Root Who

And here we are again. The marathon is over, and it’s time to sprint. Oddly, Google Translate doesn’t include “Baseball Clichés” as an option, so allow me to offer a somewhat free translation: The MLB regular season is over and the playoffs start today.

Never have I been so unhappy to be correct. The Mariners made a last-minute playoff push, but came up short again. That extends their playoff drought to fifteen years. Disappointing, yes, but in line with my prediction at the beginning of the season. I’ll report on my predictions later–did I crack the .500 mark and achieve respectability?–but, since I also made playoff predictions using the same technique, I’ll wait until I can wrap up both sets of guessesscientific deductions at once.

For now, you’ll have to settle for my traditional guide to selecting a playoff team to root for. Those of you who have teams in the playoffs, congratulations. The rest of you–including those of you who only follow the playoffs–listen up.

The rules haven’t changed much since last year:

Rules for Rooting, 2016 edition

  1. Unless it’s the team you follow during the regular season, you must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value OR a history of following a favorite player from team to team trumps Rules Two and Three. It does not override Rule One. Nothing overrides Rule One.
  5. Teams with a record of futility or legitimate “misfit” credentials get bonus points in the decision process. What constitutes legitimate misfittery is up to you. Be honest with yourself.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Cubs. As I’ve said before, this rule may need revision if the Cubs ever break their jinx–but that’s a problem for the future.

How does that work in the real world? Like so:

The American League playoff teams are Boston, Cleveland, Texas, Baltimore, and Toronto.

I’m tempted to invoke Rule One on the Red Sox, but ESPN has backed off a little on their fascination with Boston and the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry. Add in the David Ortiz farewell tour, and I think they squeeze past Rule One, though they may have left a little skin on the corner as they pushed past.

None of the teams, IMNSHO, qualify as misfits. Toronto and Texas made the playoffs last year, Baltimore made it two years ago, and Boston and Cleveland were in the playoffs in 2013. So nobody really has a record of futility to draw on. I’m calling this a draw.

So, if you normally root for a team in the AL Central, my advice is to root for the Red Sox this playoff season. Contrarily, if you ordinarily follow the Yankees or Rays, this season, you’re best off cheering for the Indians. And if you’re an AL West fan, you can choose: David Ortiz, or the Indians’ jump from a barely-respectable 81-80 record to a second-best in the AL 94-67. Or you could flip a coin.

Over in the National League, life is just as interesting. The teams are Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

Rule One clearly applies to the Nationals. The Dodgers continue their flirtation with Rule One, but since much of the media fascination with the team derives from Vin Scully’s retirement, I can’t come down too hard on them. The Dodgers get a pass and retain rooting eligibility, along with a Vin Scully bonus, similar to the Red Sox’ David Ortiz bonus.

As in the AL, there are no really obvious “misfit” candidates. As for futility, well… The Cubs, Dodgers, and Mets made the playoffs last year, and the Giants’ last playoff appearance was 2014. (The Nationals are already disqualified, but their last appearance was also 2014, so it wouldn’t help them much.)

So here are my NL recommendations: If you normally root for the Marlins, Phillies, or Braves, you may freely choose the Giants or the Cubbies. NL Central fans can, if they wish, invoke Rule Six to allow them to root for Chicago, or go with the Giants. NL West fans’ only real choice is the Cubs.

That leaves you unaffiliated folks. You can align yourself with a team based on where you live, and then follow the above guidelines. Or you can just make the easy choice and root for Chicago. It’s time to end the Cub’s reign as un-champions. Seventy years is plenty.

Me? My fallback teams are the Giants and Mets, so I’m guaranteed to have “my team” make it past the Wild Card. But I don’t get to jump on Chicago’s bandwagon.

And, as usual, those of us who root for Baseball regardless of affiliation, are crossing our fingers in hopes of seven-game series all the way from the DS, through the CS, and on to the WS–even if that does push the end of the season into November.

First game is tonight: Orioles/Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card. Go Birds!

