Cruel wild-card: A powerhouse will fall Wednesday, and that's a shame
There are those who will tell you that sports are the perfect meritocracy. That athletic competition is pure and just and unsullied. That whether you’re on a court, a field, or a track, the beauty of the games we play is that talent and training and tenacity will always be rewarded in the end.
Don’t believe them.
Sports are every bit as unfair as the rest of the world we live in. Just ask the Detroit Lions, which were robbed of a chance at a season-righting victory over the Seattle Seahawks Monday Night thanks to an epic officiating blunder. Ask Jimmie Johnson, whose chance at a historic seventh Sprint Cup championship came to an end Sunday after a $10 axle seal failed at the most inopportune moment. Ask the trillions of daily fantasy players who woke up Tuesday with some pretty serious questions about whether proprietary data from inside the companies is being used to gain an unfair advantage and steal their money.
(Oh no ... I do hope Bradley C’s integrity is intact.)
Need another example? Look no further than Wednesday’s NL wild-card showdown, where two of the best teams in baseball — each strong enough to to claim a title, each carrying forward an incredible, city-enrapturing narrative — will square off in ... a one-game playoff.
So it is that one of the most dominant teams in the game will be tossed from the postseason before it even truly begins, one game erasing the work of 162 before it, to be decided by a bad hop, a mistimed leap, or the razor-thin margin between a ball and a strike.
Captivating? Undeniably. "Fair”? Almost certainly not.
Consider the plight of the the Pirates, off to the Wild Card crapshoot for the third consecutive season. With a small-market payroll right around $100 million, Pittsburgh can rightly consider itself one of the best run organizations in baseball, surrounding young cornerstones like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole with savvy acquisitions like Francisco Cervelli, Francisco Liriano and a soon-to-be-retiring A.J. Burnett. (Oh, and let’s not forget Jung Ho Kang, who helped spark this latest Pirates playoff push before a gruesome left knee injury ended his season. Like we said ... sports aren’t fair.)
In a just world, a team that pulls itself from such depths—20 straight losing seasons!—and refashions itself as one of the model franchises in sports, discovering its fanbase is every bit as rabid and passionate as it was two decades before, deserves a deep run through October. Online “Face of Baseball” polls aside, at a time when African-American participation in our national pastime continues to wane, there is simply no better superstar to carry the sport’s flag than McCutchen, a complete player who deserves the country’s full attention. He and his teammates have proven themselves for three years now, and to watch their big-city rivals carry on without them — to move the postseason forward without the frenetic energy of PNC Park — would seem a minor tragedy.
Then again, at least Pittsburgh fans are guaranteed one game to wave the Jolly Roger. That’s more than the Cubs can say. Indeed, despite winning 97 games for the first time in more 70 years, and despite the rapid return to contention, there are no guarantees the North Siders will even see so much as a single pitch at Wrigley Field. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell: The Cubs’ incredible pipeline of young talent has put them in a position to contend for championships for the next decade. But that doesn’t mean that a one-game exit from this October won’t still be painful, given what Theo Epstein and company have built, arguably well ahead of schedule.
More impressive still about Chicago’s rebirth is the way in which one of the most infamously tortured teams in sports has risen above the supernatural, fatalistic mumbo-jumbo simply to go about its business. For these Cubbies, the formula was simple enough: Tear everything down, and start a foundation from scratch. This season, the team made the bold stroke of pushing out a manager they liked for one they loved, the result being a panoply of potential placed gently in the hands of Joe Maddon, one of the most respected minds — and personalities — in the game.
But before this ascendant group can have a real chance to rejoin the ranks of baseball’s best, they must first navigate a single, all-bets-off showdown in the most hostile of baseball environments. Truth told, the Cubs appear about as well prepared as any team could hope to be, why with the unflappable Jake Arrieta poised to take the hill in the midst of a truly historic stretch of baseball dominance. The 29-year-old righty has given up just two earned runs in his last nine starts. All the same, fans of this club need no reminder that nothing is guaranteed — that all the depth, skill, and sound strategy in the world matters not if the baseball gods deign to turn against you.
Given the ability and accomplishments of the Cubs and Pirates, it’s of little surprise that many are questioning whether a single-game elimination playoff is appropriate, let alone fair. There’s been much discussion of revising baseball’s playoff format, of reshuffling alignments, or perhaps making the wild-card playoff a best-of-three series, all in an effort to assure the most dominant teams don’t wind up in this situation. All of which is understandable, of course, particularly if the overarching goal is to make the sport more fair.
After all, a one-game playoff is a fundamentally different game than either of these teams have been playing all season long. The fortune’s wheel of rotations give way to a single starter; barring extra innings, only the very top end of the bullpen is likely to be employed at all. The organizational depth needed to sustain performance for months on end? All out the window. It is but one game — a handful of hours — that will either validate or erase a year’s worth of preparation, passion, and expended energy.
How the hell is that fair?
The answer, of course, is simple — it isn’t. But then, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps sports really is more like life than we’d care to believe, where not everybody gets what they deserve, and hard work doesn’t always pay off. It’s a brutal world, after all. The middle class is getting squeezed; rents are out of control; 401Ks are coming apart; mother nature has seemingly turned against us. Jon Stewart is gone; Kanye’s new album is delayed; and you basically have to sell your first-born for any chance at tickets to Hamilton.
Still, all these setbacks — these obstacles, these cruelties — are what give life its character. It’s only when we’re tested, and challenged, that the most beautiful moments emerge. Whether you’re back out on the ballfield on a crisp October night, or just managing the ennui of another day, trying to roll with the punches that the world won’t stop dishing out — there’s something graceful and good in that. “If the world was perfect,” once said a man much better and wiser than we, “it wouldn’t be.”
And ain’t that the truth.
It’s the Cubs. It’s the Pirates. Two teams. So young, so impressive, so talented, so beautiful. And only one will survive the night. Because in a world this callous and cruel, even a diamond can cut you to the core.
Let’s play ball.