Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Room for Error

You want to know what's so deliciously wonderful about the great American pastime of baseball? It's that it's so cruelly unforgiving. The fans of Cardinal Nation realized that last night as they watched an overachieving Cardinals team get outmatched and outmanned by their wild card superiors, the Milwaukee Brewers.

It just doesn't seem fair that hopes are brought this far to be brought down to earth so suddenly. But that's baseball. Baseball doesn't care. Baseball is unforgiving. It's 162 games that, in the end, only leaves room for four teams to play in postseason. It doesn't matter that the Cardinals will probably end up with a better win-loss record than the champions of either the East or West divisions, because they'll still end up third in the Central. And that's baseball.

Baseball doesn't care. Baseball wants to crush your hopes. Baseball let Red Sox fans suffer for 86 years. If baseball has any sense, it will watch the Cubs make it to postseason only to fail, fail, fail once again, leaving Cubs fans writhing in a century of agony. Because that's baseball, and baseball doesn't care, and it's just so beautiful.

I can see now why purists like Bob Costas and George Will resisted the change to the wild card format. Baseball was much more cruel when each league only had two divisions, only two chances to play for the pennant. Old time baseball was positively despotic: the team with the best record in each league after 154 games got to play in the World Series. No playoffs. No wild cards. Just the sharp razor of cold reality.

But this format is equally cruel. Coincidences of geography mean that teams with lesser records will play for glory while those who wear the Birds on the Bat plan vacations and schedule tee times. That's okay, because baseball doesn't care. The Cardinals won it all two years ago with the worst regular season record of any champion in the history of the game, but they still won, because baseball doesn't care.

The NFL tries not to care, but their system still has enough room to allow a third-place team with a good record to make it into the playoffs. Witness last year's AFC South—the Jags and Titans still made it in despite finishing behind the Colts. The NBA and NHL care too much; their regular seasons are virtually meaningless with the number of playoff teams it allows. Twelve teams for the NFL; 16 for the NBA and NHL.

But baseball doesn't care who deserves to be in the postseason, or whose fans want it more, or who the media hopes will play. Baseball is baseball, nine perfect innings of hopes and dreams and wishes that 29 out of 30 times each year are blown away like the dust of a dry infield, left to fade into the twilight of an October that wasn't meant to be.

Only eight teams will endure the season, only four in each league. More deserving teams with better records and flashier pitchers and more powerful hitters will stumble and fall to lesser clubs who remember that baseball doesn't care about these other things.

Baseball is a cruel and wonderful game because it doesn't care about anything other than what happens between the foul lines and inside the box score of each inning. Just as we must give thanks to God in the bad times as well as the good, so should we praise the genius of baseball even when our postseason hopes have, for this year, faded away.

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