Rivals in Exile: Wild Cards

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both–whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Ben Jacobs: We’re now about a week away from New York‘s first game of the season and about two weeks away from Boston‘s first game of the season, and both clubs are a little bit banged up.

Trot Nixon will apparently be out until May with a mildly herniated disc in his back and Byung-Hyun Kim‘s shoulder will force Bronson Arroyo to take Kim’s spot in the rotation at the start of the season. Also, although it’s much less of a concern, Nomar Garciaparra has been bothered by a bruised Achilles tendon this spring.

For the Yankees, Jon Lieber will start the season on the disabled list with a groin injury and Bernie Williams will miss at least the first two games of the season after having his appendix removed. Also, although the initial reports were way overblown, Gary Sheffield reaggravated a thumb injury from last season, and it could bother him all year.

We knew both teams had some injury risks this year and none of these early injuries change my opinion that both teams will make the playoffs. However, with everybody talking about how both teams could easily win more than 100 games, are we all suffering from what Rob Neyer would call Pre-Season Syndrome?

Are we all assuming that most everything will go right for both ballclubs, allowing them to leave the rest of the AL East in their dust while racing to see who can reach 100 wins first? If so, then we all need to step back and realize that both teams coud very easily end up in the 90-win range.

Both pitching staffs will have more injuries (Kevin Brown, Jose Contreras and Pedro Martinez will all likely make at least one trip to the DL) and one or both teams will probably have at least one fluky, extended injury to a position player. If Toronto can get some lucky breaks while the Yankees and Red Sox are dealing with injuries, the Blue Jays could make it a three-way race to 95 instead of a two-way race to 100.

Larry Mahnken: I’ve gotta say, Ben, a lifetime of rooting for the Red Sox has really taught you to be cautiously pessimistic.

Let’s not forget that the Yankees won 101 games last year despite suffering from injuries to some of their best players. Talent-wise, they’re probably better this year, so it’s going to take even more injuries to bring them down to the 90-win level. The Sox, on the other hand, got lucky with injuries last year. Of course, they improved more than the Yankees did, so they’d still be a great team even with injuries.

Unless Toronto has a perfect season, the only way I can see them catching the Yanks is if the Yankees lose multiple starting pitchers for an extended period, or if two of their top sluggers get hurt. Boston’s less susceptible to that because they have much better depth than the Yankees, but if Pedro misses a couple of months, Nixon is slowed by his back, David Ortiz and Bill Mueller regress severely and, say, Manny goes down… they’ll probably still win 95 games.

Sure, it sounds arrogant, but I really don’t see the Blue Jays being a factor in the pennant race past mid-summer. They’ll be good down the road, but they’ve got too many holes to compete in this division right now. The Yankees and Red Sox have a disgusting amount of talent assembled.

Ultimately, I don’t think injuries are going to be a problem until the post-season. Being at less than full strength will cost these teams some games against the good teams, but they won’t be playing those teams most of the time in the regular season. In the playoffs, they’ll be playing nothing but good teams. Anaheim, Chicago, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Seattle and Toronto are all capable of knocking off both the Yanks and Sox in a short series, and if they’re hurting heading into that series, they’ll be in some trouble. I feel pretty safe in saying we’ll be talking about injuries again in October.

Now, the catastrophic injuries that could bring these teams down seem a lot more likely to happen to the Yankees than the Red Sox. If something brings the Red Sox down, what do you most likely see it being?

BJ: Well, let’s see. The Red Sox have already been brought down by a wild pitch and a groundball between the legs, a home run by a weak-hitting shortstop, a home run by a weak-hitting third baseman, and their manager leaving their starting pitcher in too long, so we can probably cross all those things off the list.

Honestly, when I look at this Red Sox team, I don’t see anything that scares me. I wish Nixon and Kim weren’t already hurt and I wish Pedro’s shoulder didn’t provide an opportunity to have an office pool (put me down for July 20, by the way), but that’s about it.

I don’t see anything other than an early and traumatic injury to at least one of their big stars (Pedro, Manny, Nomar, Schilling) being able to keep the Red Sox out of the playoffs. That’s why I was wondering if I’m suffering from PSS, but since you agree that I’m not, I have another question.

Let’s assume that the Wild Card gives the Red Sox and Yankees each a 90-percent chance of making the playoffs. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Are we going to miss out on one of the all-time great pennant races because both teams are going to make the playoffs anyway?

