Now What?

More thoughts as we approach the end of MLB’s regular season.

There isn’t a whole lot of doubt left about who’s going to the playoffs this year. With just under two weeks remaining, only two teams in the AL have any chance of making the playoffs (Tampa Bay and Seattle), and it would take an epic collapse by Oakland for one of them to get in. Over in the NL, five teams still have a mathematical possibility of snagging a Wild Card slot, but only one–Colorado–has a realistic shot.

Colorado also has a legitimate shot at winning their division, and if they do, LA and St. Louis will be fighting over the second Wild Card.

So there’s still a bit of excitement left in the playoff race, but the odds are good the ten teams will be settled before the end of the season.

So what do you do when there’s no playoff drama and no chance your team will make it in?

You could ask Jackie. After all, her Orioles are going to lose somewhere between 108 and 118 games this year*. She made the front page of The Baltimore Sun with her explanation of how to survive your team’s worst season ever.

* While it may feel like the Os were eliminated before the All-Star Break, they actually still had a mathematical shot at the playoffs until August 20, one month ago today. Which says a lot about how little difference there is between a champion and a, uh, not-champion in MLB.

While Jackie gives good advice–it’s about acceptance, giving up attachments, and keeping a sense of humor–she doesn’t offer much guidance in what to do while your team plays out their thread.

My prescription is to pick some potentially attainable goals and cheer for those.

Baltimore has already attained their most obvious alternate goal. They can’t possibly set an MLB record for losses. Even if they lose all their remaining games, the 1962 Mets’ 120 loss record will stand.

So, how about a positive goal? Fifty wins is meaningless, but it’s a nice, round number, and they can reach it by winning six of their final ten.

Or there are personal goals. Offensively-oriented fans can cheer for Nelson Cruz’ pursuit of forty home runs. He came up one short last year, but with ten games left, he only needs four more to do it this year. Meanwhile, J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox is looking to be the first Triple Crown winner since 2012*. He’s currently leading the AL in RBIs and sitting in second for home runs and batting average.

* The Triple Crown is a difficult feat. It’s only been won sixteen or seventeen times (there’s some doubt about stats prior to 1920 or so). Before Miguel Cabrera did it in 2012, you’d have to go all the way back to Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Meanwhile, fans of pitching can watch the Mariners’ Edwin Díaz chase the all-time saves record. That’s about as likely as the Orioles reaching fifty wins, as he’d need seven in the Ms’ last ten games, which would imply Seattle can win seven of ten from the As and Rangers.

Really stats-minded sorts might keep an eye on the fielding stats. As of this writing, twenty-seven players have had error-free seasons. As best I can tell, that would be the most perfect fielders in a season since 2008. Okay, okay, nobody cares about that, except for the folks at Rawlings, who give the Golden Glove award to the best fielders at each position. But I needed something to look for on defence.

Anyway, for the next two weeks, I recommend choosing small, attainable goals. Once we hit the playoffs, we’ll have about a month to soak up all the baseball we can to tide us over to next year.

Ouch

It’s been a weird year for the Mariners. You can take that as an explanation of why I haven’t been posting much about baseball. But, yesterday was the “Trading Deadline” and a few words seemed in order.

Last year was…well, disappointing. Having so many pundits picking the Ms to win their division and get back to the playoffs for the first time in living memory* was a thrill. But the team made it clear very early on that there was no way that was going to happen. By August 2, they were ten games under .500 and clinging to a one-game lead over Oakland to avoid the division basement.

* OK, I exaggerate. There are still a few old fogies around who remember 2001. But, lest you forget, that’s the longest current playoff drought in MLB. We’ll come back to this shortly.

When things are that bad, you just sit back and take it one game at a time. Enjoy the victories, and hope for something unusual to happen to distract you from the pain of the losses.

Then came this year. The predictions were rather more modest. FiveThirtyEight, for example, gave the Mariners one chance in three of making the playoffs, and suggested they were looking at finishing two games over .500.

On June 1, they were eight games over, and there was much hemming and hawing among the prophets. By July 1, the prophets were sighing in relief as the Ms had fallen back to three games over. Since then, they’ve gone 11-13 and are, thanks to last night’s loss to the Red Sox, exactly at .500. Thanks a lot, FiveThirtyEight, for setting the bar so high.

Sunday’s game was absolutely typical of the way they’ve played for the past month: group a bunch of runs together, then tell the offense to go home while the defense races the opponent to the end of the game. On Sunday, the Ms put up six runs in the first three innings–one two-run home run in each inning–and then took a solemn oath not to score again. They almost broke that vow in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with no outs, but managed to keep their honor intact when the next three batters went strike out, strike out, pop out.

Meanwhile, Chicago picked up two runs in the fifth, one in the seventh, and three in the ninth, thanks in large part to a catcher–traditionally among the slowest of runners–beating out a potential game-ending double play, and a wild pitch so bad that, had it been a movie, it would have made Plan 9 from Outer Space look like a potential Oscar winner by comparison.