Mood Swings

Baseball is not a game for the weak of heart. And I’m not even talking about playing the game. Even watching it isn’t for those with heart conditions.

Two weeks ago, the Mariners were at .500, clinging to respectability and their fans were starting to mutter about “next year”. I said “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.” They were nine games behind Texas in the AL West and six games behind Boston and Toronto for a Wild Card berth.

How true those words proved. In the past fourteen days, the Mariners have played 13 games, winning 11 and losing only 2. That gives them–as the TV commentator pointed out several times last night–the best record in baseball since the All-Star Break. They’re now five and a half games behind Texas and only two back of Boston.

In other words, they’re not in a playoff slot, but they’re relevant. Even more: if they keep winning at their current rate, they’ll finish the season at 101-61. Winning 100 games doesn’t guarantee a team will make the playoffs*, but with the expanded Wild Card, the odds are certainly in favor of getting in.

* Just ask the 1980 Orioles (100-62), the 1993 Giants (103-59), and half a dozen other teams, going back to the 1909 Cubs who finished 104-49, a full seven games behind the Pirates.

Of course, the likelihood of winning 84% of their games over the next six weeks is negligible. According to fans’ guts, which base their estimates on the Mariners’ forty year history, the most probable outcome is an epic collapse in which they lose eighty-four percent of the remaining games to finish at 70-92. That slideplummet could–will, says the gut–begin today against the Angels, who have now lost eleven straight.

Back in reality, of course, the odds are good that the Ms aren’t going to win 101 games and just as good that they’re not going to lose 92. FiveThirtyEight’s updated prediction has them finishing 87-75, with a 44% chance of making the playoffs*. That’s…not bad.

* Since we were talking about the Cubs’ World Series drought two weeks ago, I feel obligated to point out that FiveThirtyEight’s current prediction is for the Cubs to finish at 100-62, with a probability of making the playoffs over 99%. But even with that, FiveThirtyEight gives them only an 18% chance of winning the World Series.

But tell that to the heart. Unless you’re one of those rare people who can sleep on a roller coaster, this is the time of year when your heart gets a real workout. Remember: nobody, not even the lowly Braves (44-74) has been eliminated from the playoffs yet. Any victory could, in theory, be the start of a run like the Mariners have been on for the past two weeks. And any loss could be the start of a plunge to the basement.

So, take your nitro tablets, hold on to the grab bar, and turn on the TV–better yet, collect the family and head to the ballpark, if you haven’t been priced out of it.

Forget Rio; the action is right here. The real playoffs started April 3, and the teams are playing every day.

Caps On!

And that’s a wrap. The MLB regular season ended yesterday and the playoffs start tomorrow with the American League Wild Card game.

That means it’s time for the annual guide to who to root for. Normally, this post would go up on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do it today so you have time to visit the sporting apparel venue of your choice to pick up a cap or shirt to highlight your rooting interest.

Those of you who root for teams that made the playoffs, congratulations and good luck. The rest of us–those who normally root for someone else and those who don’t usually follow baseball–are unbearably jealous.

As usual, let’s start with a recap of the rules.

Rules for Rooting, 2015 edition

  1. Unless it’s the team you follow during the regular season, you must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value OR a history of following a favorite player from team to team trumps Rules Two and Three. It does not override Rule One.
  5. Teams with a record of futility or legitimate “misfit” credentials get bonus points in the decision process. What constitutes legitimate misfittery is up to you. Be honest with yourself.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Cubs. As I noted last year, this rule does make things a bit awkward, but–all Back to the Future jokes aside, next year’s rules will need some revision if the Cubs go all the way this year.

Got it all? Good. Here’s how it shakes out:

In the American League, the playoff teams are the Blue Jays, Yankees, Royals, Rangers, and Astros.

By Rule One, nobody but year-round Yankees fans may root for them in the playoffs.

