Baseball’s League Division Series round is completing its 25th iteration today and tomorrow with winner-takes-some drama. St. Louis at Atlanta. Washington at Los Angeles. Tampa Bay at Houston. Lose and go home, win and go on. That’s not winner taking all, but it’s plenty of stakes. That’s stakes that — save for the 1981 postseason and its singular split-season asteriskery — didn’t exist prior to 1994 on paper or 1995 in action. It’s certainly different from what baseball fans who came of age prior to the mid-’90s are instinctually conditioned to accept as the way to go about getting to the World Series.
When the Mets and three other teams inaugurated the League Championship Series in 1969, a.k.a. “the playoffs,” they initiated a break with what might have been considered the Good Old Days of binary win-and-in pennant races. The LDS did the same to the four-division symmetry a later generation (mine) thought was perfect. Easts played Wests, the bests then dueled for every single marble in creation.
Since 1995, it’s not that simple. Three divisions. A Wild Card. Since 2012, two Wild Cards, but only one in the Division Series. Your 107 wins, if you’re the 2019 Astros, get you no more than a deciding game at home. You lose that, and you are home. We’re not necessarily past the hollow “if the Wild Card were around in the ’80s, the Mets would have gone to the playoffs every year” argument, because it makes us feel good to imagine a system in which Doc, Darryl, Keith, Kid, et al winning 90+ games was automatically rewarded, but we don’t seem to have a problem with the possible elimination of a juggernaut prior to the contemporary final four.
On Tuesday night, after tying their ALDS versus the Astros at two, the Rays were talking about shocking the world. A 96-win team doing anything outstanding shouldn’t seem shocking, though the Rays being the Rays carry an aura of shock and awe anytime they conquer an opponent in front of a multitude of their supporters. They inevitably carry an echo of the 100-win Mets of 1969 not having a chance against the 109-win Orioles. As 2019 has served as an excellent reminder of 1969, I find myself less and less shocked that the Mets won four of five games from Baltimore when it counted most. We had the pitching and we’d won a hundred games. Very good teams beat very good teams and vice-versa. The Orioles were no more than a very good team until they won that World Series.
Which they didn’t.
I have no complaints with the competitive implications of submitting very good teams to an extra hurdle of competition. Let the Astros prove themselves this one extra round. Or let the Rays surge. Just let one of them beat the Yankees, of course. In the National League…god, there has been nobody to root for since the Brewers were eliminated in the Wild Card Game. The Brewers were the ghost we chased through September so we could be in that game, but we hadn’t played them since May 5, thus it was tough for me to gin up enmity for Milwaukee the way I’ve stockpiled animus over the years for the Braves, Cardinals, Nationals and Dodgers. I still had a little residual affection for the Brewers from last October when, if you’d hung out with me, you’d have sworn I was from Wisconsin. I listened to every one of Milwaukee’s LDS and LCS games over the WTMJ feed and rooted hard in a distinctively October fashion for the Crew. Bob Uecker! Sausage commercials! Craig Counsell slipping openers onto the scene like it was a Miller Park tailgate! The whole thing rolled out barrels of fun for a baseball-adoring soul otherwise unaffiliated.
Nothing of that nature in the NL at the moment. The Dodgers are the Dodgers. Their presence is oppressive, yet they haven’t achieved anything admirable from this perspective since 1981 (yeah, we haven’t forgotten 1988 — or Utley). The Cardinals we still resent for wrecking 1985 and 1987 let alone 2006. We were just playing and sweeping the Braves like five minutes ago. What are they doing sopping up a segment of the spotlight? Meanwhile, the tangible joy of pointing out the Nationals have never won a Division Series despite their participation in several of them hangs in the balance of tonight’s Game Five. No Sheadenfreude comes clean to us.
Nevertheless, two National League foes of ours will arise from their respective scraps, vanquishing two other National League foes of ours and thus leave us with a whole other series in which there’s nobody to root for. That’s October for ya.
October for me is also the probably unintended retro pleasure of the LDS, despite the LDS being a fairly modern invention, about as old as access to the Internet. I’ve liked that games of import suddenly materialize at 1:07 PM or 4:37 PM. Daytime baseball for which at least a few marbles are the prize. That’s a throwback worthy of a sitdown in front of Ken Burns’s cameras. On Monday afternoon, I flipped on the TV and left it on in the background, listening to Bob Costas call the Rays and Astros, and could have sworn it was a perfectly good afternoon from my youth or relatively early adulthood. I hop in the car to run errands around five o’clock and, after guessing which frequency ESPN Radio has leased time for what its local outlet deems spillover programming, find a national broadcast crackling with static and semi-informed voices. It’s Chris Berman and Rick Sutcliffe telling me what’s going on inside the red-clad heads of everybody filling seats at Busch Stadium, as if they know. If the temperature’s agreeable, I have the window rolled down and 970 AM or 1050 AM blaring and imagine that Game Two of the NLDS is gripping America’s imagination as it is gripping mine. The mostly inaudible signal is not audible from anybody else’s car where I am. It’s probably not of any great concern to anybody outside of St. Louis or Atlanta. But it’s October and it’s the playoffs and I’m all in.
And will continue to be, even as night falls on the first round.