One game remains in this weird little thing called the divisional round, the best-of-five third layer of playoffs that hasn't quite been around long enough to have established a proper level of celebration. Teams that win the World Series all look the same, dogpiling on the infield. Teams that win a League Championship Series look the same too, a slightly tamer but still wild celebration.
But teams that win a Division Series are all over the map.
The Yankees high-fived and smiled when they knocked off the Twins in four games, the way they might after winning a particularly important late-season game. The Cubs were a little more intense after beating the Braves Sunday in the fifth game of their series. They looked more like a team winning the LCS, the next step, but they have a right. They're the Cubs, and they haven't popped a chamagne cork in almost a century, Sammy Sosa's bats notwithstanding. The Marlins knocked off the Giants in four games and went bananas Saturday, rolling around on the ground, dancing crazy, swimming in bubbly as though they'd just won the Fall Classic.
They have a right, too. It was only a year and a half ago that baseball was making noises about shutting the team down. But still. What's the etiquette here?
Whoever wins Monday night's A's-Red Sox Game 5 in Oakland will probably look like the Marlins. The A's would have shrugged off three straight first-round flameouts, including one, in 2001, that went the way this series looks like it's going -- two wins, then nothing but losses.
The Red Sox would have gotten off the canvas and won three straight, an astounding achievement even without all that Curse of the Bambino stuff they carry around. Boston's two wins over the weekend were the stuff of Beantown legend, Trot Nixon's game-winning homer in the 11th inning of Saturday's crazy game followed by the come-from-behind rally in the eighth to win Sunday. The winning blow was a two-run double by David Ortiz, and if that surprised you, you haven't been paying attention this season.
By the end of a weekend of baserunner obstruction calls, rallies that fizzled, a few that didn't, and a Fenway Park full of fans who were fully involved on every pitch, that classic Game 1 in Oakland -- remember Eric Chavez's diving play behind third? Ramon Hernandez's game-winning bunt? -- seemed like a distant memory.
The A's hated neighbors, the Giants, have already experienced what Oakland is trying to avoid, a terrible nosedive. The defending National League champs won Game 1 against the Marlins and then lost three straight, all of them wildly entertaining games but taken together a sudden and devastating end to what had been looking like one of those seasons of destiny. San Francisco carries the World Series hopes of the now sympathetic Barry Bonds, who had another ridiculous season, moved within two home runs of his godfather, Willie Mays, for third place on the all-time list, and hit a series of credulity-defying home runs as his father, former Giants star Bobby Bonds, lay dying, and then after he died. At 39, Bonds has played in only one World Series, and that was last year, when the Giants collapsed in Game 6 and lost in seven.
After that horror, team owner Peter Magowan effectively ran manager Dusty Baker off by stepping up a long-running battle of egos whose winner was declared in the champagne-soaked Cubs clubhouse Sunday as the Chicagos celebrated their win over the Braves with their first-year manager: Dusty Baker. It's not lost on Baker's fans in Northern California that Magowan's club is done for the season while Baker, having inherited a team that lost 95 games a year ago, is about to manage them into the National League Championship Series.
Magowan had laid the blame for the Giants' divisional-round losses in 1997 and 2000 at Baker's door, but he sounded a sanguine -- and rear-covering -- note about the club's unraveling against the Marlins, saying Florida was probably a better team anyway and not blaming new manager Felipe Alou.
The Marlins are, in fact, a very good team, though they didn't need to be to beat a Giants club that suddenly stopped hitting home runs and started bungling in the field. You could have won a lot of money, for instance, by betting on Jose Cruz Jr., one of the game's better right fielders, to badly misplay balls in consecutive games.
All the talk about the Marlins is that they're the big surprise in the National League this year, having recovered from a slow star after they hired 72-year-old Jack McKeon as their manager in mid-May. But the thing is, a lot of people looked at the Marlins in spring training and thought they'd be pretty decent, this writer included. They had some pitching, some hitting, some speed. But nobody predicted that they'd make the playoffs because we all figured they'd be broken up in July, the good players traded away for cheap "prospects." That's been the pattern in Florida, and it was the pattern in Montreal for new Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria before he traded in the Expos. The upset isn't that the Marlins played well, it's that they were allowed to continue playing.
And so they're in the National League Championship Series against the Cubs, beginning Wednesday at Wrigley Field. There couldn't be a greater contrast in baseball fandom. The Cubs haven't been to a World Series since 1945 and haven't won one since 1908, yet their fans are as loyal as any in sports. The Marlins went to the World Series and won it in 1997, a short six years ago, in only their fifth year of existence, yet their fans are largely indifferent to them -- with good reason. They've shown little interest in winning for most of their history, and they play in a football stadium in weather that's pretty unbearable most of the time.
Another contrast awaits in the American League Championship Series, no matter who wins Monday night's game and earns the right to go to New York Wednesday and face the Yankees, who finished off the Twins in workmanlike fashion after losing Game 1. Yankees fans are accustomed to championships and annoyed with anything less. Red Sox fans have famously been waiting since 1918, when Babe Ruth led them to their last title. They've been to the World Series four times since the Cubs' last trip, but the most recent was in 1986, so it's possible to be a college student and not remember the Sox in the Series, and Sox fans who do remember '86 wish they didn't. All of New England lives and dies with the Red Sox, and the chance to erase the memories of '86 -- and '75, and '67, and '46 -- would be met with a gratitude and joy that would be foreign in the Bronx, if not downright unseemly.
The A's, who, it's easy to forget, are the American League's second most successful franchise, have been winners more recently, going to six World Series and winning four of them just in the lifetime of Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who's 32. But in the decade since the team that dominated the American League for a five-year stretch broke apart, the A's have become first a sad-sack "small market" team, then the little small-market team that could, making the playoffs four years in a row on a tiny payroll -- only to lose in the first round each time. Their fans, still having nightmares about Jeremy Giambi failing to slide in the pivotal play of the 2001 divisional series loss to the Yankees, would be delirious if they were finally able to move to the next round.
The A's will send Barry Zito, the defending Cy Young award winner, against Pedro Martinez, who's only the best pitcher in the league. Martinez will be on full rest, Zito on a short three days' rest. The Sox have that and a hatful of momentum on their side, though there's no real evidence that momentum means anything in baseball. The winners will probably dogpile on the infield. Then they'll go to New York, where the Yankees will razz them about it around the batting cage.
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What, the Cubs again? [PERMALINK]
The worst headline of the weekend had to be this one that appeared on Yahoo's baseball page late Sunday night: "Cubs are postseason winners again."
Sounds like they win in the postseason all the time, doesn't it? Of course, if you watched Fox's broadcasts of the Cubs-Braves series you might have heard, juuuuuuust once or twice, that the Cubbies hadn't won a postseason series since 1908. When Teddy Roosevelt was president. And there have been 17 presidents since then. And it's been 95 years. The Cubs have been to the Series since then, in 1910 and '12, then three times in the '30s and again in '45, but they haven't won since 1908. They've made the playoffs a few times in more modern times, but they've always lost. Know when the last time they won a postseason series was? 1908.
I was in my local corner store Sunday morning and I heard the guy behind the deli counter shooting the breeze with a customer. One of them mentioned that the Cubs hadn't won anything since "what is it, 1908?"
I ran screaming from the store, right into traffic, where I was hit by a Model T.
In the endless repetition of this central factoid of Cubs mythology, I'm amazed that this was never mentioned: When the Cubs last won the World Series -- this was in, let me see, I think it was sometime around 1908 -- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was a hot, new, hit song. No kidding.