Thursday, September 28, 2006

Baseball's Great Debates

by Scott Silversten

For those who wax poetic about the grand old game, one of the great allures of baseball has always been the way it lends itself to debate. Baseball is a pastime, we are often told, and the game’s rhythms are perfect for historical comparisons and barstool arguments.

And without failure, there are two baseball debates that arise, like clockwork, once a season.

The first occurs in late March/early April. It is at this time when all of us try to determine if the hitters are ahead of the pitchers, or is it the pitchers are ahead of the hitters? It never ceases to amaze that nobody really knows the answer, but every spring, experts tell fans that it’s one or the other.

My guess is the gentlemen who have played the game in the major leagues are not sure themselves.

The second great debate occurs this week, when the following must be asked: Are teams better off playing crucial late-season games and fighting for a playoff spot throughout September, or is a big division lead and the ability to rest key players more beneficial come October?

Just like the first debate, no one seems to have a good answer for the second question, either.

If you come down on the side of the argument that says late-season pressure is good, well, there is a lot of evidence to support that theory. The last four World Series have all featured at least one team that reached the postseason through the wild card, and wild card winners had won three straight championships prior to last season (Anaheim in 2002, Florida in 2003 and Boston in 2004).

Of course, fighting to the end of the 162-game schedule can also have its detriments. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox battled to the season’s final days a year ago, and both were quickly vanquished in their respective American League Division Series.

I happen to believe that flipping a switch come October is not easy to do. Teams like the Yankees and their cross-town rival New York Mets have not played truly meaningful games in some time, and that lack of intensity is not always so easy to regain.

However, there many fine examples to counter that argument. The most famous recent example seems to be the 2000 Yankees, who lost 15 of their final 18 regular-season games, including the final seven, but then stormed through the playoffs to their third straight World Series triumph.

Next week, unless they somehow draw St. Louis, the Mets will be faced with battling a team that has been forced to bring playoff-like intensity to the ballpark for the last several weeks. Philadelphia, Los Angeles or San Diego would arrive at Shea Stadium with tremendous momentum and the knowledge that one victory could send panic through the veins of New Yorkers.

It’s easy for the Mets to rely on the old baseball cliché that “momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher.” But with such a shaky rotation featuring a gimpy Pedro Martinez, and the aging Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, even that cliché cannot warm the hearts of Mets fanatics.

The Mets do have the advantage of possessing several potential starters they can use as long relievers, such as John Maine or Oliver Perez. It will be incredibly interesting to see how manager Willie Randolph and General Manager Omar Minaya fill out the postseason roster in the coming days.

But while we await those decisions, here is another debate to pass the time: When did Tony La Russa cease being a genius?

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine