World Series? The playoffs are where the real action is

Increasingly, baseball’s playoff rounds significantly upstage the opus they’ve been designed to serve, promote, and produce: the almighty World Series. Is this good, bad, or just remarkable? Hard to say! But it’s a fact.

Pretty much from the start of the post-season era over four decades ago, the playoffs have tended to be more intense, more raucous, and played with more abandon and élan than the mossy old Fall Classic that long stood so proud and lofty all by itself as not only the game’s ultimate annual moment, but that of all of Sport.  Not so much the case now.

In these times, the World Series, for all its tradition and charm, can be a bit of a yawner compared even with the NL Division Series, and a walk in the park compared with either League Championship Series. Furthermore, when the bozos who run the game nowadays jammed the supreme folly of regular-season interleague play down our throats, they diminished the mystique of their prized and ultimate event. There was a certain magic about the teams from the two leagues passionately preserving their separate identities while crossing swords only in October. In the typical “grab a buck” spirit of the Selig era, all of that was cashed in for the measly prize of a few bigger gates in May and July. Dumb. Very dumb! 

When did all such phenomena really become noteworthy? Probably in 2004 when the Red Sox near delusional four-game, back-to-the-wall, take-no- prisoners sweep of the Yankees in the LCS was the crescendo of the 86-year crusade to end their championship drought, the subsequent crushing of the Cardinals in the final autumnal round being no more than an incidental coda, a veritable victory lap. It’s in the LCS, where arch foes get even, that the emotional tide of the baseball season peaks.

Are we headed for a sequel this year, featuring that other loveably perennial loser from Chicago? It was a delightful prospect that seemed eminently plausible just days ago. But things change fast in these playoffs in these times, and fortunes waver from pitch to pitch.  

All of which has been brilliantly affirmed this year when we’ve had all the best ingredients in place: blood rivals going head to head, ancient feuds revived, long suffering also-rans yearning for redemption, classic under-achievers for whom just making it to the World Series would be honor enough.

Maybe just doing a fly-by in the wild card was an embarrassment for the Yankees, but it sure did make the Astros’ season. There were a half-dozen chronic losers in the mix this time, and they all darn well came to play without regard for tomorrow. Such motives guaranteed the levels of sheer nastiness we’ve been seeing, and the thing’s only half over. It has been utterly great baseball, with hopefully the best yet to come.  

So, what was the highlight of the first full round? The nominees are many, with among the choicest being:  

• Chase Utley’s killer take-out slide on Ruben Tejada, a play that briefly had New York contemplating a declaration of war on Los Angeles. It was easily the angriest post-season baseball moment since the Cards’ Ducky Medwick tried to impale the Tigers’ Marvin Owen with his spikes as he stole third in the 1934 World Series, for which Judge Landis tossed Medwick from the game. Joe Torre tries to deal roughly the same with Utley. But times have changed. Utley wimps out, eluding punishment by appealing.

• Down by four in the 8th and facing elimination, the Royals string a half-dozen singles together to survive the Astros in a near perfect display of disciplined baseball. It’s beautifully played “baton-ball” with not a single Royal going for the long ball, and everyone staying within himself, choosing instead to slice and dice poor Houston into submission. Two days later, they finish the task.

• In their climactic tilt, the Rangers take a seventh-inning lead on a gift run scored when the Jays’ catcher bounces his routine toss to his pitcher off a Texas hitter’s bat.  It’s that rarest of baseball moments, one nobody has ever seen before. Understandably, a near riot ensues, with Jays’ fans pelting the field with garbage in an 18-minute delay. Undaunted, the Jays rebound in the bottom half, capitalizing on a mind-boggling trio of Rangers ‘errors to score four. And when Jays’ slugger Jose Bautista punctuates his three-run blast with some needless showboating that offends the Rangers, he almost triggers another riot. It’s a 53-minute inning featuring five runs, four pitchers, three errors, two bench clearings, and a rumble. Texas remains offended but Canada revels.

• For the first time in the century that they’ve more or less played there, the Cubs clinch a post-season series at ivy-draped Wrigley Field, using three more homers to eliminate their ancient tormentors, the Cardinals. They simply bludgeon St. Louis into submission, smacking ten homers in four games while raising expectations in that tottering town to giddy levels. Oh, my!  

• Meanwhile, in New York, the precocious and unflappable  Mets’ fire-balling flower child Jacob deGrom, out of Stetson University, protects a one-run lead over five innings, throwing 54 pitches with Dodger runners in scoring position without allowing even one to score. Lacking his best stuff and with everything riding on every pitch, deGrom guts it out on pure courage. There may be nothing in the record books to verify it, but in terms of sheer drama, it’s quite magnificent.
Given all that, it may have been inevitable that the LCS showdowns would prove anti-climactic. As of this writing, that looks near certainly the case as the Royals and Mets brace to complete faintly shocking wipeouts of the Jays and Cubs, respectively, in a fashion you could hardly call dramatic unless you’re a gonzo Mets fan. Who would have predicted that?

In allowing themselves to get humiliated, 14-2, in decisive Game 4, the Jays would seem to have politely excused themselves from any further consideration (although the Royals need, as of this writing, one more). But there’s no disgrace in that, actually. These Royals may be the best team in all of baseball while the Jays, having been in high gear since July, are spent, wasted, gassed.

More, however, was reasonably expected from the Cubs-Mets passion play. And with the Cubs bellowing their clarion call of “1908” and most of the baseball masses mindlessly pulling for them, expectations of a genuine classic were appropriate. At such moments it is always even more appropriate to bear in mind that the Cubs are the Cubs are the Cubs, as Gertrude Stein might have said.

Down three zip as this is written, looking flat, foolish and totally on fumes, America’s team can still pull it out if they can somehow duplicate what only one other team in all of history – both baseball and human – has ever done, which is to rebound from a 3-0 hole in the post-season and roar majestically all the way to total redemption.

In that the Cubs and Red Sox have over the many, many years been somehow connected, albeit mostly in terms of their mutual follies and tragic failings, there would be something poetic about this happening.  Let’s just say I’m not betting the ranch on that. Happily, our deadline thankfully keeps us from going any further with this ridiculous thesis, so we’ll leave it right there.  

But take heart, friends. Frankly, the Mets are little less likeable. And with their wonderful pitching core of such fabulous kids as deGrom, Syndegaard, Harvey, Matz, and Familia they may even be rather more deserving! Moreover, what do we make of that good lad Daniel Patrick Murphy!

Equally noteworthy are the teams no longer around. The Dodgers, Yankees, and Rangers entered this festivals with far and away the highest payrolls. All three wanton free-spenders were quickly dispatched, while your Red Sox, ranking third among the mindless spendthrifts, were even longer gone, having finished last!

And how about those Dodgers with their $315 million payroll featuring the snazzy (except in post-season) pitching tandem of Kershaw and Greinke, but little else. Adrian Gonzalez! Carl Crawford! Yasiel Puig? Is that all 315 million big-bucks buys nowadays? 

Money no longer rules. We should, at the least, celebrate that much!