Damn, they were good. The Orioles had one of the great starting pitching staffs in baseball history -- Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, et al. They were third in baseball in runs scored -- Frank Robinson and Boog Powell finshed second and third in the MVP voting. They were, of course, legendary defensively with Brooks Robinson at third and Mark Belanger at short and Paul Blair in centerfield and so on. And manager Earl Weaver was one of the great baseball strategists; he was years ahead of his time.
If the Orioles had won that World Series, that team goes down as one of the greatest in baseball history. They even might have had their own case as THE greatest.
But you know that didn't happen. The Miracle Mets won that World Series in five games. And, in some ways, something fundamental changed in baseball that year. Yes, there had been so-called miracles before -- baseball people have always LOVED to label things as miracles. There were the Miracle Braves of 1914. There was the Miracle at Coogan's Bluff. There was the Impossible Dream Red Sox of '67 -- that's pretty close to using the word "miracle."
But until 1969, exactly two teams made the playoffs. The American League champ. The National League champ. That was it. You could have a miracle season but it had to be a WHOLE SEASON. And 154 or 162 games is a LONG time to sustain a miracle. That's why there weren't many. In the 23 years from the end of World War II to the '69 expansion, the New York Yankees represented the American League 15 times. The Dodgers -- whether in Brooklyn or Los Angeles -- got to the World Series 10 times and the St. Louis Cardinals four other times. The penthouse was closed. Sure, interesting things happened every now and again. But real miracles -- as in a mediocre team winning the World Series -- was virtually impossible.
Then came '69. The playoffs were expanded. And something dramatic changed. To be fair, the Miracle Mets were not mediocre in any way. They won 100 games. But when they upset the would-be-legendary Orioles, they didn't just win a shocking World Series. They created a blueprint for October miracles. Take two dominant starting pitchers (Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman), add a great bullpen and add in a few great catches and some timely hitting ... and suddenly anything could happen.
In 1973, the Mets WERE mediocre. They made the playoffs with an 82-79 record. They were three games under .500 and in fourth place on Sept. 18. But they won nine of their last 11, won the division, beat the Big Red Machine in a nasty playoff series and took the Oakland A's to seven games in the World Series. THAT was a miracle.
The 1985 Royals -- another miracle. They finished 13th in the American League in runs scored. That team had a preposterously low .313 on-base percentage -- and if you took George Brett out of the equation, the on-base percentage was sub-.300. That team could not hit at all. And they only won 91 games -- two teams in the American League East won more. But they had the Mets' formula -- some excellent starting pitching (with Bret Saberhagen starring) a good bullpen (led by Dan Quisenberry) and they found ways to come back TWICE from 3-1 deficits in the postseason (yes, I know what Cardinals fans are shouting right now).
See, this was a whole new way of winning baseball championships. You didn't have to be a dominant team during the season to win the World Series. The 1987 Minnesota Twins scored fewer runs than they allowed, but they sneaked into the playoffs and they won four World Series games in their Metrodome House of Horrors. The 1988 Dodgers averaged less than four runs per game, but they had a dominant Orel Hershiser and a great bullpen and Kirk Gibson hit that "I do not believe what I just saw" homer. The 1990 Cincinnati Reds won only 91 games, they did not have a pitcher who won 16 games, a hitter who drove in 90 RBIs. But they swept the A's in the World Series*.
* Suggesting, perhaps, that pitcher wins and hitter RBIs are overrated statistics. No?
And THEN baseball added four MORE teams to the playoffs.
And now we're at the point where we all know ANYTHING can happen in October. Who was the best team this year? Who cares? It's October and as the commercial goes "Anything can happen" -- or as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane famously said: "My [bleep] doesn't work in the playoffs". Just in the last dozen years, we have seen the Boston Red Sox come back from a three games to zero deficit, we have seen TWO Florida Marlins teams sneak in as wildcards and win the World Series, we have seen a 116-win Seattle Mariners team lose in the LCS. How about the 2006 Cardinals? They lost nine of their last 12 games and looked like they might pull off the most spectacular collapse in more than two decades. They hold on, make it to the playoffs with 83 wins, win a playoff round, then beat the Mets in seven games, and then take out Detroit in the World Series.
Crazy. That's October baseball now. Some baseball fans might not like it. The old-fashioned sturdiness of baseball -- you play a long season to determine who the best teams are and then face them off against each other -- has become a free for all. Who will win it all? Spin the roulette wheel.
For instance, I know most people think that the New York Yankees will sweep the Minnesota Twins ... and sure, that's probably the way to predict it. But it doesn't have to work that way. The Yankees have homefield advantage and their rotation in order. But if the Twins steal one in New York (even if they have not won in New York in a couple of years), then suddenly the Yankees are in danger when they go to the crazy refuse-to-die Metrodome, where fly balls disappear into the roof and twirling hankies inspire the Twins into believing they are better than they are. Don't say it can't happen.
Same story in the Colorado-Philadelphia series. The defending champ Phillies seem like the better team -- they seem to have the better pitching, especially because the Rockies won't have starter Jorge de la Rosa (who, against all odds, was preposterously good -- after July 3, he went 12-2, the league hit .234 against him and he averaged more than a strikeout per inning). But the Rockies were 51-30 in the light Coors Field air, they hit 50 points higher and slugged .482 at home. Don't say it can't happen.
It can happen -- anything can happen -- because baseball is like that. The best NFL teams win 80 to 90 percent of the time. The best NBA teams win about 75 to 80 percent of the time. The best college basketball and football teams win 90 to 100 percent of the time.
But in baseball, great teams only win about six out of 10. So you can do the math: It's a whole lot easier in baseball to take three out of five or four out of seven from a great team. Call it magic. Call it luck. Call me irresponsible. But you never know where it's going to go. I once asked Brooks Robinson if he thought his '69 Orioles were better than the Miracle Mets. He smiled and said the eight words that might best describe October baseball: "It doesn't matter what I think. They won."