Friday night was, um, you know, something. Well, I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t like the one-game wild-card playoff idea. I tend to believe that baseball isn’t a one-game-playoff kind of game. It’s too volatile. Terrible teams beat great teams all the time. I think a baseball season is the longest in sports for a good reason. It takes a long time to work through the anomalies, the absurdities, the quirks. It takes a long time to find out which teams are really the best.
Sure, every now and again, after that long season, two teams tie and they play a one-game playoff, and it’s wacky and fun not because it’s fair but because it’s rare. Now, it’s not rare -- it will happen twice every year. To me, these one-game playoffs feel trumped-up and forced and gimmicky …
… but, hey, it’s extra baseball, right?
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I don’t know if the other umpires could have overruled the infield fly or if Holbrook could have taken it back. But it seems to me, within only a few seconds, everyone on the field should have realized that calling the infield fly was a mistake, and it would perhaps cost Atlanta its last-gasp chance of saving its season. But they didn’t overrule it, and maybe they couldn’t. Atlanta put the game under protest. Fans threw garbage on the field. The Cardinals won and are going to the real playoffs. It shouldn’t have come down to the interpretation of an obscure rule, but this is baseball, and it did.
* * *
Josh Hamilton, as we know by now, is a man cursed with demons. He has fought with drugs and alcohol, with some soaring victories and some harsh setbacks. He watched with unchecked horror as a fan, reaching for a ball that Hamilton tossed into the stands, fell and later died, a tragedy that was not his fault and yet, according to friends and his own words, has haunted him deeply. As a player, he has gone through titanic stretches when no player in baseball could touch him, and dark stretches when he couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. In so many ways, he really has been as close as we have to Roy Hobbs, the player in "The Natural," who hits crazy long homers when the lady in white stands up, but swings and misses when beguiled by the lady in black.
It was sad to see Hamilton booed on Friday night. It was sad not just because it was probably his last game for the Rangers, and his Texas career shouldn’t end like that. And it was sad not just because he looked so feeble -- a double-play grounder, a strikeout looking, a first-pitch tapper back to the mound and finally, the last at-bat, a swinging strikeout -- that booing seemed just about the only viable response.
No, I think it has something to do with the curse of expectation that seems unique to certain baseball players. Everyone knows that a hitter fails more often than he succeeds. You will hear people say that a hitter fails seven out of 10 times -- that’s the .300 batting average talking -- but this is not true, not if you count walks. Still, even counting walks, even counting sacrifice flies, even counting sacrifice hits, except in the rarest of circumstances (19 times in baseball history), the batter will make an out more often than he will do something productive.
We know this to be true, and yet, there are certain players -- because of their athletic grace, their beautiful swing, their seemingly effortless power, an ineffable flair -- who don’t seem like they should be shackled by those rules of baseball gravity. We may know in our minds that they will fail, but we just don’t think that they should fail WHILE WE ARE WATCHING. Duke Snider was one of these players, and I always was fascinated by Roger Kahn’s description in “The Boys of Summer,” of how Snider’s talents baffled and frustrated a sports columnist named Bill Roeder.
“Watching Duke Snider turned Bill Roeder sardonic. The Duke could run and throw and leap. His swing was classic; enormous and fluid, a swing of violence that seemed a swing of ease. 'But do you notice when he’s happiest' Roeder complained. 'When he walks. Watch how he throws the bat away. He’s glad.' Roeder would have liked to have Snider’s skills, he conceded. If he had, he believed he would have used them with more ferocity. Snider was living Roeder’s dream, and so abusing it.”
This, too, seems to be what Josh Hamilton has had to live with. He’s so big, so strong, so fast, so smooth, that when he fails it feels like more than just the failure that comes with baseball; no, it feels to so many like he is squandering his extraordinary talents. His 2012 season was the most extreme of his already extreme career. He hit more homers than ever. He struck out more than ever. He drove in runs at a higher rate than Miguel Cabrera over the season. He drove in just one run in the final four games, and Texas lost them all and fell out of the playoffs. He had Olympian months. He had Lilliputian months.
On May 16, he was hitting .404 with 18 homers in 35 games. For the next 65 games, he hit .214, and Texas manager Ron Washington dropped him in the batting order. The next 35 games he hit .300 with 13 more homers. He hit just one homer in the last 14 games, including Friday night’s playoff game, and it ended with another strikeout and boos and sadness and, perhaps, people imagining just how good they would be if only they had Josh Hamilton’s talent.
We’ll post some of your Miguel Cabrera MVP thoughts soon, but for now I did want to point out an irony about advanced statistics and the Triple Crown. As we know, there are many people who are blaming WAR and those duplicitous advanced statistics for undervaluing the Triple Crown, and many of these people desperately want the baseball writers -- who vote for the MVP -- to ignore those numbers and look inside themselves for the real truth about what the Triple Crown means.
Not counting Miggy, there have been nine Triple Crown winners since 1931 -- the first year of the BBWAA MVP award. OK? Nine.
Number of Triple Crown winners who led every-day players in WAR: 9.
Number of Triple Crown winners who led league in OPS+: 9
Number of Triple Crown winners who won the MVP: 5.
Yup. Chuck Klein didn’t win the MVP in 1933 (Carl Hubbell did). Lou Gehrig -- in perhaps the most ridiculous vote of them all -- did not win the MVP in 1934 (he finished fifth, as Mickey Cochrane won it). And Ted Williams did not win the MVP in either 1942 or 1947 (Joe Gordon won in '42, Joe DiMaggio in '47).