Back in the early 90s when the Red Sox were struggling, I used to root for the Braves because they originated in Boston. I was in middle school in 1993, and I remember waiting with great anticipation for the paper each morning to see how the Braves and Giants had done the night before.

I was a strange kid who went to bed around 9:30 or 10 and woke up around 5:30 or 6, so the paper wasn’t always there when I got downstairs. I’d sometimes sit at the window for half an hour waiting for the paperboy to come, and when either game ended too late to get into the paper, I’d spend the whole day wondering exactly how close the teams were (since the paper was the only way I knew how to get the scores back then).

I don’t think I would have cared nearly as much if both teams were going to make the playoffs anyway. The difference now is that I’m a diehard Red Sox fan and a diehard Yankees hater. While I’d love to see the Red Sox win the division and the Yankees miss the playoffs, I also relish the idea of the two teams meeting in the ALCS again with Boston prevailing this time.

Your thoughts on this may differ from mine for this reason too: while you’ve seen the Yankees win four World Series, I obviously haven’t seen the Red Sox win any. The thing I want most as a sports fan right now is to see Boston win a World Series. Since the post-season is mostly a crapshoot, I’m happy with the Wild Card increasing Boston’s chances of making it there.

LM: My opposition to the Wild Card is for the same reason as a lot of statheads: it’s not fair. It’s not because the system is bad for the Yankees; without divisional realignment, the Yankees never would have made the playoffs in 1996 or 2000, so having been knocked out by two Wild Card teams seems to even things out. But since the system was implemented, five Wild Card teams have won pennants, and three have won the World Series. Only seven on the last 18 pennants have gone to the team with the best record in their league, and the 1998 Yankees were the only team to win the World Series with the best record in baseball.

The team with the best record won the Series 58% of the time before the divisional format was implemented, 27% of the time from 1969 to 1993, and only 11% of the time since 1995. The postseason was never a great determinator of which team was the best, but under the current format, any claims that it does do that are ridiculous.

The upside, however, is that it’s good for business. For all the lip-service we hear about fairness in sports, the public isn’t concerned with the competition being fair, they’re interested in being entertained. The current system gives far more teams a chance to make the post-season, and by extension, win a title, than ever before. That entertains more fans, and brings in more money. Sure it’s killed some great pennant races between great teams, but in return it gives back more close pennant races between lesser teams. It’s not as memorable, but it attracts more immediate attention.

I can live with this system as long as it doesn’t get any bigger — we don’t need any more playoff teams. But it is frustrating that the Yankees fought the Red Sox for six months, beat them fairly and finished six games in front, but still had to get through them in the post-season. It’s like the regular season was, and will be again, a 162-game playoff to see who gets to host Game Seven, if it comes to that.

BJ: I don’t know if I’d say that the Wild Card makes things unfair. There’s no sports Bible that says the team with the best record in the regular season has to win the title more often than not. For one thing, circumstances change over the course of a season.

Players get hot and slump, get injured and get traded, get called up and get sent down. If one team wins 100 games by struggling in April and May and dominating the rest of the season while another team wins 102 games by dominating the first four months and then struggling in August and September, who’s to say the latter team is definitely the better one?

Sports isn’t about being fair, it’s about declaring a champion. Part of the reason we watch is that sometimes that champion is pretty unexpected. If the teams with the best regular-season records met in the World Series every year, we’d all be getting pretty tired of seeing the Braves against the Yankees. Actually, we’d mostly be bored with seeing the Braves, since they’d have made the World Series seven of the nine years since the Wild Card was introduced.

If you think it’s unfair that a team can finish ahead of another team in the regular season and still have to play that team in the playoffs, then I guess I’d rather have baseball be unfair to a few cities than uninteresting to the rest of them.

No, my problem with the Wild Card doesn’t concern any unfairness, it concerns my own greed. I want the increased chances of the Red Sox making the playoffs because I want to see them win the World Series. However, I also want the increased drama of a race for a single playoff spot between two great teams. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

I’ll agree with you that baseball shouldn’t add any more playoff teams, however. The more playoff teams you add, the more unimportant the regular season becomes, and we don’t want baseball turning into the NHL. I’ll gladly leave things as they are and trade a great AL East race and a 50-50 chance of Boston making the playoffs for an amusing AL Central race and a near-certain chance of Boston making the playoffs.

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