Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Last Real Pennant Race?

I'm (1) an Atlanta Braves fan; and (2) a sucker for well-researched, well-written articles with high quality photos, so I should be in love with Robert Weintraub's piece on the 1993 NL West race over at ESPN.com. And on some level, I am, because it's a great article.

Still, I have a hard time getting misty over this alleged last race because the thing that Weintraub (and everybody else for that matter) cites as contributing to the end of great pennant races -- the addition of the wild card -- isn't functionally different than the split into divisions which happened 24 years earlier. Weintraub says:

After the strike of '94 did away with the pennant races and the World Series, the wild card took effect in 1995, with the Yankees and Rockies the initial lucky recipients. The drama of late-season baseball has been transferred from occasional but memorable all-or-nothing contests between great teams, to annual lower-stakes games between the good-to-mediocre. Could be an apt metaphor for the culture at large.

Of course it wasn't all-or-nothing then either, mostly because there was no "all" about it for the 1993 Braves. I distinctly recall the day the Braves finally clinched. I was in Cleveland, watching the Indians play the White Sox in the final baseball game to ever take place in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Several notable things happened that afternoon, and here they are in descending order of significance to me on that day:

1. A wobbly Bob Hope sang "Thanks for the Memories" from home plate after
the game was over;

2. Albert Belle beat out Frank Thomas for the AL RBI crown, which sort of
pleased me because I was then in the process of developing a lifelong loathing
for Frank Thomas for some reason;

3. I impulsively keyed a car in the stadium parking lot that had parked
with its bumper touching that of my precious 1987 Chevy Cavalier RS;
and

4. The out-of-town scoreboard showed the Braves win over the Rockies and
the Dodgers posting a large lead over the Giants, which I would later learn held
up.

Why did my favorite team's triumph in the Last Great Pennant Race rate so low for me? Because I knew even then that it was only a minor victory. The NLCS loomed, and I was fully aware that a 104-win season meant absolutely nothing if my Bravos couldn't take four of the next seven from the scruffily inferior Philadelphia Phillies.

And they couldn't. Atlanta's reward for prevailing in a draining 162-game fight with the Giants was a loss in six games to a Phillies team that, had this all occurred before divisional play, would have been sent home already, just like the Giants were. The ultimate highs and lows of 1993 ended up being experienced not by Atlanta's Fred McGriff or San Francisco's Barry Bonds, but by Toronto's Joe Carter and Philadelphia's Mitch Williams. And Weintraub complains of mediocrity being rewarded today?

Given that both the league championship series and the wild card-driven divisional series are relatively recent inventions which pale in history, pageantry, and memory to the World Series, the concept of "all-or-nothing" doesn't come into play if all that is to be gained is a trip to an intermediate level of the playoffs. If "all or nothing" is what we're after, give me 1908, 1951, 1962, or 1967 over 1993. Since 1969, give me the high drama of a competitive League Championship Series like 1986 or 1992. In all of those cases the losers went home and the winners went on to the Fall Classic where, even if they didn't ultimately prevail, they will always be remembered.

1993 was great -- a humdinger, actually -- but it's remembered mostly because it was recent and because it was last, not because it was unprecedented, better, or even all that special.

2 comments:

Drew Carey said...

THAT WAS MY CAR ASSHOLE!

Shyster said...

Statute of limitations is up. Sorry, bro. But congrats on getting the Price is Right gig!