Almost half a century ago, U.S. Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska offered a defense for Richard Nixon’s dubious Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell. It proved that with friends like Hruska the hapless Carswell didn’t need enemies. Just the way baseball proves that with friends or commissioners like Rob Manfred, it doesn’t need enemies, either.
“Even if [Carswell] were mediocre,” said Hruska, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.”
Hruska, meet Manfred and today’s major league baseball owners. For the first time since 1981’s strike-resolution postseason experiment, at least one team with a losing record enters the rounds that will end in someone winning the World Series. This time, though, it turns out to be two such teams.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 29-31, final wild card-holding Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers. Whose joint appearance in the World Series to come (baseball law: anything can happen—and usually does) might be less hazardous to the nation’s health than a questionable Supreme Court justice.
Manfred and the owners dreamed up this sixteen-team/twelve wild-card postseason as a way to take the financial sting out of the owners agreeing to any sort of baseball season during a pandemic that’s stung the economy overall. So far as most of us knew, it would be a one-time thing.
Well, so was the postseason resolution of the 1981 strike. It put first-and-second-half division winners against each other in division series. But it also put the overall 50-53 Kansas City Royals (second-half American League West winners) into the postseason and kept the 66-42 Cincinnati Reds (neither-half National League West winners) and the best overall season record out.
Who knew then that, a decade and a half later, the owners and the players union alike would go all-in on three-division leagues and a wild card that took the first bite of championship dilution, allowing teams who didn’t finish in first place to play into the postseason in the first place?
Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, then pushed for and got the second wild card in each league starting in 2012. Until this season, only two World Series featured combatants who got into the postseason by way of the wild card, in 2002 (the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants) and 2014. (The Giants beat the Royals.) There’s an excellent chance of it happening again next month.
Almost two weeks ago, Manfred let slip that he’d like to see this sixteen-team postseason format stick past the anomaly of the pandemic-shortened season. That happened five days after Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein said she hoped as many losing teams as possible got here this time only.
The reasonings between the two couldn’t be more opposed. Manfred told a Hofstra University virtual panel that “there was a lot to commend” this setup “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape,” adding that “an overwhelming majority” of the owners agree.
Apstein called the setup a disgrace: “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.” She dares to dream, as does her SI colleague, Emma Baccalieri, who said, “In a non-pandemic-restricted year, ‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”
In absolute fairness, assorted teams this year didn’t look good for assorted reasons running the spread from aborted spring training and near rush-designed “summer camps” with a three-month-plus interruption to assorted injuries, health-related opt-outs, a few COVID-19 test panics and postponements, and the usual assortment of foul balls.
But assorted teams looked good in spite of those, too. More than a few teams made baseball fun and feel-good again. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman went from scared to death that COVID might wipe him out to likely winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. The Reds, the Chicago White Sox, and the Slam Diego Padres made friends and fans all over.
Well, at least the White Sox did until they went from letting the kids play (Tim Anderson especially) to Fun Police, drilling Willson Contreras for the bat flip of the century last Friday night. Must be something in the franchise water. The White Sox may have an apparent institutional genius for going from fun-fun-fun to phooey-on-you in practically a blink.
So why on earth should we pray for a World Series featuring a pair of losing season records? There’s still the outside chance that the very sight of two losing records playing for the Promised Land might yank even Commissioner Nero’s head out from being so far up his ass he can give you the live play-by-play of his own root canal procedure. Might.
With identical losing records, and assuming they both get past the earlier rounds on the theory that even the also-rans can and do go nuclear for short spells, the Astros and the Brewers could make real that once-infamous observation that mediocrity deserved “a little” representation, too.
The Supreme Court can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos? Well, baseball can’t be all the A’s, the Braves, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins, and the Tampa Bay Rays, to name this pandemic season’s division winners, either.
They can’t even be all the White Sox, the Padres, the Cleveland Indians, or whoever—under normal two-card circumstances—might win a playoff game between the Reds and (surprise!) the Miami Marlins. (They’d have done it tying for the second National League wild card if this had been a normal season.)
