Pull Up a Seat

The playoffs have started well, with the Astros and Cubs both shutting out their Wild Card opponents. Is it just me, or does everyone find a zero on the scoreboard magically makes the game more exciting? I know I’ll watch a 3-0 game with much more interest than a 4-1 game, even if there isn’t a no-hitter or perfect game on the line.

AL Division Series games start tonight, giving us our first post-season looks at Texas, Toronto, and Kansas City. We can’t, of course, expect all three teams to win with shutouts tonight, since the two non-US teams are playing each other*. But we can hope for a couple of close shutouts. Why not? 2014 was the Year of the Sweep, thanks to the Royals. Let’s make 2015 the Year of the Shutout.

* What, you mean you don’t consider Texas to be a foreign country?

But shutouts aren’t really what I set out to talk about. Consider for a moment the plight of the Yankees’* and Pirates’ fans. They’ve followed their teams all season, cheering, crying, no doubt swearing at times. They felt the joy of making the playoffs, and now it’s over, and they have to join the rest of us at the “Wait Until Next Year Table”.

* Yes, I really do have some sympathy for fans of the Yankees. Not particularly for the team, but the fans. Some of them, anyway. Mostly the ones young enough to have avoided infection by the sense of entitlement that plagued the House That Ruth Built and now runs rampant in its successor.

This isn’t a complaint about the Wild Card being a one game series. That horrible realization that the season is over is the same whether it comes after one game, seven games, or one hundred sixty-two–and, realistically, for most of us it came partway through the season.

No matter when it happens, it’s the same tire-iron to the kneecap. And it happens to all of us. Yes, even the fans of the eventual World Series winner. The season has ended; the sun has set on the British Empire; someday the sun will burn out. The glories of the past belong in the past. The World Series winners have one advantage over Ozymandias: as long as there is baseball, they’ll be remembered. But then, so will the losers. There’s never been a sport documented in as much detail as baseball. Arguably, if baseball ever forgets its past, it won’t be baseball any more.

But right now, those Pirates’ fans’ knees and those Yankees’ fans’ knees hurt just as much as the As’ fans’, the Phillies’ fans’, and all the fans of the other twenty-three teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Pull up a seat, folks. Have a drink. Grab a plate of turkey (brined in the tears of millions of disappointed fans).

We’ll get ’em next year.

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.

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.