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PostRoad to the Baseball World Series, 2018 (David Duggan, USA, 10/06/18 3:59 am)
Baseball's wildcard teams (Cubs, Oakland) have been eliminated, the playoff pairings begun, and 22 teams are plotting what to do next year. As Jerry Garcia did not say, it's been a long strange trip through the 2018 baseball season. Still, for this life-long Cubs fan, the parade through the playoffs and winter's long wait for the next season will be particularly painful. I find little consolation that of the 10 teams to make the post-season this year, only the Cubs have been there each of the last four years and won the World Series (although the Dodgers have a shot this year). Three teams have made the post-season for three of the last four years (Boston, Yankees, Houston), with only one World Series among them.
Generals, it is said, are always fighting the last war, and this might be said about baseball as well. The last three champions (Royals, Cubs and ‘Stros) were content to lose 100 games or more for a time to get good draft choices and bring up younger players, trading for good pitchers which, more than position players are iffy-development prospects. Broken-down arms, better hitters than in high school or college, and the wear of a 162-game schedule all conspire against pitchers' being sure-bet draft choices (Steve Strasburg, are you listening?). With Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber threats to go yard (that's hit a home run for the non-cognoscenti) at every turn at bat, the Cubs were scoring machines in 2016-17. This year, however, the Cubs hit a collective .258 with only 167 home runs. Though the batting average was tops in the league, the tater count was decidedly second-division. By contrast, in 2016-17, the Cubs sacrificed some batting average (.254) to get more home-runs (199 and 223, respectively). The problem with this approach, however, is that after the five years' exclusive bargaining rights that a team gets by having drafted a player, there is no guarantee that he'll stick around when he can become a free agent.
Particularly frustrating were the Cubs' two losses in the post-season, when in a collective 22 innings they scored 2 runs, losing 3-1 in game 163 to Milwaukee to decide the Central Division championship, and then 2-1 in 13 innings to the Rockies for the wild card. And both games were at Wrigley Field. You can't depend on your pitchers to shut-out the opposition, and in playoff baseball, you have to be able to move runners along. The three-run home run doesn't show up every day, particularly at Wrigley where the wind is a factor, yet the Cubs were swinging for the fences throughout the games.
Manager Joe Maddon, who led the Cubs to the promised land in 2016 (can it really be 2 years ago?), has renewed for next year, but whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. He is known for going with his gut in managerial decisions, and his line-up du jour is somewhat of a rarity in baseball, where there are usually starters in set batting slots, like Maris and Mantle, Ruth and Gehrig. Sometimes the gut instinct works, and sometimes it yields indigestion, in the fans if not in the manager. The problem for this Chicago-school devotee, however, is that Maddon seems not to have a philosophy of managing, unlike other old-school managers like Sparky (Captain Hook) Anderson of the 1970s Reds (the Big Red Machine, known for jerking his starting pitchers in favor of the bullpen) and Earl Weaver of the 1960s-80s Orioles (known for waiting for the 3-run homer). As the University of Chicago economist said to the analyst who identified a correlation between high interest rates and high unemployment, that works well in practice, how does it work in theory?
I'm not given to predictions but look for a Milwaukee-Boston World Series. There would be some irony as the original Milwaukee team, the Braves, were the first to leave the east coast (Boston) for greener pastures west of Lake Michigan (the Boston Braves are 30 years older than the BoSox). Of course the Braves moved to Atlanta (also in the playoffs for the first time in ages), and this iteration of a Milwaukee team actually started in Seattle as the Pilots before moving to Milwaukee in the 1970s, reincarnating themselves as the Brewers. So far as I can tell neither the Brewers nor the BoSox have followed the build-from-the-draft methodology (Brewers' MVP candidate Christian Yelich had been drafted by the Florida Marlins; the post David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez BoSox appear to be a pastiche of home-grown and imported talent). Ten years ago, under former Brewers owner Bud Selig, then the commissioner of baseball, the Brewers jumped from the American League to the National League. Other than the LA Dodgers-NY Yankees donnybrooks of the 1970s-80s, I can think of no other World Series when a team from a town that had been abandoned by another team met the team from the town where the abandoning team had moved. Let the games begin.
JE comments: Another tour de force from my guide to all things baseball (and all things Chicago), David Duggan. David and I had a wonderful time together at Wrigley Field this summer. With the exception of that weekend in July, I haven't been following baseball all year. Milwaukee in the World Series? I wasn't even aware of that small-market team's rise to the elite ranks. When an also-ran team makes it to the big time, it's only good for the game.