Kansas City, of course, made it to the World Series last year before losing to the Giants, Texas played in the 2012 AL Wild Card, and Houston was the 2005 World Series loser. Toronto, however, ended MLB’s longest playoff drought–21 years–by winning the AL East.

Sentiment aside, that makes the Blue Jays the runaway choice for playoff-only fans and those who normally root for teams in the AL West or Central divisions. Non-Yankee AL East fans get the Astros, a fine dark horse.

Turning to the National League, the candidatesteams are the Mets, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, and Dodgers.

Last year, I said that “if the media turn 25% of their collective attention elsewhere…the Dodgers will be readmitted to the ranks of the root-worthy.” That is the case, leaving us with no teams to eliminate from consideration under Rule One.

St. Louis, LA, and Pittsburgh all made the playoffs last year, which means the Rule Five decision comes down to Chicago (last playoff appearance in 2008) or New York (playoff-free since 2006).

Rule Six is optional, but the recent playoff appearances of the Cards, Dodgers, and Pirates tend to reinforce it. My ruling: If you don’t normally follow baseball, or follow a team in the NL West or Central, pull for the Mets. If you usually follow the Nationals, Marlins, Braves, or Phillies, it’s “Go Cubbies!”

The major media are salivating at the thought of another Subway Series (Yankees/Mets)–what could be better calculated to help them spread their opinion that civilization ends somewhere around the middle of the Hudson River.

The sensible among us, however, will be rooting for an International Series (Mets/Blue Jays). I’ve got a sentimental attachment (with cap!) to the Mets, so I’ll be pulling for them to go all the way, and–as usual and despite my qualms about November baseball–for the series to run seven games.

Until we get there, though, I invite you all to join me in front of the TV Tuesday to cheer the Astros as they try to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs in the first round.

Root, Root, Root, for…???

It could have happened, but it didn’t. The Brewers errored their way into a loss to knock themselves out of the playoff chase. The Indians won two of their last three, again, knocking themselves out of the chase. The Mariners… ah, the Mariners. They pulled themselves together and won their last four, but didn’t make the playoffs when Oakland tied their own shoelaces together, because the As didn’t quite fall on their bats.

Am I disappointed? Of course. Am I going to rant about it? Naturally. Just not today. I’ll save it for some time in November, when I’ll be needing a baseball fix to get me through the long, dark days without even a trade rumor. In the meantime, I’ll be over at the kid’s table with my turkey and sour grapes.

I enjoyed doing last year’s post on how to select a team to root for in the playoffs–and enjoyed the comments suggesting changes to the rules even more. So, here we go again with 2014’s Rules for Rooting.

  1. You must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport. Addendum for 2014: You can root for such a team in the playoffs if and only if they are the only team you root for during the regular season.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value trump Rules Two and Three. New rule this year. If an old friend, a lover (or fondly-recalled ex-lover), or beloved relative gave you a shirt or cap, you may root for that team in their honor. You’re on shakier ground if you don’t have the merchandise, unless said flbr has passed away since their team last made the playoffs.
  5. Teams with a record of futility get bonus points in the decision process. Addendum for 2014: So do teams with legit “misfit” and/or “weirdo” credentials. What constitutes legitimacy? That’s between you and your conscience, at least until I get around to doing a blog post on the subject.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Cubs. A new rule this year, and I hope Stef will forgive me for strengthening the rule beyond her original formulation. Mind you, it’s irrelevant again this year, as it has been in so many years past (the Cubs finished at 73-89, seventeen games out of the division title and fifteen out of the wild card.)

For those of you who don’t want to chase down the logic chains yourselves, here’s your handy guide.

National League:
The teams are Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

Washington and LA are eliminated under Rule One, the former for stealing one of Canada’s only two teams and renaming them the “Nationals,” and the latter for the ridiculous media overexposure lavished on Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. (The Dodger’s banishment is temporary. If the media turn 25% of their collective attention elsewhere next year, the Dodgers will be readmitted to the ranks of the root-worthy.)

