Detroit beating the Yankees surprised me. St. Louis beating Philadelphia stunned me -- or stunned me as much as any best-of-five game baseball series could. Once again, the teams with the best records in each league will NOT appear in the World Series.
Take a look:
Best records: Yankees vs. Phillies
World Series: TBD (but not Yankees vs. Phillies).
Best records: Rays vs. Phillies
World Series: Rangers vs. Giants
Best records: Yankees vs. Dodgers
World Series: Yankees vs. Phillies
Best records: Angels vs. Cubs
World Series: Rays vs. Phillies
Best records: Red Sox or Indians vs. Diamondbacks
World Series: Red Sox vs. Rockies
Best records: Yankees vs. Mets
World Series: Tigers vs. Cardinals
Best records: White Sox vs. Cardinals
World Series: White Sox vs. Astros
Best records: Yankees vs. Cardinals
World Series: Red Sox vs. Cardinals
Best records: Yankees vs. Braves
World Series: Yankees vs. Marlins
Best records: Yankees or A's vs. Braves
World Series: Angels vs. Giants
Best records: Mariners vs. Astros or Cardinals
World Series: Yankees. vs. Diamondbacks
Best records: White Sox vs. Giants
World Series: Yankees vs. Mets
Best records: Yankees vs. Braves
World Series: Yankees vs. Braves
So you see, I have to go back to 1999 to find the two teams with the league's best records actually playing in the World Series. Most years -- like this year -- NEITHER of the teams with the best record play in the World Series.
I've written about this before, but the system a sports league uses to determine a champion basically tells you exactly what the people in charge treasure. For instance, the NBA -- back when they actually played NBA basketball -- treasures playoff basketball. They believe, and I think they're right, that the best and most exciting way to find the best team is with a sequence of heated, intense playoff series. Everything the league does points to that. The regular season is like an orchestra tuning up (with scantily clad dancers!). And most basketball fans would agree that the system works, the playoffs tend to shine bright lights on the best players, expose the flawed teams, reveal the very best teams. Hockey, if anything, is even more like that. Fans love playoff hockey.*
*I'm making a commitment -- based on numerous requests and the likelihood of a prolonged NBA lockout/strike/whatever -- to get back into hockey this year. I'll be asking for your help.
The NFL as a league treasures one game playoffs in the chill of winter. And fans of the NFL generally feel the same way, we feel that while one game might not always go to the better team, well, that's part of the NFL's theme, that you don't have to be the better team, you just have to be the better team THAT DAY, you know, the whole "Any Given Sunday" motif.
It's good when the things the leagues cherish and the things that the fans cherish are well matched. I think March Madness is a perfect connection between what the schools and players want and what the fans want -- wild, unpredictable, exciting, emotional, madness. But then you look at college football. The BCS system cherishes, well, bluntly, it's hard to tell. Heck, it changes every year. It cherishes scheduling? It cherishes running up the score? It cherishes big conferences? It cherishes bowl games? It cherishes undefeated records no matter the schedule? The system mainly seems to be in place to protect the status quo, for numerous reasons, some of them high minded, I suppose, many of them unseemly. But whatever the BCS system cherishes, it is completely out of tune with what most fans want, and so every year we get rage and fury about the system. On the other hand, college football also has never been more popular, so while their may be surface rage, it's not like people stop watching.
Baseball is in a weird place because it is different from every other sport. Only baseball has teams play 162 regular season games. That, as you know, is twice as many as the NBA and hockey, four times as many as they play in the Premier League, 10 times as many as they play in the NFL. By playing a season that long, baseball seems to be saying that the way to find the best team is through the long season, the day-to-day, the ability to overcome injuries, adversity, slumps, heat waves and all that. And for many, many years that was precisely the case. The best teams in each league played in the World Series. Then, when the league expanded, the best teams in the two league divisions would play off for the right to play in the World Series. The postseason mattered, certainly, it mattered a lot, but the season itself mattered even more.
