Sunday, July 08, 2012

Wait 'Till the Next Year Bud Changes the Wild-Card Rules!

Sometime in early June, I looked at the box score of a Phillies game, and said of my team, as almost all baseball fans say at some point every season, "it just ain't their year."

It was a sad moment, but not an unfamiliar one. In my youth, one often came to that realization about the Phils in spring training. And letting go of what were once pennant and are now postseason dreams carries relief as well as sorrow. No need to stay up for scores from the Coast. Defeats, while annoying, are no longer so painful. Victories aren't a means of survival in a cutthroat regular season. They now serve to build up needed optimism for next spring.

Most of all, the not-this-year mindset can, on occasion, force a ballclub to see itself for what it is, and make plans and changes accordingly. In the case of the 2012 Phils, that's a team that's had a lengthy cycle on top which is coming to its inevitable close, built on a core of stars who're getting older, and accordingly getting hurt more. This reality will help Cole Hamels get really rich this winter, whether he chooses to stay in Philly or not.

Commissioner Bud Selig, the Players' Association and all major league club owners hate and fear the "not our year" moment. There aren't many less fun experiences in sports than being a member of a baseball team that's playing out the string, and the longer the string, the worse the experience gets. Attempting to attract paying customers to watch said string is not a jolly financial experience, either. Baseball's strength as a business is also its biggest vulnerability -- a massive amount of inventory. Demand-side economics is its only economics.

Most teams most years are somewhere between .450-.550 in winning percentages. Most of those B+/C- students are clustered around the .500 mark. Once upon a time, that meant the "ain't our year" moment penetrated fan and team mindsets sometime in the month after the All-Star break, ominously coinciding with the NFL preseason. And so baseball split itself into six divisions and created the wild card.  This postponed resignation to fate until September for many eventual losers and even created some happy winners, whose victories are cited by management of middling teams the way casinos publicize people who win slot machine mega-jackpots.

Hope is a drug like any other. Eventually a stronger fix is needed to maintain the same old high. The Red Sox failed to make the playoffs for three straight seasons. Since the Sox, for reasons that escape me, are one of the teams people outside New England like to watch on television, this was intolerable to Major League Baseball the business enterprise. And so now we have the second wild card. A little October rain and we could also have the World Series finish on Election Day, but that's another matter. The second wild-card is designed to make .500 the new .550. Mediocrity is enough to give a club a shot at the playoffs until Labor Day at least and likely until the equinox.  The second wild card is the China White of baseball hope drugs.

Here in Boston, many are hooked. If there's one thing sadder than watching the Phils this year, it's watching Red Sox players, all other team personnel, commentators and fans discuss how the 2012 Sox are "only" 2-3 games out of the second wild-card spot, and that they are sure to earn it, as they're so much better than all the mediocre teams in the American League. The evidence to support that assertion is a miracle of circular logic. The Red Sox are better than their record because whoever says so believes Sox players are more talented than those on other mediocre teams. THEIR records show they have mediocre players. OUR record shows the Sox are bound to improve in the second half of the season.

Which the Sox well might, but that wouldn't make the argument any less illogical. And it's noteworthy how expectations have changed so much in such a short time. Last August, the operative theme was still "could be best Sox team ever." Eleven months later, it's the Stuart Smalley Sox, plenty good enough for the second wild-card, darn it.

I submit that if ever there was a franchise that could use a good long stretch of "wait 'till next year," it's the Red Sox. They really haven't had a play out the string season since 1997.  "Not this time" seasons do for a ballclub what forest fires do to forests -- they are damaging, devastating, and essential for clearing out the deadwood and renewing healthy growth. If a 75-87 record is what it's going to take to convince everyone inside and outside the Sox organization that Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are not and are never going to be the equivalent of the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves of the '90s, it'd be well worth a summer's pain and ennui.

Yours truly, no longer close enough to the Red Sox to inhale the club's institutional atmosphere, and as noted, fan of another team altogether, does not see a talented team in a bad patch when he sees the 2012 Sox. I see a team with the frustrating pattern of all .500 teams of all baseball history, just successful enough to make failure really annoying. Just successful enough to breed the dangerous illusion that's its failures are a deviation from its true norm.

Once upon a time, August killed that illusion. A mediocre team would be 10-20 games out of playoff contention, forcing reality to come in from the bullpen. In 2012, when the Red Sox could use their strongest dose of reality in many years, we will have a July, August, and probably September where the second wild card standings will be the franchise's defining graphic.

Dumping on the hopes of others is mean. So I won't point out that the second wild-card standings will be a prominent feature of the second halves of the 2012 season in one hell of a lot of other American League cities, too.


At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad but rue

Shockingly this season as I live in DC I can make the switch from Phliies fan to Nats fan seamlessly. Who would have thought of THAT a year ago.


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