Alert readers may have noticed that this column has been mostly about football for the last two weeks. "I'm disappointed in you," writes one such reader. "Despite the fact that you've said in print that baseball is your favorite sport , you haven't written a baseball column for Salon since, according to your archive, Aug. 29."
And even that one had a little football in it.
This is the time of year when I'm usually making that same complaint. The pennant races are thundering down the stretch and everywhere I look it's football, football, football. The NFL season is just starting. College powerhouses are spending way too much time rolling up the score against directional schools and in-state not-close-to rivals. Nothing too exciting yet. Why isn't anyone talking about baseball?
So this year I have to ask myself: Why aren't I talking about baseball?
For one thing, this season has presented a uniquely uninteresting set of races, at least to me. The Braves and Giants have long-since been established as the class of the National League, leaving a clump of mediocre clubs battling -- and I use that term as a euphemism for bumbling -- for the Central Division and wild card playoff spots. In the American League I've found myself unable to get excited about the Twins-White Sox-Royals, uh, battle in the Central, or the best race in the league, the Mariners against the Red Sox for the wild card. The A's annual overtaking of the Mariners has failed to entertain me the way it once did, and the Yankees have been the clear champs of the East for a while now.
The saga of Barry Bonds' year has been interesting, but only in sort of a human-interest way. The sad and amazing fact for me is that I've started to take Bonds for granted, and watching him pile up those astonishing numbers in a half-season's worth of essentially meaningless games got old. Wake me when the games count, and please don't tell me about how the Giants and Braves are fighting for home-field advantage. I acknowledge that home-field advantage is important, but the idea that September baseball comes down to such a thing is an ugly reminder of the way the expanded playoffs have cheapened the season. Worrying about home-field advantage should be a pastime for fans of less sophisticated sports.
I thought I'd made my peace with the wild card and the expanded playoffs last year when an exciting postseason produced an all-wild card World Series. But maybe I haven't. I'll be OK come playoff time, just fine with all eight of those teams still playing, even clubs like the Astros, who will need a terrific last week just to win 90 games in a division that includes the Pirates, Reds and Brewers.
But I think I'm going to spend the rest of my life as a curmudgeon, grumbling about too many teams in the playoffs. It kills the excitement of September. I understand that under the old system -- two leagues declaring a champion at the end of the season until 1968, and then two division winners meeting in the playoffs for the league championship from 1969 to '93 -- there were years when the races were decided by August and the end of the season was a crashing bore. I understand that this is an opinion not shared by others, but I'll take those bad years, even if they're in the majority, because that system also gave us races like the last great one, the Braves and Giants in '93, not to mention many, many others. Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" wouldn't have been heard at all if the 1951 Dodgers had been a wild card team.
Baseball fans still talk about Thomson and Fred Merkle and Bucky Dent and dozens of other September heroes down through the ages. Will anyone remember anything from this year's races? Does anyone remember anything from any pennant race since 1995?
I understand the argument for expanded playoffs: More teams eligible for more playoff spots keeps the season interesting for more fans. But I'm a fan of the Giants, who are going to win the West in a walk, and I live in St. Louis, where the Cardinals have been in contention in the Central until the last week or two, and I haven't been interested. The Cards, Astros and Cubs, the teams at the top of the Central Division, are all roughly as good as they were 10 years ago, when they were also-rans in the old two-division system with teams that are now long forgotten. Just because a team is in contention doesn't mean it's any good or interesting to watch.
I know not everyone feels that way. I'm not trying to convince you. I'm just trying to explain why this baseball guy has spent September talking about football.
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When breaking up a team is OK [PERMALINK]
A few weeks ago, I wondered why it is that fans think a baseball team owner who breaks up his team for financial reasons is an evil enemy of Western civilization, while a system that dictates that football team owners do the exact same thing is not, but I've decided to live with it. I got some good answers from readers.
"The obvious difference is that all football teams are in the same boat," wrote Chris Bouey. "True, it is an irksome practice, but when it's systematized throughout a league, it's more palatable, as it benefits (and hurts) each team in fairly equal measure."
"I think the difference here is that when a football team dumps players for financial reasons, it's because they're forced to by the salary cap," added Jon Kalk. "I'm sure the owners aren't too upset about the money they save because of the cap, but you don't see football teams with low payrolls to save the owner money. On the other hand, with no salary cap in baseball, the 'financial reason' for breaking up the team is to save money for the owner, rather than to comply with league rules. The difference here is significant, I think."
And Michael L. Turner puts it this way: "While it is never fun to lose the best players from your team, at least in the NFL you have the solace that if your team is smart, two years from now you will be the ones stealing talent from everyone else. In baseball, you know that two years from know you will still be losing players to the Yankees."
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