Monday, October 21, 2013

The Oligopoly Continues

It would be funny if it weren't so predictable. I've been predicting a Cardinals-Red Sox World Series for a while now, and whaddaya know? I was absolutely correct. The 2005 Chicago White Sox will remain the last non-media favorite to win the World Series for yet another year.

My streak of the team I root for in the World Series losing is going to continue as well, since I'm rooting for both teams to lose. Technically, if I could decide who wins, I'd pick the Red Sox because they've won it less recently, but I still loathe them, so that wouldn't really count as a victory. Rooting against someone less is not the same as rooting for someone.

I quit following the NBA and the NFL because I felt that they were essentially media-favorite oligopolies. I tend to hate media favorite teams, since they get shoved down your throat more than others, and I don't like feeling as though someone's telling me who I'm supposed to support. Even a lot of casual fans buy into it, and decide that certain teams aren't interesting because "they have no history," or they just aren't glamorous enough for them.

I mean, look at the NBA. Which teams ever win championships? Heat (a city with famous beaches that's attractive to stars), Lakers (the NBA's glamor team), Celtics (the team with the hallowed history), Bulls (big city Chicago), Spurs (the perfect team to counter the league's "bad boy" reputation), Pistons (big market for blacks, the same demographic that dominates the league). Maybe once in a while some big-market oddballs like the Rockets and Mavericks overcome the odds, but it's pretty predictable otherwise. I'd venture to say that the 76ers and Knicks would also be members of the NBA's oligopoly circle, and the league wouldn't have a problem with either of those teams winning a title. Maybe the Clippers and Nets too, if they had the right players. Bottom line is, after I realized that new and interesting teams pretty much never won, I decided to stop following the NBA, and I've never regretted it.

What about the NFL? Once again, it's very oligopolistic. I once decided there were five teams I hated: the Patriots (the model franchise that does everything right), Steelers (the standard-bearers of old-school football), Giants (New York, baby!), Cowboys (America's Team!) and Packers (the team with the hallowed history). There were also some teams I had a second-tier hatred for, namely the 49ers (the team that used to be the NFL's model of perfection) and the Jets (I still hate New York, although the Jets are more like the NFL's biggest pity party). Basically, they were the teams the media were most likely to love, and with that love usually came previous success that they didn't need more of. Somehow, like magic, one of those teams won the Super Bowl nearly every year.

OK, OK, I know you're going to dispute that, and rightly so. What about the Ravens last year? Or the Saints in 2009? Or the Colts in 2006? Or the Buccaneers, Rams, Broncos...yes, yes. I get it. Really, I feel like the oligopoly is a recent development. After the Patriots won their second, that's when it really began. I was happy for the Colts when they won it, but because I was rooting for the Bears, it was hard to enjoy it too much. The Saints and Ravens won it after I stopped following the NFL (due to loss of interest rather than conscious choice), and in between, some of the teams I loathe won it. Maybe we could say that every three years or so the NFL ends up with a decent champion, but I don't like the game enough to endure those two years in between.

But there was always baseball. Baseball wasn't like those other sports. The big dogs could spend a ton of money and get all the hype, but in the postseason it was anybody's game. If you liked underdogs, baseball gave you a chance!

At least, that's how it used to be. As I outlined here, there's now a media-favorite oligopoly in baseball too, perhaps as a punishment for me getting to see the White Sox win it (hey, it coincides with it, who knows?). Which teams are members of the oligopoly? Allow me to list them:

Yankees (baseball's "hallowed history" team)
Red Sox (another obvious one)
Cardinals (the media looooooooves to talk about what a model organization they are)
Phillies (the City of Brotherly Love is right in the shadow of New York)
Giants (they have a history in New York, and a rivalry with another member of the oligopoly...)
Dodgers (the glamor team)
Braves (I'm not totally sure of this one, but I'm pretty sure they're a member)
Mets (New York gives instant marketability)

The Cubs are also a media favorite, but I'm starting to wonder if for narrative purposes, they'll ever be able to win the World Series. The story of the Cubs' inability to win the World Series has become such a big part of baseball lore that it's almost hard to imagine baseball without it.

So am I saying that any team outside of this select group will never win the World Series? Well...I like to be optimistic and hope that this whole oligopoly thing is just a period baseball is going through, and that it will end soon. Like next year soon. Until it does though, I'm going to be skeptical of any team outside this group's chances. It's just my way of cushioning the blow of disappointment. Eight years of this crap has taken its toll on me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I Hate to Say I Told You So...

...but I told you so.

The Cardinals advance to the NLCS again, but not before dangling some false hope in front of every non-Cardinal fan. I'll admit, there were a few times when I was tempted to think that maybe the Pirates could somehow pull off the miracle, but I had to remind myself to snap out of it and remember the rule: The Cardinals exist to make sure that no team with an interesting story ever wins a championship.

