They are playing baseball’s September Song but this year it’s a melody more jangled than sweet. Baseball’s epic upheaval is not confined to your own backyard, old Sport, although one recognizes that is probably not much consolation.+
Expectations run high for a tumultuous drive down the stretch with all the right ingredients firmly in place. As Labor Day dawned with the familiar fanfare pronouncing the drive to the wire, the American League seethed with three genuine pennant races while in the two leagues a total of nine teams were strongly contending for playoff berths via the infernal wildcard. Thus a dozen teams—nearly half—were very much in play with a month to go.
It’s a lousy gimmick and it’s deeply flawed, this wildcard stuff. But it is working, one reluctantly admits. The idea is to pump up September by means foul or fair and who cares whether those means are contrived, even bogus. All that matters is that the finish is frantic, allowing, it is hoped, for baseball to swamp football in the endless battle for the sporting public’s hearts and minds and also thereby setting up a post-season that might just take your breath away.
Last year’s nutty finish, with its spectacular final evening of regular season play, is the new yardstick.
It’s hugely unlikely we’ll have such great entertainment in consecutive years. The likes of the monumental pratfalls by the Red Sox and Braves that produced those magic moments last September occur only once a generation, and then only if you’re lucky.
But the latest bogus contrivance now to be unveiled—the second bloody wildcard—raises the chance of it. The madcap dash that is near certain to persist to the final few games could very well oblige a tie-breaker game or two in the six divisions. That would be followed by the one-game (in each league) life-or-death so-called “wildcard play-in,” touted as a nightmare scenario even for those not obliged to deal with the awful tie-breaker. And then, with nary a breather, the grueling three rounds of actual playoffs begin, stretching into November. It will be a lot tougher being the wildcard.
The possibility that such runaway madness may be about to sweep the Republic has Czar Selig and his crafty cronies positively ecstatic. And the chances are good. After last year who would ever again say “never.”
Hereabouts, the only baseball that counts is, of course, played in the AL East where it’s all about the Red Sox and Yankees with the division’s other three patsies ordained to serve as their dutiful foils. So the only meaningful issue is the astounding disruption of this long so comfortable mandate featuring the total collapse of the Red Sox and the possibility, seemingly growing by the hour, that the Yankees, in the sincerest form of flattery, are about to imitate them.
There’s no longer any disputing the depths the Red Sox have sunk to. They now rank among the five worst teams in baseball over the last full year of play. The tawdry burlesque of their latest West Coast fling guarantees that in the final month it’s only a question of whether they can salvage any dignity by occasionally beating a contender, thus keeping faith with the obligations of the legendary “spoiler.” If it’s an unfamiliar role, it’s one they should try to respect.
Conventional wisdom holds that how they perform as September’s days dwindle down to a precious few will also determine Manager Bobby Valentine’s fate. But it’s hard to believe that’s not already set in stone. He’s gone. While it’s true this season’s fiasco is hardly his fault, he’s clearly been unable to even temper the disaster. If Valentine deserves better, few tears will be shed.
But you have to give the old rascal credit; he called it. When his troops, then still faintly within hailing distance, retreated from New York on their last visit, Valentine had the temerity to declare, “Maybe the Yankees won’t make the playoffs.”
It seemed the brash poppycock of a career wiseguy, running out the string defiantly. And with his team 10 games out, it also seemed rather ill-advised. But it wasn’t. Valentine was onto something. Three weeks later it’s clear this Yankee team, increasingly composed of the worn and the weary, is not of championship quality and may not even be of playoff/wildcard quality unless it gets completely healthy. With a month to go, how much chance is there of that?
When back in early May it was first suggested here that this would be the year of revolutionary upheaval in the AL East, with the reign of terror jointly waged by New York and Boston since the dawn of the millennium about to come crashing to an end, I got a fair amount of flak, not so much from Red Sox adherents who were already sensing their beloved’s inevitable folly, but from Yankee yahoos who eternally find such talk heretical. Moreover, they’ve long been dodging these rhetorical bullets. The decline and fall of the Yankees has been trumpeted relentlessly for a decade. But it may no longer be the wishful thinking of the envious.
With a two-game lead on Labor Day, the Yankees nonetheless looked more vulnerable than they’ve been since the late eighties. They were coming off a dismal effort against the upstart Orioles in which they’d been out-played, out-maneuvered, out-managed, out-hustled, and lucky to win one of three vital games in their own ballyard. They should have been swept.
Then in a Labor Day match-up with their new nemesis, Tampa’s scrappy Rays, they absorbed a loss which, if they do end up missing the playoffs, will be seen as the pivotal moment. In a crisp beauty of a showdown matching C.C Sabathia and James Shields and intensely played by both teams, Tampa prevailed,4-3. But what most marked New York’s defeat was the lackadaisical effort by Robinson Cano on two critical plays – one on defense and the other on the basepaths—that arguably decided the game. Bear in mind there’s nothing new about Cano’s nonchalance, which, oddly, the Yankees have meekly tolerated.
Superstardom in the Bronx has always borne with it special responsibilities. Cano is alleged to be their most talented performer, the newest in their long line of the anointed. But for all his gifts, he does not deserve to be a member of that elite; not yet, and maybe never. There are many reasons why this Yankee team is sliding in roughly the same direction as their arch-rivals from Boston. But in the Cano example, one finds something revealing, at least symbolically.
So at the end of the holiday weekend as the stretch drive quickens desperately, the Yankees’ lead, which stood at 10 games July18th, is down to one over the inspired Orioles and two over the relentless Rays.
It took the Yankees seven weeks to squander their big lead. Last season it took the Red Sox five weeks to blow a comparable lead over Tampa. Is that also telling? We’ll see soon enough. In the first six weeks of this season plus these last seven, the Yankees’ record is 35-41. Between mid-May and mid-July their record was 41-17. It’s an odd discrepancy. Injuries are a factor but all teams must deal with injuries.
But enough on the Yankees! The much better story is in Baltimore. Can we even begin to imagine the delight over this astounding turn of events on the part of O’s Manager Buck Showalter, who was memorably so ingloriously dumped in the Bronx, and GM Dan Duquette, who was so roughly banished from Boston? The turn of the screw always makes a great tale.
And as of Labor Day the momentum, for whatever it’s worth, was all with the O’s under the ever-plotting Showalter, and the Rays under the spell of the inscrutable Dr. Joe Maddon. As it happens, rather wonderfully, they will meet for the final three games of the regular season in Tampa. Here’s betting that’s where and when it gets decided.