All over America, fans await the start of the World Series in San Francisco on Wednesday and wonder why the heck their teams aren't there instead. A half-dozen towns, including Cincinnati, St. Louis and Washington, believe they are alone in what-might-have-been misery.
But in October, there's always plenty of company when it comes to holding your head in your hands, muttering, "We were two games ahead," or "We only needed one more strike" or "We hit 245 homers this year and now we can't score one stupid run," or "We were 10 games better than those guys for six months and now we lose thanks to Daniel Descalso?"
How on earth can the Detroit Tigers wallow around for 152 games, then wake up the last 10 games of the season, sneak into the playoffs from a weak division and, all of a sudden, end up rested, happy and favored in the Series?
Baseball lovers enjoy boasting about the near-perfection of their game, how the same 90 feet distance between the bases and the 60 feet, 6 inches between the pitching rubber and home plate are just as suitable to the athletes of 2012 as they were to 1912. Oh, there's no clock and on and on.
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But baseball does have just one little itsy-bitsy problem that it has never solved and never will. Since 1901, the sport has tried to figure out a fair way to decide its annual champ. No answer yet. As wild cards proliferate, the difficulty becomes only greater. So you could probably call that a flaw. In fact, it's such an elephant in the room that we simply agree to ignore it.
Upsets happen in Super Bowls or NBA Finals. Nobody wants a predictable postseason. But baseball is often uniquely bizarre. If St. Louis had won Game 7 of the NLCS on Monday, then two teams with 88 regular-season wins apiece would have met in the Series. Put another way: The top 10 regular-season teams would all have been left out of MLB's world championship while two teams that tied for 11th in wins would get to fight it out.
Eleventh versus eleventh? Really? It was close. Someday, it'll happen.
If you want a symbol of postseason baseball, consider this: What was the three-run difference turning point play of that Game 7? The Giants' Hunter Pence hit a ball three times with one shattered-bat swing — yes, he hit the ball, the bat exploded and touched the ball two more times before it curved wildly past the Cardinals shortstop. The momentum in a pennant-deciding game was born of a play few had ever seen before.
Baseball has two radically different seasons that are hardly related to each other at all. They're barely cousins. For generations, fans have been asked to make their own private peace with the enormous gulf between the 162-game examination and the postseason pop quizzes that let one team pile on the mound, spray champagne, brag about its "character" and act like it is really better than everyone else — even though, much of the time, they aren't.
This is nobody's fault. It can't be fixed. But unless you internalize the problem and, in some sense, accept it, you're going to be frustrated and annoyed by a sport that, otherwise, offers huge pleasure for seven months.
The most extreme example is the Atlanta Braves, who won 14 straight division titles but only one World Series. Something almost always tripped them. Yet the Hall of Fame is someday going to be chocked with players named Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Chipper Jones.
In Washington, where the Nationals won more games than any team in baseball this year, there has been a painful learning curve this month. Nats fans will have to figure out what many other towns already know. You have to have different kinds of pleasure to match the various kinds of success that baseball offers. You really, really want to win the World Series. Somehow. Someday. But if you fixate on it, it's often a destructive goal.
The best tactic may be the one articulated by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who helped the Red Sox break their 86-year "curse." His Red Sox tried to build a good team that won 90-or-more games as often as possible. Then hold your breath, jump into October and hope that eventually you become inoculated to the pressure and caprice of playoff baseball.
The worst mistake is to put too much weight on short-series performance when doing long-term team planning. But it happens all the time. Defeat prompts action — often too much. Right now, eight teams that won 90 or more games are dead for this season. All are tempted to think that something major is wrong with them. Instead, what they should be thinking is: We're close. We're almost there. Don't mess this up.
For example, Nationals closer Drew Storen ended the season as hot as any reliever in baseball. In his last 26 games, he had a 0.75 ERA with two runs and only one walk allowed in his final two months. In addition, his defining characteristic is that he eats right-handed hitters alive, holding them to a .164 batting average and a .418 OPS (worse than many pitchers) this season. Yet in his four-run ninth-inning defeat in Game 5 against St. Louis, he walked two right-handed hitters (Yadier Molina and David Freese) and gave up the game-winning two-run hit to another righty, Pete Kozma.
Both the Cards and Reds will be tempted to think they have big issues to solve because they blew two-game leads — both to the Giants. One reason the Yankees have only one World Series win in the past 12 years, despite spending $2.21 billion in payroll is because they overreact, year after year, to what they perceive as their postseason "failures."
Many times the baseball playoffs have brought great players and worthy championship teams to the top. If the Tigers win this year, the proper focus should be on truly great players such as Justin Verlander, triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Even though the Series MVP might just as likely be Jhonny Peralta, Andy Dirks or Gerald Laird.
What do Danny Bautista, Sean Casey, Mark Bellhorn, Scott Spiezio, Edgar Renteria and Mike Napoli have in common? Since '01, they have all led (or tied for the lead) in RBI in the World Series.
Is that any way to determine the best team in baseball? No.
But since 1903, when obscure Patsy Dougherty of the Boston Americans hit more home runs than all the other players on both World Series teams combined, nobody has been able to figure out a better way.
So wipe away those tears and (try to) enjoy it.