My greatest fear is that baseball will become like every other sport: an oligopoly where the underdog never gets a real shot at a title. Ever since 2005, that possibility has seemed more and more real. Will baseball become just another tragic love I had to break away from for the sake of my health? Perhaps. Thanks Cardinals, and thank you, Bud Selig, for doing everything you can to ruin the greatest game ever invented.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Doomed

Blunt title? Sure it is. But I figured I might as well get straight to the point.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a great story all season. Indeed, they're almost certainly the team I've most enjoyed following this year. I attended my first ballgame in 1993 and became a true baseball fan in 1995, and only now am I finally seeing a Pirate team that has a winning record and is participating in the playoffs. Pittsburgh has had one of those special seasons that fans cherish for a lifetime. As cool as it would be to see this team go all the way to the World Series and even (dare I suggest?) win it, it has absolutely no chance of happening.

The reason is because the roadblock standing in their way is that notorious crusher of dreams, the St. Louis Cardinals. So what? While the Cardinals are certainly favored on paper, we all know that in a short series, anything can happen, right? Theoretically, yes. When the Cardinals are involved though, the normal rules don't apply.

At the risk of sounding solipsistic, I ought to explain the grand unifying theory that underpins my thinking.

I'm from the Chicago area, and I like both Chicago teams. Before 2005, both Chicago teams held their leagues' respective longest World Series title droughts, as you probably know if you're reading this. When the White Sox had their great season in 2005, it was natural for Chicago fans to expect the worst. After all, our teams had a history of blowing it. As I watched the Sox' playoff run, I said to myself, "Boy, if only I could see the Sox win this one, I'd accept 15 years of baseball disappointment." I'm not sure how sincere I was. It's not like the baseball spirits and I signed any sort of contract. Still, it's hard to argue with subsequent developments.

The 2005 White Sox indeed won the World Series, and since then, not a single team I've rooted for in the World Series has won it. No joke. Not one. Admittedly, I was happy for the 2008 Phillies and the 2010 Giants, but I was rooting for their opponents both years.

Not only that, but every team that's won it since then has been a media favorite. We've seen the Cardinals, standard-bearer of all that's good and classy about the game, whose fans are just so doggone loyal and nice (according to the media, who, as usual, have it completely wrong); the Red Sox, the longsuffering characters whose fans are more passionate and knowledgeable than any other (again, sez the media); the Phillies, who snapped a (OMG!) 25-year major sports championship drought for their city in 2008 (Cleveland fans must have been weeping for them); the Yankees, baseball's most hallowed franchise, and one that needs to win the World Series periodically to save the sport from going down the toilet (according to the media and ignorant fans); and the Giants, from the beautiful left-wing utopia of San Francisco, whose history dates back to New York, and who form half of a historic rivalry with the Dodgers, another grand old franchise.

During this time, the Cardinals in particular have demonstrated a knack for stomping on any non-media favorite that looks like a potential champion.

In 2006, an injury-riddled 83-win Cardinal team squeaked into the playoffs by virtue of a weak division, and the first team they beat was the title-less Padres. No one was really expecting anything from that Padre team, but it would've been cool if they'd won it, of course. After beating the Mets (who were a media favorite and not that great of a story), they met the Tigers in the World Series. Now the Tigers, they were a great story. They had just come through the worst period of perennial losing in their history, which reached its lowest point with 119 losses in 2003. Three years later, here they were in the World Series! What a great addition to the pantheon of champs they would've been! Unfortunately, the Cardinals beat them in five error-filled games, a pathetic end to a great season.

In 2009 the Cards faced the Dodgers, but the Dodgers swept them. My theory is intact though, because not only were the Dodgers a media favorite, they had also had no compelling story. They had the loathsome Manny Ramirez too, which made it impossible for me to root for them. So the Cardinals can lose if they face an unlikable media favorite.

2011 was the worst of them all. The Cards upset the powerhouse Phillies in the first round, then faced the title-less Brewers. The Brewers were a small-market club that had gone all in that year, since Prince Fielder was an impending free agent, and they knew they wouldn't have the resources to bring him back. They also had a fun collection of personalities, and an engaging esprit de corps, which would've made a beautiful chapter in MLB championship history. But of course, they were facing the Cardinals, so you know what happened.

Their World Series opponent was a title-starved Ranger team that had a terrific blend of vets and franchise icons. They would've been the perfect team to hoist Texas' first World Series trophy, and they almost did, except for the fact that the Cardinals made two incredible late-game comebacks against them in Game 6, and then won Game 7. At that point, I knew there was something very real about this evil force backing the Cardinals.

In 2012 this new second Wild Card playoff format that nobody wanted was added. Under the old system, the Cardinals would've missed the playoffs, but instead, a slot was theirs, and they took full advantage of their illegitimate participation by beating the Braves in the one-game "play-in."

