past that probably never truly existed. The game has a great past in many ways, and the tradition and history adds value and a dimension that’s lacking in sports that don’t celebrate it to the same extent, but baseball must be enjoyed for its present and future as well. I’m still a traditionalist in some respects – for example, I believe that the Dodgers’ rightful home is Brooklyn. But I have come to appreciate that, like anything else, baseball must continue to try to evolve, and the game (both on and off the field) will change.

The 2012 seasons marks the start of a transition period in baseball, as it comes out of one era and will soon begin another, spurred by changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In 2013, an extra wild card team will be added, and the Houston Astros will move to the American League; which means that interleague play will now become a normal, regular feature of everyday baseball. The introduction of a bonus pool for the amateur draft and international signings will impact a competitive advantage many teams have built up by spending in these areas. It’s worth noting that it’s not just the big clubs who spend big these days on amateur signings – perennial low-payroll bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have built strong farm systems (that are just starting to pay off for the big club) by investing heavy in draft signings. These changes, and the end of the high-slugging steroid era make me believe that the game will shift again, and we’re entering a new era.

Zimmerman at Bat
Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who have built a team poised to content contend in the next few years.

Given that, it gives the great finish to the 2011 season additional meaning to me. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting finishes to a season, a wonderful crescendo of an era soon to pass. The last night of the regular season produced unparalleled drama. 4 of 7 playoff series went to the deciding game (in total, 38 of 41 possible playoff games were played). The St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the title produced a handful of legitimately great moments, from Chris Carpenter’s complete game shutout in Philly to win the NLDS, to the amazing finish in Game 6 of the World Series, where the Cardinals were down 2, and on their last strike – twice – tying the game both times before winning on a walk off home run in the 11th. David Freese’s triple to tie that game in the 9th is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, given that the game looked over at the start of the inning.

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It would have been different if the new playoff rules were in place. The four teams vying for two wild card spots – the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Braves – all would have clinched their spots by the last night in a two Wild Card per league system, taking away all the drama of that evening. Those teams would have faced off in one-game play-ins, which – while exciting in their own right – would have had a cascading effect for the winners going forward. Had the Cardinals moved on, the added workload on their pitching staff might have shown up in the Phillies’ series, and tipped the scales away from them. In this way, there’s a neat parallel to the 1993 season, last before the wild card era, where the Braves beat the Giants in an epic NL West pennant race that would never have happened under the new system.

I have reservations about some of the changes coming. I think the more teams you add to the playoffs, the more it dilutes the value of the regular season. I’ve grown to be agnostic on interleague play itself, but I do like the way it happens at specific times – treating it as a special event, rather than being an everyday occurrence. I’ve enjoyed following how teams use the draft and signings to build, and as a competitive advantage, and I’d hate to see that diminished.

Yet, I’m optimistic. There will still be exciting races for the wild card (even if it’s for the second spot). Given the randomness of a one-game playoff, I hope it will add emphasis on the value of a team winning its division. I know that interleague becoming a normalized part of the schedule won’t take away from the more intraleague matchups, and rivalries that have come out of that. It will also add a quirk to the schedule every day, highlighting an uncommon matchup. I also know that well-managed teams will find other ways of gaining an edge through the draft and international signings. Speaking of, I’m excited to see if the promising new hires in the Houston Astros front office can in time make them the Rays of the West, competing with and beating the big payroll Angels and Rangers.

This season will almost certainly not live up to last in terms of excitement down the stretch. Yet, I will enjoy the games, and root for the Red Sox, and without a doubt there will be memorable moments and performances along the way. I’m also trying to prepare for the new era of the game, and approach it with optimism – the belief that not only will it be different from the past, it will also be better.

But, if nothing else, there is this to provide comfort and excitement:

Today, Sunday, February 19, pitchers and catchers report.

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One Night in September

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

The words of former baseball commissioner, and lifelong Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti echo through my mind as I replay a 10 minute sequence that ended baseball’s regular season. Sure, a couple teams played on, but for all intents and purposes, the season came to a rare, dramatic climax late in the September evening along the Atlantic coast.

