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Royals join group of turnaround teams giving postseason a fresh feel

As the Major League Baseball postseason begins, let’s pause to salute the lowly also-rans, those pathetic little engines that couldn’t.

Yankees and Red Sox, take a bow. Baseball’s two most important franchises, by a consensus of their own fan bases, will miss the playoffs. This has not happened since 1994, when there were no playoffs. This is appropriate, because the work stoppage that canceled the 1994 postseason was all about parity. Owners wanted a level playing field so small-market teams could compete, and look! Instantly, a mere 20 years later, we kinda sorta almost have it. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Red Sox had nothing to do last weekend except celebrate the retirement of Derek Jeter. I’m glad somebody finally did.

The Kansas City Royals, who write checks in erasable pen, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the playoffs for the second straight year, after missing them for 20 years and losing hope for at least 10. What were the odds, in 2009, of the Royals and Pirates making the playoffs the same year that the Yankees and Red Sox did not?

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In fact, five years ago, the Nationals, Orioles and Pirates were the three worst teams in baseball. Each lost at least 98 games and was outscored by at least 132 runs. The Royals tied for the game’s fourth-worst record, at 65-97, and ended up in the AL Central cellar. And the Athletics, at 75-87, also finished in last in the AL West.

Even worse, all five seemed hopeless in some way. Kansas City and Pittsburgh were the joint capitals of small-market hell. Oakland no longer looked like the smartest organization in baseball -- just one of the cheapest.  Baltimore had floundered for years under owner Peter Angelos; many O’s fans figured the team would never win again unless it was sold. And Washington was more of an idea than a team. The Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg that summer, on their way to losing 103 games, and there was talk that Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, would squeeze $40 million out of them, because they were so desperate.

Now look: Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Baltimore and Washington are all in the playoffs. None of them seems like a fluke either, in part because all but the Royals, which have ended a 29-year postseason drought, made it this far no more than two years ago.

Of the 10 playoff teams, only three (the Angels, Cardinals and Giants) have won the World Series in the Wild-Card Era. In addition to the absences of the Yankees and Red Sox, three other champions in that time, all from big markets -- the Braves, Phillies and White Sox -- are also missing this October. There is no Goliath here, and while Goliaths normally serve a valuable purpose -- they provide somebody to root against --  this will be a refreshing change for baseball. We are pretty much guaranteed an undeniably joyous ending.

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The game’s new payroll kings, the Dodgers, will be annoying eventually. But for now, this is a storied franchise in a great baseball town, and it hasn’t won a title since 1988. Clayton Kershaw has elevated himself somewhere above ace, to super-ace. This is where Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson lurked for several years. An ace scares you when he takes the mound; a super-ace scares you when you realize you might have to face him.

Kershaw is the game’s best pitcher, and these playoffs also feature the game’s best player, the Angels’ Mike Trout, who will make his postseason debut. This provides us with the built-in narrative if the Dodgers or Angels win: Kershaw, or Trout, is the new face of baseball, replacing Jeter. For what it’s worth, I would go with Trout, regardless of who wins the World Series. Also, this would be a media-driven story. I’ve never met a fan who said, “Hey, who is the face of baseball? Let’s talk about this for six hours.” It’s a sport of great individuals, but is not, and never has been, an individual sport.

So who will win the World Series? I have no clue. But I do know what we would say about whichever team wins: 

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DODGERS: “Congratulations to Magic Johnson and Vin Scully! And also to the players and staff. And say what you want about Yasiel Puig, but he is a winner, and he deserves your respect, until he does something silly next April like oversleep for batting practice or airmail his cutoff throw into the dugout.”

NATIONALS: “The best team in baseball, without question. This was obvious all along.”

CARDINALS: “Again? Don’t you just hate them?”

ROYALS: “Do you remember that time everybody ripped the James Shields-Wil Myers trade? Weren’t we stupid? I mean, uh, they. Weren’t they stupid?”

ANGELS: “The best team in baseball, without question. This was obvious all along.”

PIRATES: “The Pirates?

GIANTS: “Three championships in five years! This is a dynasty! Forget what we said last year. And two months ago.”

TIGERS: “This is what happens when a team has great starting pitching and the best hitter in baseball, Miguel Cabrera. Of course they had that for several years in a row before this, but whatever. ”

A’S: “Forget everything we said about them for the last two months, and everything we said about Billy Beane in October. His stuff works in the playoffs.”

ORIOLES: “Congratulations to everybody in the organization, except the owner.”

There are a hundred theories about what wins in the postseason, because that is what happens when there is no right answer. Here's another theory: It helps to look over the precipice, nearly fall over it and survive. That’s why I’m picking the A’s, who averted a historic collapse and grabbed a wild-card bid, to beat the Nationals. Now the A’s can relax, realize the worst is over, and just play baseball. And they have the pitching to win it all.

Plus, with the Oakland-Kansas City wild card game in Kansas City tonight, the A’s have a great chance to be the first team eliminated. If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong first. It’s just like being right. Or something like that.