The postseason as “tolerable weirdness”

“We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through it together,” said the Yankee Stadium scoreboard earlier this year. How easy will it be to comfort yourselves that way during the coming weird postseason?

Stephanie Apstein, one of Sports Illustrated‘s most acute baseball reporters, has one sound reason to root for as many losing teams making this truncated season’s postseason experiment as possible. She gets why the postseasons’s expanded for 2020, but that’s as far as her approval goes: “[I]t’s going to be hard to kick the new postseason format if MLB likes what it sees here,” she writes. “And the new postseason format is a disgrace.”

Apstein promptly addresses the New York Yankees, sitting bloodied but unbowed in third place in the American League East and one game atop the league’s wild card heap. Bloodied but unbowed? Last year’s Yankee yearbook could have been The New England Journal of Medicine. This year, it could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal. Half the team staging from St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium is on the injured list this year, Apstein reminds us.

In a normal season, panic would be reigning in the Bronx. Instead, the team trudges through listless game after listless game, secure in the knowledge that it will make the playoffs no matter what. The Dodgers, the best team in baseball, did not make any major moves at the trade deadline, because what’s the point of spending prospect capital to bolster a team that has to win the barely-better-than-a-coin-flip three-game first-round series?

This setup dissuades teams from trying to be good. The clearer that is this year, the more likely it is that we can go back to normal next year.

There, I’ll say it. Apstein wants the losing teams in the postseason in the hope that even the recalcitrant commissioner Rob Manfred sees what a patently ridiculous sight it’ll be. Not to mention a deflating one. We baseball fans were so proud, so long, that our sport didn’t invite practically half of all teams to play for championships. This year, we really will be no better off than basketball or hockey fans.

Eight teams in each league will go to the postseason this year: three division winners and five wild card teams. There’s a reasonable chance that the fifth wild cards at least might go to losing teams: as of Friday morning, the overall standings show the Yankees in the American League and three National League teams (the Marlins, the Cardinals, the Giants) holding final wild card claims . . . each with records a single game above .500.

One potential American League wild card team (the Houston Astros) sits a game behind the Yankees . . . with a record this morning one game below .500. Two potential National League wild cards (the Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers) sit two games behind in that standing . . . three and four games under .500.

It could happen, more than theoretically. And more’s the pity.

Ever since its wild card era began, in 1995, baseball has had more than a few penultimate champions who got to the postseason dance on the wild card in the first place, not having been exactly the best or the winningest in their league in such seasons. I’m talking about you, 1997 Florida Marlins (second best league record), 2000 Yankees (fifth-best league record), 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (third-best), 2002 Anaheim Angels (third-best), 2003 Marlins (third-best), 2004 Boston Red Sox (second-best), 2006 and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (fourth-best, each time), 2014 San Francisco Giants (fourth-best), and 2019 Washington Nationals (fourth-best).

Even those teams’ fans must have thought to themselves how ludicrous it was to experience the thrills, spills, and chills of watching their teams fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . in second place. Never mind this year’s setup, those setups, especially with the advent of the second wild cards, dissuaded teams from trying to be a little bit better than just above average.

Last year’s Nats, of course, went from being 19-31 after 23 May’s play to dancing the lights out (74-38 on the regular season; 12-5 in the postseason) on the way to Washington’s first MLB World Series conquest since the Coolidge Administration. (The Homestead Grays, based in Washington, won the final Negro League World Series in 1948.) They beat the Astros fair and square (and entirely on the road) in the Series, no questions asked, but it’s not as though they’d been the kings of the National League all season long.

Maybe, as Apstein’s colleague Emma Baccalieri says, the price we pay for baseball at all this pandemic year is that things were bound to be a little weird. “Especially,” Baccalieri says parenthetically, “given the varying team-by-team impacts of the coronavirus—that’s made it much harder than usual to gauge a club’s actual talent level from its record.”

But Baccalieri says a one-time-only “tolerable weirdness” of a sub-.500 team in the postseason is one thing. Making it any kind of reality past this tolerably weird season is something else. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she writes, “‘tolerable weirdness’  shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred’s regime to date has seemed too often to be the regime of tolerable weirdness. We’ve had the barely tolerable weirdness thus far of things like the free cookie on second base to open each half extra inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, managers forgetting that minimum and leaving relievers in past three batters even (especially?) when they’re being murdered on the mound, and canned crowd noise in the ballparks.

About the only thing that hasn’t joined the barely tolerable weirdness yet is that hapless stadium DJ who hits the crowd noise surge by accident when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch. But don’t hold your breath.

This postseason stands an excellent chance of stretching tolerable wierdness to the point of intolerance. Even fans of the division winners, a couple of whom may have to face a sub-.500 team to open and possibly be closed out by a heretofore-undetectable surge, may think to themselves, hell must be very much like this.

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