Summing up Rule Five’s impact, the Cardinals reached–but lost–the World Series last year. The Pirates made it in as a wild card team, but lost to the Cardinals. The Giants didn’t make it to the playoffs last year. None of the three have strong misfit credentials.

Ignoring sentimental connections, which I can’t manage for you, that means your playoff team this year is the Giants, unless you normally root for San Diego, Colorado, or Arizona, in which case, you’re backing the Pirates.

American League:
Last year’s World Series winners, the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs this year, which opens things up a bit. We’ve got Baltimore, Detroit, Anaheim (pardon me, Los Angeles), Kansas City, and Oakland.

If I’m invoking Rule One on the Nationals, I also need to invoke it on the Angels, for the cynical ploy of moving the team in name only (for the uninitiated, the team’s official name is “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”). No other team is disqualified under Rule One this year*.

* And thank all the Baseball Gods for keeping the Yankees out this year. Derek Jeter, by all reports, is a nice enough guy, but the idea of extending the Jeter farewell tour into the postseason is enough to induce nausea in the stoutest stomachs.

The ranking under Rule Five looks like this:

  • The As lost the AL Division Series to the Tigers last year.
  • Detroit lost the AL Championship series to the Red Sox. On the face of it, that should put them above the As, but I give them a few bonus points under the misfit clause for the lousy state of the economy in Detroit–they need all the sympathy and support they can get.
  • Baltimore lost the Division Series in 2012.
  • The Royals are making their first playoff appearance since 1985, when they won the World Series.

That makes the choice rather easy. Kansas City all the way–unless you normally root for Cleveland, Chicago, or Minnesota, in which case you’re free to cheer for the Orioles.

Non-fans worried about rooting for the wild card Royals, take note: the short series of games in the playoffs make it possible for any team to go all the way. It’s possible to play .600 ball (win 12 of 20 games) and win the World Series. The Angels are the only team to play better than .600 during the regular season. The worst record among the playoff teams was .543 (As, Pirates, and Giants). That’s a tight spread. A few good breaks can easily trump a nominally-better set of players.

There you have it. I’m rooting for a San Francisco/Kansas City World Series, with the Giants taking it in seven games. I hope you’ll join me.

It Could Happen

Here we are again, approaching the end of another season. The last games of the regular season will be Sunday, then we get a day off to prepare ourselves before Thanksgiving, aka the playoffs, begin Tuesday.

Look for my annual rundown of who to root for in the playoffs Tuesday morning. I had hoped to do that today, so you would have time to run out and get appropriate ceremonial garb (caps, shirts, underwear, etc.), but unfortunately, the teams aren’t quite set. As I write this, three teams are still hanging on, hoping for a miracle.

In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers are four games out with four games remaining. If they win their final four games and San Francisco loses their final four, the Brewers would face the Giants in tiebreaker game for the final wild card spot. It could happen.

In the American League, there are two teams pondering their faint hopes, the Seattle Mariners (three games out with four remaining) and the Cleveland Indians (three and a half games out with three remaining). The As and Royals are currently tied for the wild card; the Indians and Mariners will be looking to win out and hope that one or both of the leaders to tie their shoelaces together and fall on their bats in ritual suicide. It could happen.

It could happen. That’s a nice thought. We’ve talked about hope so many times before, and “it could happen” is the ultimate expression of hope. The chances are poor (the oddsmakers give the Brewers a 0.3% chance of making the playoffs, the Mariners a 0.4% chance, and the Indians a 0.9% chance*), but hey, four game winning streaks and four game losing streaks happen all the time. Hell, the Mariners currently have a five game losing streak, and Texas, the second-worst team in baseball this year, currently has a four game winning streak. It could happen.

* The Indians are getting slightly better odds than the Mariners despite that extra half-game because they’ve got a better record over the past ten games and because they only need to win three games instead of four.