Under normal conditions the rest of the pack, never mind the bottom of it, wouldn’t be entitled to play for a little representation before baseball’s highest court. Except in their wait-till-next-year dreams.
This year’s Astros and Brewers sank from winning 2019 teams (the Astros winning the AL West, the Brewers going to the NL wild card game) to 2020 also-rans. They were compromised predominantly by the injured list, particularly as it riddled their pitching staffs and a few key position players. If mediocrity deserves representation, their pandemic season’s records mean these two playing in the World Series would be as representative as it gets.
What if it leaves Manfred still giving the live play-by-play of his own root canal work? What if it doesn’t awaken him, and those owners he says are all-in, to the abject degeneracy of a baseball postseason that invited the mediocre to play on the same field (to open, anyway) as the teams who did overcome any and all pandemic or other disruptions to rise and shine?
What if Commissioner Nero and those supporters lack the brains to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture? Why did the Dodgers, the Rays, the Twins, the A’s, the Braves, and the Cubs fight tooth, fang, claw, and coronavirus to finish on top, just to have to run through most of the rest of the lesser pack all over again to play in the World Series?” And, “Why did we remove the real incentives for teams to compete just so we could still make money and lots of it?”
It’s tempting to pray that the Astros and the Brewers do find ways to meet in the Series. (Tough openings: the Astros face the Twins in this wild card round; the Brewers have to survive the Dodgers. David had better odds pitching to Goliath.) Just for the outrage factor alone. An outrage factor that would be multiplied exponentially considering the scandal-ridden Astros in Year One following the exposure and non-disciplines of Astrogate.
It might make the Brewers—who haven’t been in the World Series since Epcot opened, Marvin Gaye released the final album of his lifetime, Cats started an eighteen-year run on Broadway, and then-Communist Poland barred the Solidarity labour union—objects of affection far beyond the Milwaukee that made Schlitz famous.
The Astros may have only eight men left (Justin Verlander, pitcher, is gone to undergo and recuperate from late-life Tommy John surgery) from the Astrogate teams of 2017 and part of 2018. But that hasn’t stopped the brickbats, catcalls, and stadium seat cutout punkings from reminding them it’s not nice to commit espionage above and beyond the temptations handed down by MLB itself in the replay rooms.
Maybe an Astros-Brewers World Series would leave Manfred and his minions to answer why they thought mediocrity deserved a little postseason representation, too. Big maybe. And maybe I’ll win the Nobel Prize.
But maybe it should also make you pray that the Indians find a way through this mess to play in and win the Series at long enough last. If 2020 were a normal season, the Indians—whose tenacious righthander Shane Bieber looks like the absolute lock for the American League’s Cy Young Award this pandemic season—might have played a 163rd game against the White Sox to see who got wild card numbers one and two. (The Yankees, the Buffalonto Blue Jays, and the Astros would have been out.)
Well, as Casey Stengel once said, now wait a minute fer crissakes. Suppose this pandemic postseason shakes out to the Indians playing the Padres in the Series. The Indians haven’t won the Series since the Berlin Airlift. The last time they got to try, they lost a Game Seven thriller to the Cubs—who hadn’t won a Series since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)
The Padres have yet to hoist their first piece of World Series metal. The last time they got to try, Jose Samarago became Portugal’s first Nobel literature laureate, Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for humour, Bill Clinton faced impeachment, and the Yankees weren’t anywhere near as inclined to roll over and play dead for the Padres as the Senate was for Clinton.
These words appear after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It almost figures that the first entry into baseball’s book of life for the year to come could make the Mad Hatter’s tea party resemble a Social Register cotillion. This time, if the proverbial cream rises to the top, a Dodgers-Rays World Series would likely do nothing but compel Manfred to proclaim validation. Told ya!
So let’s root, root, root for an Astros-Brewers World Series, no matter how you feel about the Astros otherwise. Not because mediocrity deserves a little representation, but because it might re-awaken the owners. Maybe enough to stop Commissioner Nero from consecrating the poisonous precept that a franchise doesn’t even have to try to be particularly good to earn the right to play for the Promised Land.