The wild-card calculus: baseball's tight finish
With just three game days to go, the playoff teams have yet to be decided.
Years ago, this was called a pennant race, and there was a certain order befitting baseball's 19th-century origins. A race for a symbolic flag, one victor in each of baseball's two leagues, and no mistaking how a team was supposed to get there - simply win more games than everyone else.
This weekend, however, baseball will descend the chaos of the wild card. With three games remaining in the 162-game major-league calendar, the American League playoff permutations are still so varied and complicated that Boston and Cleveland could declare Friday night Stephen Hawking Night and hand out calculators to befuddled fans at the gate.
Major League Baseball recently had to hold a coin-flip ceremony to decide what would happen if the teams end up tied. It is a NASCAR pileup played out in the slow motion of three successive autumn evenings - and all the in-limbo teams will be playing each other.
In Cleveland, an Indians team young enough to require training wheels will play a Chicago White Sox club that was 15 games ahead as recently as August. In Boston, the Red Sox and the New York Yankees will face each other for seemingly the 157th time in the past three years.
This is the consummation of baseball's new playoff order. Since 1995, the National and American Leagues have each had three division champions and one second-place wild card.
With the San Diego Padres clinching a playoff berth Wednesday night, all the playoff positions in the National League except the wild card are taken - and there, the Houston Astros have a commanding lead.
But in the American League, when the Los Angeles Angels clinched one of the four playoff spots earlier this week, it left three more slots to divide among four teams.
From there, a degree in astrophysics is required for the math that determines the combination of wins and losses by each team resulting in a division title, a wild card, or nothing at all.
That this end-of-season muddle would somehow involve the Red Sox and Yankees seems foreordained. Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon, who can call upon his own long-haired disciples in the Fenway bleachers, has said that is "God's way." Schedulemakers might argue that it was merely intelligent design.
In recent seasons, the Red Sox and Yankees have been so closely linked that they could wear the same pair of pants. But the story lines have changed from those of the past two years, when a meeting of the Red Sox and Yankees had the irresistible air of excellence. If the preceding pair of years were a battle for supremacy, then this weekend will be simply a scrap for survival. While both teams have assembled offensive arsenals that should be overseen by United Nations weapons inspectors, their pitching staffs seem to be built with construction paper and Elmer's glue.
The unquestioned ace of the Red Sox staff is Tim Wakefield, a journeyman whose best pitch couldn't break the speed limit on a rural highway. And despite a spending spree that would make the president of Burundi jealous, the Yankees turned an awful season around only through the help of Chien-Ming Wang, Shawn Chacon, and Aaron Small.
Wang didn't expect to pitch in the big leagues this year. Before he came to the Yankees, Chacon's record was 2-16 during the previous two seasons. Small, in his 30s, had pitched only eight games in his major-league career, winning none. Combined, they are 24-7 for the Yankees this year.
Then again, perhaps it is a year for the unheralded. The Chicago White Sox went against all logic and built a team with an offensive game plan based on bunts, steals, and sweat - a philosophy dredged up from days when ballplayers wore Technicolor uniforms and AstroTurf was all the rage. Yet it was an attitude that befit Ozzie Guillen, the slightly built shortstop turned trash-talking manager, and the White Sox rode it to that 15-game lead over the Indians.
The Indians, however, have chipped away at that lead and now have a chance at the playoffs. They are a team of raw stars on the way to something greater - the first stirrings of a dynasty in the making, perhaps. They have the fifth-lowest payroll in the majors. They have an outfielder named Coco Crisp.
For a team that was supposed to be a year away from big things, this weekend is as big as it gets.