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The real Sox story is about what happens next

Skyrocketing – even approximately – from worst to first is not only the niftiest trick in team-sport but also the toughest. It rarely happens in hockey. Almost never happens in basketball, unless there’s a Jabbar at the top of the draft. And is impossible in football, where it takes sheer numbers of talent for a team to rebuild.

But in baseball it can happen, and even does, every blue moon or so. It’s quite what makes baseball so special. Latest candidate for this precious distinction – most arresting one at that – are your own Red Sox.

Please note the use of the term “candidate.” In a MLB regular-season pocked with power vacuums and artistic irregularities, the Red Sox have grinded and gutted their way to a tie with St. Louis for baseball’s best record (97-65) by being steady, stable, and smart. Good for them! But more than ever, with the regular season’s value significantly diminished, it’s all about the post-season. If they go down ingloriously in the playoffs not many of their media cheerleaders will still be waxing on how lustily they compare with their Impossible Dream forebears of 1967, let alone crowing about having stormed from “worst to first.”

The bloom could come off this rose real quick. If it does, it will confirm the notion, deeply subscribed to in this cranky corner, that last year’s team, however wretched, was not as bad as believed, while this year’s team, so lovingly embraced, is not as good as it has so far seemed. We’re in for quite an education over the next month.

As the team sharing the best record, you’d think the Red Sox’ post-season stock would be higher. They are not the trendy pick to even make it to the World Series, at least not west and/or south of Worcester. Many savants lament that there are no great teams in baseball anymore for a gamut of reasons too tedious to get into here. But there are at least two on the cusp – the Tigers and Cardinals – and a third perhaps close, the Dodgers. A Detroit-St Louis finale is widely predicted. The reasoning is solid.
There’s no better offensive lineup in baseball than the manglers the Tigers attack you with and their starting pitching is the AL’s best. It was the Red Sox, however, who put the finishing touch on this team by gifting them the short-stopping phenom Jose Iglesias in what’s likely to become the dumbest deal Boston has made since the Jeff Bagwell fiasco a quarter century ago. Iglesias is fast-turning a defensively suspect Tiger infield into his own personal playpen.

As for the Cardinals, they are simply the best organization in the game. They glide through major transitions every half dozen years. In the latest, they simply shook off the defection of the alleged managerial genius Tony LaRussa and quickly became even better. It’s the Cards’ way.  And their lineup, with four regulars hitting over .300, is the game’s second best offensive array.

On paper and in computer read-outs – which we gleefully acknowledge is where baseball more than any of the games is decidedly not played –Boston’s alleged upstarts aren’t in the same league with the Bengals and Birds. But such thinking works to their advantage.  Unlike other more traditional Red Sox teams that were too full of themselves, this team seemingly finds being under-rated amusing. Taken too lightly, they ambushed the American League this summer. Could they reprise the trick this fall? Goofier things have happened; especially in baseball.

Moreover, the Tigers do have downright puzzling tendencies. On paper (again) their talent is vastly superior to Cleveland’s but they, finishing near ridiculously only a single game ahead of Terry Francona’s spunky tribe. Manager Jim Leyland remains well-liked, but some wonder if his control of his team has slipped. Detroit may be more vulnerable than most realize.

In the end, the weak contrivance of the wildcard was all that spared the baseball September from total irrelevance, providing what little late  drama the pennant races could offer, however artificial. Whichever of the three finalists survives in the AL’s madcap scramble will have a mighty challenge re-grouping overnight for the rested Red Sox, although if it’s the Indians you suspect Terry Francona will have no trouble rousing his kids to the task. Ending the season with 10 straight wins, Francona’s performance was sensational. It says here that Tito, and not Red Sox Skipper Farrell, is the AL Manager of the Year. He had much less to work with.

Over in the NL, the rise of the Pirates after two weary decades deep in the pits was the season’s best story. But if they survive the play-in with the Reds, they’ll have little chance advancing with their thin pitching and even more thinly experienced roster. Nor would the Reds have a much better chance, for that matter.
As now designed, the wild-card is suicidal. The single game format for the so-called play-in is a joke. That’s by design, of course, but why have the thing if that’s the point. For the concept to have legitimacy, it must be at least a two out of three series. But that would tack another full week onto the post-season, edging the grand finale of the World Series deeper into November. Not a wise option! Of course, they could always trim the regular season a week. Fat chance!

It has been an odd season, a point we’ve seemingly been harping about all season. The end-game features more of the same. In a nightmare of painful irony and bitter regret, both for the game and its leadership, the playoffs now begin by having to share the limelight with would-be outcast Alex Rodriguez in his furious battle to overturn a 211-game suspension for drug abuses that would effectively end his career. How very dandy!

The hearings will last at least a week, but with A-Rod parading an all-star team of high-priced barristers in his defense, it would surprise no one if it lasted much longer and proved much testier than expected and in the end produce a controversial result like a much reduced censure for the wayward slugger or, in the ultimate nightmare, a total reprieve. Don’t laugh. It could happen.

We’re talking law here, not games. MLB’s lawyers will have to prove their case before an independent arbitrator, presiding as any judge would,and they’ll be up against the best in the business, A-Rod’s legal dream team. It won’t be a slam dunk, no matter what ordinary fans relying on conventional baseball wisdom may like to presume.

Isn’t it remarkable how much the Yankees and their convoluted affairs impact the process even as they are fading away. If you’ll forgive the weary cliché, we’ve reached the end of another era of their extended eminence and it will be at the top of the things the 2013 season is best remembered for: the rather clumsy fall of the erstwhile Bombers. They were a ragged bunch; at least by Bomber standards. It’ll be awhile before the next era begins.

Yet they somehow managed to retain a touch of their fabled mystique, thanks to the elegance of a couple of their characters who bore a lot of that good stuff in their time in pinstripes and now take it with them as they drift into baseball’s sunset, old men in their early 40’s.

Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte will be remembered most for their long and rich runs, but fondly, too, for their mere final days in uniform and the sweetness of their departures. Joel Sherman of the New York Post put it best, writing:

“Pettitte and Rivera couldn’t elevate the Yankees to one more championship; and yet they found a way in their ability, humanity, and history to nevertheless produce what would have seemed impossible in this season of misery… a Happy Ending!”

Rather nice! One of these days the Yankees will officially run out of mystique, but it hasn’t happened yet.