Looking at the schedule, running to the television sets (or computers) to see the other box scores, and taking it in, one game at a time. It’s a ritual that, for my generation, usually only applies to maybe 10 big league teams by the time September rolls around. The mantra of a Major League Baseball postseason hunt is that, as a team, you must be the next-best to the best to dream of making a comeback run for the playoffs. All other teams, the teams only five to 10 games over .500, it is their fate to simply play for fun, and accept a non-noteworthy end.
At least that was how it was before 2012.
With the new postseason system implemented and in full effect before our eyes, the logic has been turned on its head. Any team that is even half good still has a slither of a slither of a hope, creating a giant pot of hats in which for the postseason bracket can stem from. And as a result, there is no better time to be a baseball fan – not even when it was the time of September 28, 2011.
On July 16, 2012, 11 out of the 14 American League teams were within two games of a playoff spot (Yes, Jeff Passan, I’m stealing your thoughts!), and eight out of the 15 National League teams were within three games. Today, it’s a little different (eight out of the 14 AL teams are within six games of a postseason berth; 10 out of 15 in the NL), but the dream of the second week of October is still very much alive in most clubs. There are 12 or 13 games left, depending on the teams, but most clubs are not hopelessly gone yet. There is still hope of making a Mets, Rockies, Cardinals, or some other historic run for the postseason when so many other teams have raised their arms in euphoria when they realized they had actually done it, actually pulled off the sport miracle. And better yet for these dreamers, the teams in hunt right now, their situations are not as dire as those of the Mets, Rockies, Cardinals or others when they defied the odds.
Putting aside the division and Wild-Card leaders, there are still eight teams on Miracle Watch for the last week-and-a-half of the regular season: Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Arizona. 18 teams overall are dreaming of the postseason….That’s an insane number! On this date last season, that number was 12, not even half of the Major Leagues. That excitement wasn’t as palpable as compared to today. Our eyes have to dart all over the scoreboards to keep up with the possible upsets in 2012.
Do you remember last year on the 1st of September? No? Well, look at a calendar. There were only two open races – the AL East and the AL West – and the AL East was a chase for fun, as the second-place team, the Yankees, had an 8.5 game fallback in the Wild Card. Queue the yawn.
The intrigue is there this year, though. Essentially every game on the schedule has a playoff impact. MLB Network must work overtime to show every lead change, every night – even if the Cardinals face the Astros. In what kind of season would we be paying attention to two clubs that are a game under .500? In what kind of season would a four game lead in the third week of September seem as slim as a one game lead? In what kind of season would we have to create 18 different versions of the postseason bracket?
At least one Wild Card spot in each league is still open for optimism, and no hat and T-shirt can be made to commemorate the American League divisions yet. Oakland has another two series versus Texas; the Rays have one last shot against the Orioles to salvage their season; and the Pirates have seven straight games against teams with losing records to try to bring themselves back into clearer focus. Throughout the bigs there are a plethora of games that have significance. Yes, in the next few days, the magic number of 18 will thin out (a lead of four or more games with seven or eight days left is probably at least 90 percent secure, so the Angels, Rays, Pirates, and D-Backs all have to win their upcoming two series in order to stay alive). But over the next few days there will still be wonder to behold. Until math makes it impossible for one of the eight dreamers to look at the standings, there is still always the prospect for an impossible sprint. With so many games in its schedule, there is almost always time in the Major Leagues, after all.
The end to this regular season almost certainly won’t be as wild and memorable as the Tale of Four Cities end to 2011, but the trade-off has been worth it. For the majority of the season, all but a few teams have been serious contenders to enter the playoffs. Essentially every team can say they had a chance – a real chance in the longer stretch of the season, not just a chance on Opening Day! Overall, this season – this wild experiment – was a fantastic success, one with a pennant chase nearly as complicated and enthralling as the postseason race in the National Football League. At one point, the giant pot contained every color of the MLB rainbow. That’s a beautiful site, a beautiful baseball life.