As Natural as “The Fourth of July”

Pennant races are as natural as “The Fourth of July”.  Let me first explain what I mean by “natural”.  In a nutshell “The Fourth of July” springs forth naturally from the events of July 4, 1776.  On that day the leaders of  our young American nation declared their independence from England; and we became a nation unto ourselves.  Over time it was decided to commemorate that day, and the history it, made with a national holiday.  From that time, to remember and commemorate our independence, liberty, and values we started  the tradition of parades, picnics, fireworks, and political oratory that we partake in to this very day.  The day has special meaning for us because it is a natural extention of the real event of our country’s birth.

Like “The Fourth of July” , pennant races are natural events that are a result of the day to day competition that occurs between baseball teams that are rivals for the same league pennant.  Year after year teams during the regular season would play only teams in their own league. The two teams that finished on top of their leagues would play each other in the World Series.  This natural tradition of teams winning their leagues pennants and meeting in the post-season continued during the beginning of expansion.  But with the start of divisional play in 1969, the pennant races began to lose a major part of their “naturalness”.  Teams began playing teams competing for different pennants.  These games lost their natural meaning; and pennant races and baseball suffered as a result.

While divisional play diminished the naturalness of the game, the wild card supplied the death  blow.  No longer would teams get to the post-season by winning their league, or even division, pennants.  Now finishing second could still lead to inclusion in post-season baseball.  The natural occurrence of playing division rivals  no longer leads to division pennants. Nor does it lead to post-season play.

There are other aspects of baseball’s nature that are satisfied by pennant races.  Among these aspects are the game’s simplicity, balance and symmetry, and the long season’s natural rhythm.  On the other hand, wild card competition does not exhibit these natural characterisics.  In fact, they display their opposites.

Baseball is a simple sport. The pitcher throws the ball, the batter tries to hit it.  If  you hit the ball between the foul lines you run counterclockwise trying to touch the four bases before a fielder tags you out. If you touch home plate you score a run.  Three strikes and you’re out, three outs and you go back on the field.  You get 9 chances to score runs.  At the end of  9 innings the one with more runs wins. There”s more to fill in, but if you know this much you can enjoy a game of baseball.  Hit and run.  Throw and tag.

Pennant races are simple, too.  You play each team in your division or league the same number of games over the course of a season.  On the last day of the season the team at the top of the standings wins the pennant.  With wild cards you play W number of teams X times, and Y number of teams Z times. At the end of the season you can “win” two ways.  Either finish the season at the top of your division or……take all the teams in all the divisions and figure out who has the better record.  The team with the best record wins, too.  What it comes down to is a team can both lose and win at the same time! 

 Following pennant races or wild card races provides a good illustations of these differences.  Want to know which team is winning a pennant race on any given day?  Look at the top of the standings.  How do you calculate who is ahead in the wild card race?  Look at all three divisons and see who is in 2nd Place, then see who has the best winning percentage.  But don’t blink, because that team might be in 1st Place tomorrow, and not even in the wild card race!

Balance and symmetry are also part of  baseball’s inate nature.  It  has always been characterized as a “game of inches”.  These inches result from a delicate balance between the team at bat, the team on the field, and the symmetry of the field they proceed on. Pitchers stand 60’6″ from batters, bases are set in a square an equal 90′ apart. Baseball’s sacred historic and traditional statistics result from these simple dimensions. Change the distances by inches (the pitching mound was initially 60’0″ from homeplate, but someone misread a diagram and the rest is baseball history) and you have a much different game.   Furthermore, the offense and defense balances historically on a  scale that from time to time needs adjustment by baseball’s off the field managers. (An example is when the pitching became so dominant in the 1960′s that the height of the mound was lowered from 16″ to 10″.)

The balance of pennant races is maintained by the fact that teams play each team in the race the same number of times.  Also the relative important of a long six month season balanced against a shorter post season also exists with pennant races.  Regular season games are played to determine who finishes !st during that season and the winner of the regular season then plays in the post-season. 

 In wild card baseball these balances are stood on its ear.  As has been noted before, teams competing for the same wild card play different teams a different number of times.  With regard to regular and post-season balance, the wild card during the regular season was put into effect so that there would be more teams getting to the post-season.  When a fan thinks of his team winning the wild card, he is already thinking “post-season”.  The balance of each and every 6 month long regular season game has been thrown out of kilter by visions of extra weeks of post-season play.  It is an example of the proverbial tail wagging the proverbial dog.

This discussion of seasons, leads us to baseball’s final natural characteristic, the sports long rhythmic season culminating in two climactic finishes, regular and post-season.  Each game during the regular season is weighed equally in the standings.Season long competition builds day to day, ending with one team at the top of the standings. In a sport with two leagues, the two winners go on to meet in an ultimate contest to determine the ultimate champion for the season.      

To emphasize it naturalness we can see that we have not only described a season, we have also described a pennant race. In pennant races, as in life (and good art), there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The season begins and through every game played, the tension builds and the competition concludes in a climax when the season’s champion is crowned.  This is a description of baseball’s natural rhythm! 

If you look at a wild card seasons you see something entirely different.  Teams play games against rivals for the same pennant; then they play games against rivals for the same wild card (and different pennants);  to make matters worse, games are even play against teams that are neither pennant nor wild card rivals.  As has been said before, we cannot decide when pennant race or wild card race begin because today’s wild card leader could be a pennant race leader tomorrow.  What results from all this is not a rhythm, but a patch work quilt of fits and starts that chaotically confuses rather than naturally flows.

All of these factors can lead to only one conclusion. As “The Fourth of July” is a natural part of our countries deep rooted identity, pennant races are a natural extension of baseball’s unifying essential characteristics.  Introduction of mechanical changes to the game, such as wild cards, need to be examined closely by fans of the game to see whether these changes enhance or detract from the game they love.  It is our reponsibility to work toward restoration, if changes adversely affect baseball’s essential qualities.

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