I am totally willing to concede that watching Real Madrid or Barcelona win the Primera Liga by 23 points, some time in February, is no fun. I am also willing to concede that it is broadly possible that Real or Barça could have vastly more wins throughout the season and then be knocked off in a play-off system by, say, Sporting Gijon. And I am willing to concede that this eventuality, should it occur, would be more interesting, for a given value of the word, than the inevitable Real or Barça title.
However. Every team has already had two chances to prove that it can have a better day–two better days–than, for the purposes of argument, Barça. And if, say, Valencia has beaten Barça twice, but has lost inexplicably to all the bottom-feeders of the Liga, they certainly don’t deserve to win the title.
Obviously it would be preferable for the season to come down to the last week or two. Everyone would love it if Arsenal had to beat Liverpool at Anfield 5-2 on the last day of the season in order to win the title (well, everyone would love it more, probably, if Fulham had to beat Spurs at White Hart Lane, but you know what I mean).
I know what you’re all saying. Who the hell are these teams, where are these places, and what sport is this?
What I mean is: real pennant races are more awesome than play-offs.
A cursory examination of the last decade of winners of the American League standings versus winners of the American League Championship Series revealed a lower correlation than I expected (I did not make a fuller study because it’s rather a pain to find out who had the best record year by year). The Seattle Mariners, for instance, with 116 wins in the 2001 regular season, did not make the World Series. I had thought that the correlation would be quite high, so that I could say something along the lines of: “You suckers have been fed a line about the play-offs fostering competition but they are actually only hurdles on the way to a foregone conclusion.”
And, admittedly, even to make the play-offs you have to have had a good year. Major League Baseball, in this way, is not like the NHL. I could make the argument that you can make a late charge and win it all, which is silly, to which you could counter, with equal validity, that anyone who wishes to win a title should be able to under whatever circumstances. So I will not make a “fairness” claim about pennant races versus play-offs. They are simply the shape of the sport or not, and, if they play to different strengths, they do so in an equitable manner.
I can and will, however, make an attention span argument. I, too, find it difficult to care about every single one of the 162 games in an MLB regular season. July and August are the dog days, when the excitement of April has worn off and the thrill of September has yet to arrive. But, quite honestly, what is boring about the quiet, incremental building of a pennant-winning season? The excitement of jockeying for play-off positions late in the season shows us that competitions needn’t be head-to-head to compel our attention. And we have a head-to-head competition. It’s the called the World Series. I am not suggesting that we merely crown the best record with the title, which would be madness.
A practical concern also rears its head: a month-long post-season means that the World Series has a decent chance of being absolutely freezing. Look at last year, and that was only in Philadelphia. There are colder cities with open ballparks. You can call the players sissies, but baseball isn’t made for the bitter cold. It just isn’t.
Part of this, finally, is good old-fashioned nostalgia. I wish we still talked about “winning the pennant,” which we don’t, really, and that “winning the pennant” still meant the actual pennant. If winning the pennant doesn’t matter, what’s the point of differentiating the American League and the National League? Why don’t we just have everyone play everyone else in an insane round robin? Why do we still have the designated hitter?
Oh, and because I will soon be unable to use this photo with any relevance:
Joe Mauer is really, really cute.
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