My point is not that the team is bad. Far from it–they are, after all, still at .500, the minimum baseline for respectability. But they’re showing a frustrating lack of ability to finish what they start.

And frustrating is the word for it. They’re not doing well enough to allow one to hope for a turnaround, but they’re also not doing so poorly as to force one to give up on the season. So when something unusual happens*, it’s hard to revel in the weirdness.

* Such as, for example, the Cubs pitcher getting three outs with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, playing an inning and two-thirds in left field (and making a damned impressive catch), then returning to the mound to get the last out of the eighth by picking a runner off first base. For example.

What’s a fan to do? Hang in there, keep watching, and don’t give up the faith.

And, of course, remember that, while the Mariners have gone longer than anyone else without a playoff appearance and have never won a World Series in their thirty-nine season existence, there are others arguably worse off. The Chicago White Sox survived a thirty-nine year pennant drought (1919-1959). The Mariners will, barring a miracle, surpass that this year, but there are nine teams who have gone forty or more seasons without winning their league and going to the World Series. The Washington Nationals’ forty-seven year drought (which includes their time as the Montreal Expos) pales beside the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers dismal forty-nine year stumble that finally ended in 2010.

And even that’s nothing compared to the Cubs. Entire generations have been born, grown up, raised families, and died since the Cubs last won the National League pennant, back in 1945. Seventy years. Tack on another generation since they last won the Series. That was in 1908.

So there’s a certain amount of room for schadenfreude among the barely respectable. But there’s also an example there.

Those Cubs have a good shot at ending their streak this year. At the moment, they’ve got the best record in baseball. That’s no guarantee that they won’t implode over the next two months and miss the playoffs. Even if they make the playoffs with the best record, that’s no guarantee they’ll win it all–or even win any playoff games. But they’re in the hunt, even more so than last year (57-47 on August 2, finished at 97-65, taking the second Wild Card and making it to the NL Championship series before being swept by the Mets.)

Next year may be a long way away, not only for the Mariners, but for the thirteen teams looking up at them in the standings.

But the odds are good that none of those fourteen teams are looking at a seventy year wait before “next year” arrives. If the Cubs fans can hang on this long and still fill Wrigley Field on a regular basis, nobody slogging through the last part of a frustrating–or even disappointing–season has any excuse to give up.

The Mariners’ embarrassing defeat Sunday was on ESPN. Tonight they face the Red Sox on the MLB Network. What better opportunity for redemption could one ask for? A chance to beat the Red Sox–one of the broadcast industry’s darlings–on national TV to move back over .500? Sign me up!

No reason why next year can’t start today.

Sports Grief

Yes, Bay Area, I understand. You’re bummed. Completely reasonable.

But please remember that the ISO standard for public displays of grief over sporting events is 72 hours. So, no more front page headlines after 8:00 Pacific Wednesday. Got it? Thanks.

Doesn’t mean you can’t grieve as long as you need to. Just do it in the privacy of your own homes, bars, clubs, and arenas. It’s for your own safety, really. You don’t think those thugs down south aren’t gloating? You don’t want them to see how much you’re hurting–they’ll just take advantage of your pain.

Now that we’ve got the legalities out of the way, let me state for the record that I sympathize with you 100%. Losing sucks, no question about it.

Right now, it feels like you’re never going to get over it. And, honestly, you never will be completely free. Twenty, forty, or a hundred years from now, you’ll still wake up in the middle of the night, wondering “what if…?” But over time it will happen less often. I promise.

I know it’s antithetical to the Bay Area sports mentality, but just take a look to your frenemies to the north. Yeah, I’m talking about Seattle. They know where you are mentally right now.

Consider February 1, 2015. The Seahawks were one play away from winning their second consecutive NFL title and came up short.

Yeah, OK, so they weren’t riding a record-breaking regular season. How about October 22, 2001? The Mariners won 116 games in the regular season, and got blown out of the playoffs by the Yankees–they didn’t even make it to the finals.

“But those aren’t basketball,” I hear you say. “And what’s worse, the Warriors are moving out of Oakland.”

Cast your eyes back to 1978 and 1979. In ’78, the SuperSonics went to the NBA finals and lost to the Washington Bullets in seven games. The next year, the Sonics were back in the finals and that time they took the championship in five. It took them seventeen years to get to the finals again, where they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. They didn’t make the finals again; in 2008, they moved. Not down the road to Tacoma*, where Seattle fans could still root for them, but to Oklahoma City.

* Not an arbitrary choice of location: they spent the 1994-95 season in Tacoma.

Seattle’s got some street cred when it comes to losing big in sports finals. So when I say they know how you feel, I’m not just blowing smoke.

I’m not trying to one-downer you here. Just suggesting you take a little guidance from those guys up north. Grieve. Let it all out (quietly).

And then, stay on the bandwagon. The good times will come again. Stick with your guys, and wait’ll next year.

Good luck.