Year after year–decade after decade in some cases–we continue to pin our hopes on “it could happen”. Why do we torture ourselves this way? I could say that if we don’t torture ourselves, who will? And yes, there’s an element of truth in that: if you want to be sure something is done right, do it yourself. And baseball is, as we’ve said repeatedly, a religion. Faith is the core of the religious experience, and you can’t pay someone else to have faith on your behalf.

More, watching those last few games, clinging to the hope that “next year” could actually be “this year” until the final out is recorded* on your team’s chances, is also a show of loyalty. We all know the majority of players have no loyalty to the fans. We all know the owners, by and large, have even less loyalty. So? That doesn’t reduce our responsibility to live up to our commitments. That’s the deal: you play the games, we’ll cheer, no matter how depressing it might be or how hopeless it might seem.

* Or even beyond in this age of video review and managerial challenges…

So, go Cleveland! Go Seattle! And yes, go Milwaukee!

It could happen.

Season Liberally With Tears

Tears of sorrow, tears of joy.

Feel free to skip ahead to the playoff discussion if you want to avoid the depressing bits.

And so another season comes to an end. Ten of the 30 teams move on to the playoffs. Fans of the other 20 teams crawl into bed, pull their team-colors blankets over their heads and mutter darkly about what went wrong.

I’ve talked a lot about hope this year, and will again. Just not quite yet, thanks. First there’s that “crawl into bed” period to get through. For most fans, it’ll last a couple of days. Then there will be some news about their team that can be interpreted as hopeful, and they’ll emerge from under the covers in time to watch the World Series while talking up “next year”. For others, it’ll take a bit longer.

Let’s compare a couple of examples. Can I have some volunteers from the audience, please? Thank you. You, there, the San Francisco Giants and, let’s see, how about you, the Seattle Mariners. I want to assure all of you that I have in fact never met either of these teams, and they are most assuredly not shills planted in the audience.

The Giants won the World Series last year. This year, with essentially the same team, things didn’t go quite as well and the team finished with a less-than-stellar 76-86 record. That puts them in a tie with San Diego for the 18th best record in baseball, just a smidge below the middle of the pack. I won’t go into what went wrong — even if I could adequately summarize it in the space available, it would deprive the fans of a winter of argumentfriendly discussion. Let’s just note that the Giants have a reasonably solid core that needs some fortification. Sunday they announced that they had driven a truck loaded with dollar bills onto Hunter Pence’s front lawn, thereby preventing a major piece of that core from heading to free agency. They’ve also formally stated that they’re loading another truck and programming its GPS for Tim Lincecum’s front yard. In short, they’ve got money and they’re not afraid to spend it where they think it will do the most good. Perhaps even more importantly, ownership, the general manager, and the manager* are clearly aligned on what to do next. Giants fans can come out from under the covers in time for tonight’s first playoff game (Cincinnati at Pittsburgh).

* For the uninitiated, the general manager is a suit-wearing guy who sits in an office; his (well, it’s usually a him) responsibility is the team’s strategy, as expressed via (among other things) draft choices, free agent signings, and managerial hiring. The manager is a uniform-wearing guy who sits on the field with the players; his (it’s always a him) responsibility is the team’s tactics. In most other sports, he would be referred to as the “head coach”.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, the team finished the season on the losing end of a 9-0 blowout. Their 71-91 record is the 25th best (or fifth worst, if you prefer a smaller number) in baseball. Management is clearly completely unaligned on what to do next. The manager last year rejected a one year contract extension for 2014. The front office did nothing to counter rumors during the season that the manager would be fired. The departing manager wanted (he says) to develop the team’s prospects while bringing in a core of players in their peak years via trade and free agency. The general manager and ownership have been quiet on what their plan is, but over the past few years they have brought in a large number of older players nearing retirement while the prospects have been rushed to the majors and forced to learn on the job.