As Joe Posnanski wrote so eloquently yesterday, baseball largely revolves around anticlimax. More often than not, the predictable happens. Then sometimes, you get events like Wednesday night. Everything held to form for a while, but some time around 9:30 EST, when it starting raining in Baltimore, the script went out the window (ESPN has a timeline of the major events). About 3 hours later, the dust settled on one of the most unpredictable, memorable nights in baseball history.

I won’t go into detail recapping the events. St. Louis dominated Houston, capping a marvelous September run to the NL wild card. Atlanta’s worn out bullpen faltered when it needed to come through, the culmination of Atlanta’s own September dive, driven by a pitching staff beset by injuries and overwork. Tampa Bay, behind their ace David Price, fell behind 7-0 to a less than full strength Yankees club. With all but the scrubs out of the New York lineup, the Rays rallied, scoring 6 in the 8th, and hitting the game-tying homer with 2 outs and a 2 strike count in the 9th. Boston gripped to a 1 run lead from the 5th inning on as their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound in the 9th. After getting the first 2 men out, 3 straight doubles by Baltimore scored 2 runs to end the game. What felt like seconds later, Evan Longoria homered to win the game in Tampa Bay, ending Boston’s season. What had been a 10 1/2 game lead 4 weeks earlier was gone.

Night
The Red Sox’s season died on a Wednesday night in Baltimore.

The rationale side of me, the pure baseball fan, loved Wednesday’s drama. There were three memorable games with lots at stake. If I could show last night to everyone who wonders why I love baseball so much, they wouldn’t wonder anymore. The night ended with small market Tampa Bay, one of the best run organizations, winning on a walk-off from one of the game’s best players. Even a Red Sox fan wouldn’t begrudge the Rays.

But that’s the thing. I’m also a Red Sox fan. And being a fan of a specific club is inherently irrational. There is no reciprocity in this relationship. I don’t get input into who the club signs or trades, the club doesn’t know I exist, and I doubt it cares about me any more than any other data point in its market research. I’m okay with that. As I said, being a fan requires a suspension of rational thinking.

But the highs of being a baseball fan Wednesday were tempered by the lows of being a Red Sox fan. Given their state, had they advanced, the Sox were likely to go out in the first round. This doesn’t take away the success of 2004 and 2007. But, it is a low point I haven’t felt since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which was much much worse). The Sox built a team to win in 2011, but they fell far short. They didn’t have the depth to recover when injuries cut into their pitching staff. One of their star acquisitions played like a league average outfielder. Many of their hitters went silent down the stretch.

What lingers is the feeling of lost opportunity, and the worry that the opportunites may not come again, or may be fewer and far between. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. They play in a division with the ever-powerful Yankees, the talented Rays, and the ascending Blue Jays. With aging players at key positions, success may be hard to come by for Boston these next few years.

Meanwhile, the games go on. Baseball fans, myself included, look forward to 4 weeks of playoff competition. Tonight, Detroit ace Justin Verlander tries to steal a win at Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Milwaukee – the smallest market in the game – kicks off their pennant run against young, surprising Arizona. It’s Milwaukee’s last chance to win before star slugger Prince Fielder, a free agent to be, likely leaves for greener pastures. Philadelphia, behind it’s stellar rotation, will try to win the championship – which would be the first for aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Texas aims for a repeat trip to the World Series, and St. Louis tries to squeeze another run out on aging core, one that could break up as soon as this off-season if Albert Pujols moves on. The next 4 weeks will surely produce more memorable moments; if any of them approach Wednesday night, baseball fans are in for something special.

And then next year in the spring, as Vin Scully says, “everything old is new again”. Hope and promise will return. Maybe the Red Sox will rebound, and this collapse will be an aberration, not a return to form. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy being a baseball fan these next 4 weeks.

Playoff Predictions:
Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Brewers.
Brewers over Yankees in the World Series.

Priority of Cheering in the Playoffs:
1. Brewers
2. Phillies (for Halladay to win a World Series)
3. Rays
4. Tigers
5. Rangers
6. Diamondbacks
7. Cardinals
8. None of the Above
9. Yankees