The Oakland A's opened a four-game series at home against the Anaheim Angels with a come-from-behind win Monday night, catching the Halos for first place in the "wild, wild" American League West with 12 to play. The Angels had won six in a row and 16 out of 17 coming into the series. The A's, having cooled off a little since their league-record 20-game winning streak ended on Sept. 6, had still won 25 of their last 30. Both teams came into the week having gone 27-7.
What a shame that their "pennant race" is a dud.
The wild card strikes again. In the wild-card era, which began in 1994, a great pennant race is simply not possible. In order to have one, you have to have two great teams, and the loser has to go home. Otherwise you're left with lesser teams stumbling toward the finish -- witness the wild-card race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the National League -- or great teams, assured of a playoff spot, merely jockeying for a better seeding. Not exactly riveting stuff.
The way baseball works now, with the best second-place club in each league making the playoffs as the wild card, the best we can hope for is the second- and third-best teams in the league fighting it out. That may be what we have. In fact, one could argue that at the moment, the A's and Angels are the two top teams in the A.L., better than the more consistent but not as hot New York Yankees, who had the same record as the Angels Monday morning.
But the other part of the recipe is missing. The punishment for failure must be death (in the sporting sense), or the games won't have enough on the line to provide the kind of drama that baseball spent more than a century teaching us to expect. Barring an epic collapse by one of them, and a miracle finish by the Seattle Mariners or Boston Red Sox, the A's and Angels are both going to survive and make the playoffs, regardless of what happens in their series this week.
I'm not saying the A's and Angels won't play some good baseball. They're both young, charismatic clubs with good pitching and a knack for late-inning rallies like the one that gave the A's a 4-3 win Monday night in the series opener.
I'm just saying it won't mean much. The division winner gets to start the playoffs at home against the Minnesota Twins; the runner-up travels to Yankee Stadium. That's not nothing. Given my druthers, I'd play the Twins with a home-field advantage rather than the Yankees without one -- but it's not a life-and-death choice.
And I'm not sure the A's, in their heart of hearts, wouldn't rather face the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs anyway, having lost to them the last two years. If I were an Athletic, I'd hate the thought that a first-round loss to Minnesota, or a Yankees loss in the first round, would deprive me of another crack at my nemesis.
But if you think the A's and Angels are fighting tooth and nail -- the way teams in a great, or even a good, pennant race must -- consider this: Barry Zito, the Oakland ace, beat the Twins in the last game before that four-game series in Anaheim, and he beat the Mariners in the first game after it. A win's a win, sure, but a win over the team you're fighting for first place is twice as valuable as a win over anyone else because it's also a loss for them. If the A's-Angels race actually meant something, don't you think the A's would have found a way to juggle their rotation a bit to get Zito a start in that series?
The excitement of the supposed pennant race apparently didn't do much for Angels fans, who stayed away from last week's series in impressive numbers. The largest crowd was 35,323, the average 32,269. The series finale was Thursday night. Anaheim had won 12 of 13. Oakland was on a 23-3 run, even with two straight losses to the Angels. A win would put Anaheim in a flat-footed tie for first place. The crowd was 31,304, less than 75 percent of capacity.
The Angels aren't a big draw given how good they've been this year, but they are averaging almost 28,000 a game, and they've had crowds of 40,000 or more 14 times. If those games against the A's had been do or die, the stands would have been teeming.
Six years ago the Dodgers and San Diego Padres were tied for first place in the National League West and scheduled to play each other on the last day of the season. It was the first time since 1908 that two teams tied for first had played each other on the final day. It should have been one of baseball's greatest moments. Instead, it was a spring training game. Whoever lost (the Dodgers, as it turned out) would reach the playoffs anyway as a wild card and would face the Atlanta Braves.
Actually, it was worse than a spring training game. It was a farce. The thinking was that it might be better to play the Braves, with their stellar pitching, in a five-game first-round series than in the seven-game League Championship Series, so the two managers, Bill Russell and Bruce Bochy, actually had to answer legitimate questions about whether their teams would try to win the game. They assured the media that they would, indeed, try to win, and there's no evidence that either team tried to lose. They both played their regulars for nine innings. But the Dodgers pulled starting pitcher Ramon Martinez after one inning, and the Padres started struggling Bob Tewksbury, not ace Joey Hamilton. The Dodgers got a pep talk from team executive Fred Claire, who urged them to try to win, for pride's sake.
Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza was quoted saying he'd half jokingly suggested to Ken Caminiti of the Padres that each team forfeit one of the two meaningless games over the final weekend so that everyone could have a few days at the beach.
I figured at the time that baseball would learn its lesson from that embarrassment, but it goes blithely on with a system that makes impossible one of the things it used to have going for it: great pennant races. Any baseball fan can tell you who won the 1993 N.L. West -- the last great pennant race. Find me a basketball or hockey fan who can remember a regular-season race from any year. Nobody remembers because nobody cares, because the losers make the playoffs anyway.
Baseball's not going to shrink the playoffs. They're too lucrative, and besides they're a lot of fun. But it has to find a way for the postseason to be the exclusive domain of division winners, so that it's possible for the best two teams in the league to be battling at the end of the season, with the loser's season ending. If that means each league has to have four divisions in each league, then have four divisions.
These Septembers filled with nothing games hyped as pennant-race excitement have got to go.