But ever since the addition of the wild card, the postseason has become the dominant story. You've seen this, I assume:
World Series Champs:
2010: Giants (5th best record in baseball)
2009: Yankees (best record)
2008: Phillies (5th best)
2007: Red Sox (tied for best)
2006: Cardinals (13th best)
2005: White Sox (2nd best)
2004: Red Sox (3rd best)
2003: Marlins (7th best)
2002: Angels (4th best)
2001: Diamondbacks (6th best)
2000: Yankees (9th best)
1999: Yankees (3rd best)
1998: Yankees (best record)
1997: Marlins (4th best)
1996: Yankees (3rd best)
1995: Braves (2nd best)
So, since the wildcard was introduced, only the Yankees in 1998 and 2009 won with the best record in baseball. The Red Sox were tied with Cleveland for the best in 2007 and beat Cleveland in a playoff series, so I think you can count that too. Beyond that, only the White Sox in 2005 and Braves in 1995 even had the SECOND best record. The average for a World Series winner is somewhere between fourth and fifth best record. And with the two best records in baseball out this year, that average should stay pretty much intact.
I'm not saying this is wrong. I'm just saying that the entire emphasis of baseball excellence has shifted. The 162-game season has shifted from feature to opening act. Baseball used to be about winning pennants. Now it's about getting into the playoffs and taking your chances. Heck, you can hear it in the Moneyball arguments that are being thrown around again because of the release of the movie. Critics of Beane's Oakland A's teams shout that they didn't win anything. And when you consider the playoffs, that's right. But the A's averaged 100 victories a season from 2001-2003. There have not been many teams in baseball history that have averaged 100 wins a season over three years.They did win SOMETHING, for crying out loud.*
*Another thing I keep hearing people say is that the A's got nothing out of the draft that was a centerpiece of the Moneyball book. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't they draft Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen and Brad Ziegler that year? I think to rip Oakland for that draft is to have a basic misunderstanding about how the baseball draft works. The Cubs, just as a for instance, have gone multiple years in a row without drafting even a single player as good as Mark Teahen. Yes, 35th overall pick Jeremy Brown flopped. Guess what: The 35th pick in the draft almost always flops.
Before the expanded playoffs, baseball unquestionably lacked unpredictability. Between 1936 and 1965, the Yankees won 16 World Series -- more than half. They appeared in six other World Series. Adding the League Championship Series in 1969 created a new layer of volatility. We had mini-dynasties -- the early 1970s A's, the Big Red Machine, the Bronx Zoo Yankees -- but in the 1980s a different team won the World Series every year.
Adding another division and the wildcard in the 1995 created a whole new thing. For a short while, it looked like the system would perfectly suit the Yankees -- who won four World Series between 1996 and 2000, even though they only had the best record in the American League twice during that stretch and were stunningly mediocre in 2000 with only 87 wins before beating Moneyball, Mariners and Mets on a magical playoff run.
But ever since then, the quirks and erratic nature of short playoff series has mostly muted the Yankees gigantic payroll and their cavalcade of stars. They've had the league's best record six times since 2002, but have only appeared in the World Series twice, and only won the World Series once. I, of course, feel no sympathy for the Yankees whatsoever. But I do think it's true that baseball's system was once built around trying to find the best team. And now the system is built much more around the spark of surprise.
Look: I love baseball. This is what baseball is in the new age, and so I love it. Unless the Cardinals win this year, we will have a different World Series winner for seven consecutive seasons. In this system, the White Sox won for the first time since the Black Sox, the Red Sox broke their curse, the Giants finally won in San Francisco and so on. Next year, they will probably add another wild card, making the thing even more unpredictable and crazy and less about finding the best team. I don't think that fits in baseball grand history. But it's fun to be surprised. Heck, maybe even the Cubs will win it all.*
*A lot more on the Cubs coming next week.