Sleepwalking Through September

The New York Times

August 20, 2009

By Doug Glanville

We’ve all been in situations where we are just “playing out the string.” You’re working for ...

Unfortunately, like it or not, there are a lot of teams in major league baseball that are not going to make the playoffs. And most of those teams know it today, Aug. 20, with six weeks still to go in the season.

Mathematically, they are not out of it. We could crunch the numbers and find a scenario that allows for the San Diego Padres, who are now 20 1/2 games out of first place, to win the National League West division by passing the Dodgers, who currently sit atop the division.

The Dodgers have 71 wins and 50 losses with 41 games to go. The Padres are 51-71 with 40 games to go. So if the Dodgers lose 30 out of their last 41 games (a final record of 82-80, which is unlikely), the Padres have to win 31 and lose 9 to tie them. Not going to happen. Even if it did, the other teams in the division will probably have a better record than 82-80, sending both the Padres and the Dodgers to off-season vacations.

That also overlooks the glaring fact that the Padres would have to leapfrog three other teams in the process, all of whom will be playing one another during the home stretch. The Padres don’t just need the Dodgers to lose, they also need the Giants, Rockies and Diamondbacks to lose, and that is pretty hard to do when they will all be playing each other ...a lot.
If you’re on the Padres, and you know that playing the best baseball in Padres history isn’t going to be enough to make the playoffs, what do you do?

I mean no disrespect to my Padre brethren, because I have been there. I remember talking to Scott Rolen in the outfield at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia when he pulled me aside and ran the numbers. We were once again staring at the backs of the Atlanta Braves as they cruised to another division title, but Scott was the first teammate to quantify the futility of chasing them.

At the time he broke this all down, about a month after the All-Star break, his math told us that the Phillies needed to win about 70 percent of our remaining games and the Braves had to lose just over half their games for us to tie them at the end of the season. Given that we hadn’t played even close to .700 baseball to date, and the Braves, with their pitching rotation of Cy Young winners, were not about to play below .500 ball, it was daunting. But never say never — unless, of course, you are the Phillies trying to catch the Braves during their run of 14 consecutive division titles. The evidence was overwhelming, and frustrating.

So, was Scott giving up? Was his realism a knock on his ability to be considered a “winning” player? He certainly played well all the time I played with him, even when the math didn’t look promising. He dove for balls, he ran like a freight train, he played hurt throughout those years.

Denial is an important part of baseball. If you take it one day at a time, you may actually avoid what seems inevitable. Someone on the first-place team could get injured, you could find your swing in the second half, your clueless manager might get fired, you could nail that cha-cha step that blew out your ACL from last year. Stranger things have happened.
After all, teams like the Colorado Rockies in 2007 rattled off 14 wins out of 15 games at the end of the season, ultimately propelling themselves to the World Series after they had been left to rot on the side of the road in mid-August. Making something possible in the face of the impossible is what keeps this game interesting.

But still, aren’t some teams just done?

I was on a few teams that had a huge uphill climb, and I found there were still many reasons to be productive.

For starters, baseball is both self-centered and team-centered. And you need both to work. On one side of the coin, it is hitter versus pitcher. No one else, on either team, can do anything about it: mano a mano, me against you. That is the self-centered side. But flip that coin over and you find a shared cause, a dependence, a need to work together to succeed. Defense does not work alone, base running needs coaches, bullpens need to be managed.

Baseball is rare in that you can focus hard on being selfish and still be helpful to the team. If I keep hitting, it is bound to help the team one way or another.

Sure, I could do things just to pad my stats, like steal bases when we are losing by 10 runs, or not reach for a ball so that I don’t risk making an error, but that will get policed in a San Diego heartbeat. No teammates would let that go on for long.

Besides, you could get traded to a contender and find new hope; or by playing well you might end up a sought-after free agent in the off-season; or maybe it’s only year one of your manager’s three-year deal and you want to stay in his good graces.

In short, giving up and rolling over is not an option, not if you want to be around for the glory of next season — when the Padres might become the Dodgers and the Dodgers might become the Padres. Besides, the competitor in us wants to keep battling and enjoying the game we still love. That doesn’t happen when you play half-heartedly.

I remember my teammate Brian L. Hunter from the Arizona Fall League. He put up some amazing numbers in Triple-A (.372 batting average, 49 stolen bases, 113 runs scored) before our fall season. In Arizona he wasn’t playing quite as well, but we made the playoffs, and he announced, “Now, everyone will see the real Brian Hunter!” After this declaration, his next eight at-bats yielded mostly strikeouts — he basically got his head handed to him. You can’t turn it on and off. Better to stay on until the end because when it is off, the roaches get in position and take your job.

So to all you fans who have a favorite team that you feel in your heart is completely out of it: hang in there. They may well be, but I think you will still see some magic out there. It could be the rising prospect who will help them next year. It could be the rebirth of a veteran player who has found his swing and wants to be sure he has a job for another season. It could be a team like the Padres who are young and learning to play the game together for years to come — and still smiling ear to ear. Numbers may not lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth (and nothing but the truth), either.

New York Times 08/20/2009


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