The general manager was given a one year contract extension; that puts him squarely into “win or you’re history” territory. That encourages him to overspend for free agents and trade away the promising rookies and prospects in the hope of assembling a group of individuals that will overcome their lack of cohesion to win more games than they lose. Sort of the baseball equivalent of selling the car you use to get to work to put a down payment on a house — and then getting an ARM loan with a huge balloon payment. Even if he doesn’t fall into that trap, he has to find a new manager who will want to take what’s likely to be a one year position (if the general manager doesn’t come through and is not renewed, his replacement will want his own choice for manager) while simultaneously trying to convince useful free agents to come to a team in disarray.

Mariners fans may be staying under those covers until next August when the general manager is let go. Or maybe until the following Christmas, when a new one is hired, too late to do anything useful at the annual winter meetings.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? That would be the logical thing to do, but religion is rarely logical. Most of them will be out of their bed-caves by mid-February when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. (One more than half is “most”, right?)


OK, we’re done with the depressing bits, I think. Let’s talk about the playoffs.

This year the five teams in each league with the best records have actually made the playoffs* (although the AL had to extend the season by a game to give Tampa Bay the opportunity to beat Texas to make that true.) In the NL, we’ve got Atlanta, St. Louis, LA, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. The AL has Boston, Detroit, Oakland, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay.

* That doesn’t always happen: the winner of a weak division may have a worse record than the number two or three team in a strong division. Until last year, only four teams made the playoffs from each league; the addition of a second wild card team should help cut down on top teams not making the playoffs, but it’s not a guarantee. Even last year with the second wild card in place, Tampa Bay (90-72) and the LA Angels (89-73) didn’t make the playoffs, but Detroit did at 88-74. Mind you, Detroit won the American League Championship before losing the World Series to San Francisco, so having the best regular season record doesn’t exactly set you up for assured success in the playoffs. Maybe they should just hold a lottery for the last wild card spot? But I digress.

You have to root for someone: that’s part of the sporting experience, not something unique to the religion of baseball. So how does the poor, suffering fan of one of the other 20 teams choose who to root for? Allow me to propose a few simple rules to help out:

  1. You must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport. (A universal rule. In football, that eliminates Dallas, Washington, and (IMNSHO) Oakland.) So that means Atlanta is off the list. (In other, less happy years, that would also eliminate the Yankees.) I’d also include Boston on this list (sorry, Maggie), given the worship ESPN has lavished on them in recent years.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division. This is a contentious rule. Note that it is expressed as a “should”, rather than a “must”. The thinking here is that overcoming your normal antipathy for a rival is likely to bring you into unsafe proximity to that team’s fans. See the recent mixing of Dodgers and Giants fans for an extreme example of why this is a bad idea.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. If nothing else, crossing from the NL to the AL would require you to accept the designated hitter; going the other way would force you to watch pitchers try to hit. Either way, it’s sure to induce nightmares and insomnia.
  4. Teams with a record of futility get bonus points in the decision process. Pittsburgh is the clear leader here, as they’re making their first playoff appearance since 1992. NL Central fans who can’t root for the Pirates can look to the Dodgers, making their first playoff trip since 2009. Over in the AL, your best bet is Cleveland, who haven’t seen the post-season since 2007. Royals, Twins, and White Sox fans have a problem. They can’t root for the division-rival Indians or Tigers, we’ve already eliminated the Red Sox from consideration by anyone outside of Boston, and Oakland made the playoffs last year. That leaves them with Tampa Bay, who made the playoffs the year before last, which is not exactly ancient history. Still, they’re better off than they would have been if Texas had beaten Tampa Bay last night. Since Texas made the playoffs last year, those AL Central fans wouldn’t have had anyone to root for, and would have been denied the privilege of attending services.

Me? By the rules, I should be rooting for Cleveland. Unfortunately, I can’t summon up any emotion in support of the Indians. That being the case, I’m going to invoke my secondary loyalties to the Giants and Mets (74-88, squarely between the Giants’ and Mariners’ records) to allow me to cross the Great Divide between the leagues and root for the Pirates.

Assuming I can even see the TV from under my blankets.