Next up were the Washington Nationals, making the city's first postseason appearance in 79 years, and the franchise's first since 1981, when they were the Expos. Once a doormat, they were now the top seed. What a potentially great story! In the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series, the Nats jumped out to an early 6-0 lead. However, never for a minute did I think they could coast the rest of the way, because these were the Cardinals they were facing. I stopped following the game in the late innings when the score was 6-4 Nationals, because at that point I knew the result was inevitable. I checked MLB's website later and when I saw it previewing the Cardinals-Giants NLCS my reaction was a frustrated "how is it possible that I knew that was going to happen?" As I found out later, a four-run ninth killed Washington's season. With the Cardinals, that's how it always goes.

Those Cardinals did eventually lose to the Giants, but since the Giants were just a rerun from two years earlier, there was nothing interesting about them. Therefore, it was possible for them to beat the Cardinals.

So you can see what the Pirates are up against. Their scrappy underdog status assures that they'll become another notch on the belt of the St. Louis Dream Squashers, and there's nothing they can do about it. For what it's worth, Pirate fans, I truly feel bad that your incredible season is going to have to end like this.

In my previous post I guaranteed that the Cardinals would win it all, but I suppose there are other possibilities. As previously mentioned, as long as a media favorite is facing them, the Cardinals are beatable. Among playoff participants, I would consider the Red Sox, Braves and Dodgers to be media favorites as well, so there are four potential champions. Since the Dodgers are the only one of those teams I haven't seen win the World Series, I guess they're my only hope of seeing a new team win it. The Rays, Athletics, Tigers and Pirates don't have the media blessing.

Some of you probably think my theory is a bunch of baseless hokum. I know it looks that way, but to me, it sure feels real. I would love, love, to see it proven wrong, believe me. Until it is though, I'm going to stand by my belief that the media's ring of favorites has a monopoly on World Series titles.

Ah...the sadness of lost hope.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Playoff predictions 2013

Since tonight is (technically) the first day of the Playoffs, I thought I'd rank the ten teams participating in what is officially recognized as "the postseason" by how great a story they'd make if they won the World Series:

1. Cleveland Indians

A team that hasn't won the World Series since 1948, a city that hasn't seen a major sports championship since 1964, a franchise that had been losing for several years before striking gold with some free agent signings and bounceback seasons this year...just imagine how much it would mean to the fans in Cleveland if this was the year for them. 

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

What a ride! Ever since Francisco Cabrera's pinch-hit single in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS it had all been downhill. A record 20 consecutive losing seasons was finally snapped this year with 94 wins, and Pittsburgh is excited about baseball again. This team has had a great season thanks to several shrewd moves that paid off, and the organization has made its way back to respectability. If the Pirates could win their first World Series since 1979, that'd really be something. 

3. Detroit Tigers

The Jim Leyland era has been one of restoration for the Tigers. Detroit has seen several great and very good players pass through since 2006, but it hasn't been able to win that elusive World Series title. After getting swept by a rerun Giants team last year, a championship this year could give this core of players redemption, and also solidify Leyland's Hall of Fame credentials. 

4. Los Angeles Dodgers

Remember back in June when there was talk of Don Mattingly getting fired? Who would've thought back then that the Dodgers would end up running away with the division? With several veterans seeking out their first rings, and exciting youngsters like Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw, plus the fact that L.A. hasn't won it since 1988, this could be a cool team to see win it. 

5. Oakland Athletics

Billy Beane's boys continue to defy the odds. Oakland hasn't won the World Series since 1989, and while the current A's don't have many household names, they've got a nice little perpetually-overlooked team. I wouldn't mind seeing them get it. 

6. Tampa Bay Rays

I love the Rays. The team with no financial resources to speak of manages to be competitive year after year while sharing a division with baseball's richest teams. While they haven't been able to assemble any outright powerhouses, they're always in the mix. I'd love to see these guys get a championship. The only reason I can't rank them higher is because they're the second Wild Card team, and it would feel wrong if such an illegitimate entry to the postseason was how they got their trophy. 

7. Cincinnati Reds

Like the Rays, the Reds have to be ranked low due to entering the postseason in a playoff spot that shouldn't exist. Other that that though, Cincy has a cool core of players who I could back under normal circumstances. 

8. Atlanta Braves

They aren't the consistently-great Bobby Cox teams of the 1990's, but they've built a solid nucleus of young players that have something to prove. The Braves won the first World Series I ever saw, back in 1995 when I became a fan, so I can't pull very hard for them, because I want to see someone new win it. Still, they're far, far preferable to either of the remaining two teams on this list. 

9. Boston Red Sox

I guess it is a new era in Boston to some degree, since most of the 2007 team is gone. Still, I loathed few World Series winners as much as those 2007 Red Sox, and I still hate the city of Boston's sports teams with a passion. The last thing we need is another October-long Boston droolfest. Someone ought to do us a favor and eliminate these guys. 

10. St. Louis Cardinals

There is nothing remotely likable about the St. Louis Cardinals. After the 2011 World Series, a small piece of me died, and I will never forgive them. This team deserves every bit of scorn you can muster.

Being the pessimist I am, in any matchup, I'll presume that the team with the higher number on this ranking is going to win. That means that the last team standing should be St. Louis, and they'll be avenging 2004 in the World Series. I would consider anything else a miracle.