Four habits of highly effective teams
Each of the remaining clubs in baseball's postseason has honed its own recipe for success.
NEW YORK — As this year's final four teams vie for a spot in the World Series, they're demonstrating baseball's myriad approaches to winning.
The Florida Marlins are so fast they might as well be at a track meet. Their opponents in the National League, the Chicago Cubs, feature two young pitchers who might be able to print their own baseball cards - not to mention they also have one of baseball's great home-run hitters, Sammy Sosa. The American League's Boston Red Sox are unpredictable, showing a gritty resilience, and lay claim to arguably the best pitcher in baseball, Pedro Martinez. And their rival, the New York Yankees, are relying on four veteran pitchers who can throw hardballs with millimeter precision.
All these teams are at their peak for the second round of America's festival of baseball. But to get to the final goal - the World Series - will require them to step it up one more notch. This is where factors such as leadership, momentum, and the ability to master the fundamentals - to ignore distractions and execute a game plan - will be paramount. Mistakes? Teams will pay for them.
These, of course, are all factors that go beyond the ballpark. "Baseball is almost like life," says Gabriel Schechter, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
He adds that millions of Americans identify with what is often called the national pastime: "Because so many of us have played baseball when we were little kids, most of us can project in a game how we would do."
Even Little League managers would probably agree with baseball pundits that more than anything else, the biggest asset is pitching. The Marlins, winner of the first game in Chicago, learned that lesson on Wednesday night, when they were held to only three runs by Mark Prior and crew as the Cubs won convincingly.
And the Yankees, with hitting problems all season, were stymied in their first game by knuckle-ball thrower Tim Wakefield, whose ball danced and fluttered past the New York batters.
One of the reasons that pitching often is the deciding factor, says Mr. Schechter, is simple. The pitcher has an advantage: He knows what he's going to throw, and the hitter has only a split second to decide whether to swing. "The best hitters fail two-thirds of the time," he says. "The greatest pitchers use that mental edge."
This is usually true, says Todd Walker, the Red Sox second baseman. "But I think this team is ... the exception to the rule because we have nine guys that can really swing the bat," said Mr. Walker after he banged a home run off Yankee starter Mike Mussina on Wednesday.
Maybe even more important, teams count on their closer, baseball's equivalent of the executive who can nail down an important contract. This is one of the reasons the Yankees have been successful in the past: Manager Joe Torre calls on Mariano Rivera, who has consistently taken on other teams' best hitters for the past six seasons.
"The reason the Yankees win in the postseason is Rivera," says Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau in New York.
Rivera has an earned run average in the postseason of 0.75 in 55 games. Against Minneapolis, he retired six hitters in a row in two games. "There have been only 10 saves like that in postseason since they started keeping track," says Mr. Hirdt.
Another factor in advancing is momentum. Schechter thinks it's detrimental to a team to clinch a division title early, which the Atlanta Braves did this year. "They often get beaten by a team like the Cubs, who had to fight and build up momentum."
The classic example is the 1969 New York Mets, who beat two superior teams. "They had a positive expectation," says Schechter, who says the Marlins are playing with the same " 'no one can beat us' enthusiasm."
Some of the same attitudes can be found in the Red Sox team this year. "Our offense is so good that if we get quality starts, we'll be hard to beat," said Wakefield after Wednesday's game.
And, finally, leadership will be important. Chicago's manager, Dusty Baker, has won Manager of the Year three times and may yet win again this year.
The Marlins manager, Jack McKeon, gets high marks for turning around a club that was talented but not playing good baseball in the first half of the year. "He has shown a singleness of purpose, setting the tone," says Ed Randall, who has his own radio show, "Talking Baseball," on New York's WFAN.
Wakefield is an example of the difference a manager can make. He had been snubbed by prior managers or used as a mop-up man when games were lost early. But last year, Grady Little had him pitch in some important games.
"It really got my confidence back," Wakefield says. Now he's ready to pitch in any situation: "My spikes will always be on."