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Wild Cards Add Spice to Season


For more than a century, baseball spread its drama, heroism and lasting memories over the entire six months of its season. That format had some of the virtues of a traditional novel: lots of characters, details and plot twists, depth. But, admit it, some of those suckers went on for 1,000 pages. Often, by Labor Day, that regular season "book" was a full-blown bore. Races were all locked up. There wasn't much worth watching until October.

Well, that tradition is dead and buried, now isn't it?

These days, in our era of wild cards, the real baseball season--that is, the race for the playoffs--doesn't even start until Labor Day. If you haven't looked at the standings all season, what have you missed? Not much.

At least 13 teams have a reasonable chance to dream about going to the World Series. All they have to do is get hot and get lucky. At least four other clubs can still fantasize about making a miracle sprint to the wire. The NHL doesn't let this many cities keep hope alive. The Reds were a game under under .500 entering Tuesday night and they aren't dead.

If you haven't been paying close attention to those last-second waiver-wire transactions in the National League Central, you're forgiven. That approach is old-fashioned. Our new mantra is: Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. This is the age of the condensed and packaged infomercial.

Keep those political conventions crisp and scripted, otherwise viewers might switch mediums and click their mouses to the next chat room. Make it snappy. Why, if Dostoevsky were alive today, Dimitri Karamazov would be an only child.

Perhaps subconsciously, baseball has re-evaluated the attention span of the culture in which it finds itself. Nobody can pay attention to anything for six months anymore. So, baseball has accommodated itself to what the NFL, NBA and NCAA basketball tournament learned long ago.

The regular season in every sport is for the hard core. For them, big-time sports is a kind of supplemental reality. Had enough of your own life for one day? Plug into the hometown franchise for a couple of hours.

However, if a sport wants to grow--by reaching a mainstream audience--then it needs to construct a six- to eight-week melodrama with each installment adding to the excitement. In just its second wild-card season, baseball seems to have mastered the gimmick. Every team above .500 now has its own scenario for How to Win It All. No matter how low your spirits one day, your mood can change because of a single game or piece of news.

For example, as recently as Sunday, the Yankees were falling apart. Owner George Steinbrenner was tongue-lashing his millionaires and a 12-game lead had shrunk to four. Then, Monday, David Cone pitched seven no-hit innings in his first game back since having an aneurysm removed from his right shoulder four months ago. That, as the New York tabloids will remind you, was a "career-threatening" and even "life-threatening" aneurysm.

After his inspiring victory, Cone ruminated on mortality and humility. "I appreciate them taking me out (of the game)," Cone told reporters after he was lifted after 85 pitches despite his potential no-hitter. "There's only so much tread left on the tire. . . . Getting to the World Series is more important."

In Atlanta, now that lefty Denny Neagle is on board, the natives want to know if the Braves have the greatest pitching staff in history? In Baltimore, where Eddie Murray, Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia have been added to the lineup, the locals want to know if the Orioles have the greatest collection of power hitters--one through nine--on record?

Yes, the hype machine is getting cranked up. That October grail looms in sight on the horizon. It's not just a job; it's an adventure. Who dreamed baseball would get the knack?

Now that baseball has the attention of the general fan, as well as the fanatic, here's one suggestion for making sense of baseball in September and October.

Stop looking at the hitters, even though it's the Year of the Slugger. In the autumn, always focus on the pitchers. In particular, look for the club whose top three starters get on a roll together. That's what it takes to have an honest shot at the World Series. The less pitching there is to go around, the more important to have your share of it.

Last year's World Series was a perfect example of the way dominant starting pitching grinds down even the greatest hitting.

The Cleveland Indians were favored to win. Statistically, they looked stronger on paper. Yet the Braves held the Indians to a .179 team batting average and 19 runs (3.6 a game). That's no aberration. Stunningly low team batting averages suddenly arrive in the Series, playoffs and big head-to-head September series.

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