Barring convolutions, mad dashes, or mere meltdowns that would be downright historic, this September has the makings of being the dullest stretch-run in baseball’s recent annals. Not a good thing.
With four weeks to go – just when the erstwhile pastime needs to be flexing its competitive muscles, featuring epic battles, keeping us on the edge of our sofas, competing check to jowl with infernal football – the results of the long grueling season are a foregone conclusion, a bloody yawner. It will be the quietest September of the Expansion Era. Not a good thing!
By Labor Day, four of the six division races were essentially over, three of them flat-out runaways since back around the Fourth of July with the leads of the front-runners now averaging a ridiculous 15 games. Faintest hope for some September melodrama is in your own AL East where Boston’s lead over New York is hardly insurmountable. Yet stray Bronx diehards and the odd Steinbrenner seem the only folks actually believing there’s much chance of that changing. Still technically competitive is the NL Central where the Cubs, who’ve been sleep-walking much of the season, have allowed the Brewers to hang around. It’s assumed the Cubs will wake up now that crunch time has arrived.
Face it, fans, they could start the playoffs tomorrow were it not for the wild-card issue, which remains in doubt because that’s what it’s designed to do. Technically, seven teams can validly boast of still contending for a wild-card berth, although only a couple are faintly worthy, with three (as of Labor Day) being only a lousy game above .500. The wild card is a joke! But it succeeds in providing relatively bogus excitement in seasons like this by preserving the illusion of post-season prospects for the unworthy to the very end. It’s the reason they were created.
One of these years, two wildcards will meet in the World Series. We’ve already had one win the thing after finishing scarcely above .500. So how would you like having the Twins and Brewers square off in this year’s grand finale? That would keep all of America trembling at the brink, eh.
The 2017 season represents a resounding setback for the schemers – led by the happily retired and not remotely missed Commissioner Bud Selig – who twisted the system in knots in their obsession with guaranteeing precious competitive balance.
All the gimmicks introduced over the past generation –-payroll penalty taxes, interleague play, imbalanced scheduling, re-structured division play, reformed drafts, international free-agent controls, wild cards, anything and everything that helps promote parity – were aimed at the over-riding objective of curbing the Big Money franchises as much as possible while giving the small-market franchises every break in the book.
The results have been, at best, indifferent. As we bear into the stretch this season, five of the most profligate spenders – Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Nationals, Cubs – ride high in the playoff sweepstakes while the Indians and Astros can hardly be termed “small-market.” ‘Tis ever been thus! And probably always will be.
Otherwise, the last weeks of the regular season offer some interesting possibilities. Among them:
• Does Giancarlo Stanton, the Herculean slugger of the otherwise moribund Miami Marlins, eclipse the Roger Maris record of 61 homers in a season. It’s increasingly likely the records of the PED era’s steroid-inflated beasts will be eventually ruled null and void, meaning we are about to have a new and presumably authentic home run king. After which, when the high-bidding Derek Jeter group assumes ownership of the Marlins, the injury-prone Mr. Stanton and his obscene salary will be traded, a spin-off that would speak volumes about the current state of sports.
• Do the Dodgers once again fizzle? Seems we all hopped aboard that bandwagon a tad too soon. Five straight losses ended any talk of a record-setting season, although with a 15-game lead they mathematically can’t blow the Division. But they could reach the post-season deflated?
• If there’s a team out there that can derail the Dodgers, it’s probably Arizona’s Diamondbacks, a team you never see managed by a fellow you once admired.
• All of which may pave the way for the Washington Nationals, who’ve devoured the NL East, wire to wire. It’s a sweet moment for the capital where they’ve not had their very own baseball champion since Cal Coolidge was in charge in the White House. The Cubs were America’s team last year; the Senators deserve to be this year.
• Unless, of course, it’s the Indians. Frankly, they deserved it last year when they pushed the hyper-entitled and rather too presumptuous Cubs to the brink of desperation before expiring gallantly. Another such classic isn’t likely, but who can easily root against ever-yearning Cleveland, winless these last 69 years. Moreover, chaw-chewing Terry Francona’s lively kids veer into the stretch the game’s hottest team, winners of 11 straight.
Harder still to root against Tito.
• And then there’s Houston, where they’ve never won, seem appropriately driven, and have the whole world rooting for them.
• Closing days will decide the big awards. In the AL, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber has a chance to deny your Chris Sale the Cy Young. The superb Jose Altuve is a no-brainer MVP, unless Mike Trout carries the Angels into the playoffs on his back. In the NL, how they finish decides whether LA’s Clayton Kershaw nips Arizona’s Zack Greinke for the Cy. For the MVP, you can make a case for Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon but you don’t need to for Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt.
• Lastly, do we have a renewal of the classic Red Sox-Yankees post-season passions – on hold more than a decade now – in the offing? Maybe! Gird your enmities, old Sport.