Bumptious: Baseball: the reminder of all that is good

The New York Times said that the Anaheim Angels’ 3-1 victory in the series was “stunning.” But it wasn’t. When a team wins the final game 9-5, one really shouldn’t be too stunned; and honestly, anyone who watched a full season of baseball in the American League West wouldn’t be too stunned. The Anaheim Angels might have been the wild-card team facing up against the winningest team in the major leagues this year, but they were also a team that won 99 games this year facing a team that had won 103 games.

They were a team that played in a division that included the defending A.L. West Champion Seattle Mariners team that won 93 games coming off a 116 win season, and the A.L. West Champion Oakland Athletics who won 103 games. The Anaheim Angels won 18 of 20 games between Aug. 24 and Sept. 15. They went 28-13 against the A.L. East this year while the Yankees only went 17-15 against the West. The Angels piled up one of their greatest seasons in history while making the playoffs for the first time since 1982. And why was New York stunned?

New York was stunned because they play in the division in the sky known as the East. For the past few years the Yankees have been pretty damn good, any fan of baseball would be the first to admit that. They’ve had some pretty damn good teams and they’ve put up some pretty damn good numbers (both in payroll and statistics). But it’s not as if they were going to win the World Series every year, which one saw last year, and it was never as if they were going to make it to the world series every year, which one sees now, and it will come to the point where, and you may want to sit down for this, they will not win the division, either.

For all the talk about leveling the playing field Bud Selig carved into this year, baseball is not a game where powerhouses last forever. This isn’t the America’s Cup – New York’s not going to hold the title for 132 years. There is a simple reason for this: in baseball, a team plays 162 games in which luck can defy even the most gold-weighted of teams. Like REM insinuates, everybody loses sometimes, because, as Tom Petty notes, even the losers get lucky sometimes. The Yankees will one day lose their division because Tampa Bay, even as the worst team in baseball, did win 55 games over the course of the year. They finished 48 games behind the Yankees, yes. But the Yankees lost to Tampa Bay, too – three times in fact (note: the Yankees also lost to Anaheim three times, three key times, and lost a pretty big series because of it). Winners lose in baseball. Nobody goes undefeated.

It’s the reason that the streak of futility that the Red Sox keep extending is so shocking, it’s the reason why the no-hitter is so beautiful, the perfect game so rare and it’s the reason so many people see the game of baseball as a pretty good metaphor for life: it’s never perfect. It’s pure in its imperfection. The greatest hitter of the 20th century still didn’t get a hit six times out of every ten times he walked to the plate. The Yankees lost 58 games this year, and if Anaheim makes the World Series, they will have lost 63 games. That necessary failure from time to time makes it possible not to quibble over the botched fly ball in the bottom of the third inning of life, because, there’s always the next fly ball or the next at-bat or the next game or, as the Red Sox are keen on saying, the next year.

Because unlike in the National Football League or the National Basketball Assocation or the International Figure Skating Commission, one doesn’t need special rules in baseball to prevent dynasties. The game, not the sport, is capable of felling the great dynasties from time to time, of shattering the hearts of champions, of sending the greatest players in the world to the bench.

Because hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in any sport and because throwing a strike to fool a good hitter is pretty tough, too, the game is capable of keeping the pretty damn goods in the trenches of a division and making the pretty damn lucky world champions. That’s just the game.

So, the Yankees will one day sit in their clubhouse with five or six games left in a season knowing that those five or six games will mean nothing, that their season is over, and that in the other clubhouse, some other team is washing their hair in bubbly and thinking of mahogany cases for World Series rings. Some time even Derek Jeter might actually face the prospect of being a has-been as well as a future Hall-of-Famer. And then, it might not even be stunning. Then, the New York Times will discuss the off-season as a chance to do something necessary, instead of a chance to win it all, again, forever. There is no forever. Ask the British Imperialists, ask the Egyptian Pharaohs, ask the Roman Emperors. Steinbrenner will fall. And yes, even the Yankees will one day finish at the bottom of their division. They might even look up at the World Series banner at Tropicana Field and wonder about what might have been. But not for a while.