The MLB playoffs began with four teams who won 100 or more regular season games among the 12-team field and one more - the New York Yankees - who ended the year tantalizingly close at 99 victories. Only one, the Houston Astros, remain standing as October hits its final days and the World Series begins.
Four of the six teams with the best regular season records were eliminated before the League Championship stage and five of the eight Wild Card and divisional series rounds went to the team with a worse regular season record.
The fact that the 87-win Phillies and the 89-win Padres — two teams with electrifying young talent, energized fan bases and swagger that comes from succeeding when there’s a chip on your shoulder — met in the National League Championship series has struck a nerve with a few baseball observers. It has forced some to say the format that gives top seeds a first-round bye is unfair to those same “best teams” and others are questioning the very purpose of playoff baseball altogether.
This argument is, in the kindest of terms, one of the saddest sports positions I have ever seen and at a certain point, while sifting through the relatively small but still very vocal group of baseball watchers who hate to be surprised, I wonder why they watch at all.
My counterargument to those in Los Angeles and Atlanta and St. Louis and Queens, whose season has been ended and pride has been wounded by a “worse team” is simple — the playoffs are not about finding the best team, they are about crowning a champion and the sooner you internalize that, the easier these losses will be.
In elementary school, I watched an episode of The Magic School Bus in which Miss Frizzle takes the class to a baseball diamond without friction. On this field inside a textbook, the class tries to play ball on an impossibly smooth surface, without thick grass to slow the ball down and coarse dirt to sink their shoes into, let alone weather and sun to provide some natural obstacles.
As you might be able to imagine, the class played an unsuccessful game that ended after one batter (Ralphie went 1-1 with an inside-the-park homer and Wanda’s ERA has held at ∞ since the mid-90s — yikes). The kids whined and complained for the whole episode as they slid aimlessly around the field, but learned about the forces — the pushes and pulls — that move the universe.
Miss Frizzle created the most pristine playing environment possible for a baseball game. It was unencumbered by the elements and only baseball skill remained. And guess what? It sucked. It sucked because baseball is not played in a lab. Rob Manfred is not a scientist conducting an experiment to find the ultimate baseball team for that year from league headquarters.
If all baseball was about was finding the best team to take the field that season, playoffs would not exist. Divisions and leagues and the separation between them would not either. Every team would play everyone else the same number of times and the team with the best record would be our champion in a 1940’s college football kind of way where you can just claim to be the national champion largely without holding yourself to any shared criteria.
But that isn’t what we love about baseball or sports in general, really. We play in divisions and leagues that create rivalries from proximity and frequency as well as create artificially harder paths to the ultimate goal because it is beautiful. This is the essence of what sports are — a triumph of what we hope is possible over inevitability.
Brute force applications of money to get talent doesn’t earn you anything and that is why we actually play games with varied outcomes and don’t hold advancement ceremonies for the Dodgers because win probability favors them over the Padres.
You lost when it mattered most. Boo hoo. This is part of your story now. Embrace it, let it motivate you and inform the next edition of roster construction. There’s a sense of entitlement when the teams that win 100-something games think that pouring money into rich contracts for the best talent should automatically earn them hardware (to be clear, I’m not some Pirates apologist complaining about wealth inequality in baseball; spend what you want but it doesn’t guarantee you anything).
While this is a mildly annoying thing to argue about, the great thing about it is that you don’t need to rise above the debate standards of Charlie Kelly and Mac McDonald from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to be right.
Awww, I’m sorry did someone get addicted to winning during the regular season? Did someone’s $150 million-plus payroll come nowhere close to a ring? Ohh noooo “I invested six months into a team that fell apart one week into October”.
These playoffs are good. They’re exciting and have injected new blood into a sport whose fanbase is constantly complaining about how the little guy is left out. I have no sympathy for the titans who’ve fallen and neither should you.