Oh, what a year it’s been.
With the marathon that is a 162-game season drawing to a close, Major League Baseball is having its most interesting and dramatic run in recent memory. What, with Raffy and Barry, A-Rod and Manny, the cloud of steroids and the clarity of competition, baseball has had enough drama to make the major networks jealous.
And it’s only just beginning. With three division titles still undecided going into this final weekend of the regular season and with the playoffs looming, tempers and pulses will soon rise like mercury in July. That said, let’s put all of the anticipation on pause for a slow minute, take a look back at the 2005 season and break it down.
Almost magically, the whole thing can be summed up in one simple, essential word: competition.
Competition. It’s why the game is played and it’s why the players play the game, and for the first time in what feels like forever, baseball was truly competitive this year.
At the All-Star break, 24 out of 30 teams still had a realistic shot at making the playoffs.
Just two weeks ago, 17 teams were still in the hunt. Moreover, even mid to small-market teams, like Cleveland, Oakland, D.C., Florida and San Diego made it through all or most of the year, swinging strong bats while making opposing hitters look weak.
As a result, the competition once again made the game wonderfully unpredictable. One night out, the Yankees looked like a bad chess game. The next, they were worth every penny of that $205 million that King George invested in them. One night out, the White Sox are a baseball purists’ dream, a rekindling of the flame that small ball once represented. The next, they are Ozzie Guillen’s worst nightmare.
In turn, as all of the teams rose and fell and then rose and fell again, the players shined.
Derrek Lee gave birth to the monster that was his season. Roger Clemens gave Ponce de Leon a run for his money. David Ortiz made everyone in Boston really, really happy (and everyone in New York really, really mad). Albert Pujols had another season like only Albert Pujols can have.
At the same time, the young blended in with the new. The rookies blended in with the stars. Fluidly, better so than in any season in years. Veterans like the Atlanta Braves’ John Smoltz found himself surrounded by a roster full of kids straight from the minors,
Kids with names that he and his teammates learned as soon as the kids starting winning all of those games.
Speaking of – ah, yes, the Atlanta Braves. Somehow, they did it again. Somehow, they managed to win their 14th straight division title, defying nearly every critic in the land at the same time. They, perhaps, more so than any other team in the game this year, represented and illustrated everything that makes baseball beautiful. That makes baseball last.
And now, as we head into the final weekend, everything is both new and old again. It’s the Red Sox and the Yanks. It’s the Cardinals and – the Cardinals. Over a century of rivalry and tradition is concentrated, is thrust into uncertainty, into unpredictability. And who, what will emerge? Will Curt Schilling return to form, just long enough, to push the Sox into the playoffs? Or will A-Rod and Sheffield and Jeter and Matsui (the early 21st Century’s equivalent of Hitter’s Row) have their way with Boston’s atrocious pitching staff? We’ll have to see. We’ll have to wait and watch and see. But one thing, at this point, is certain. For baseball, it really can’t get any better than this.