World Series or Bust …. Really?

[This column of mine was first posted on “Flushing University” on Thursday, February 22, 2007.  To see my latest Thursday column, entitled "The First Exhibition Game," please click on the “Flushing University” link to the right.]

DO WE HAVE TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES?

Fred Wilpon has announced that “Our goal is to win the World Series.” Fans are clamoring for it. Nobody wants to come up short again. Willie Randolph is even wearing his 1977 World Championship ring, hoping that the players will see it and think “gee, maybe I’ll try to win one of those things too.” Yeah. Yeah.

Everybody wants to win the World Series. Why?

I know the answer to this question as well as you do. I understand how baseball is structured and how, given that structure, winning the World Series is the biggest and best thing a team can do in any baseball season. But I want to take just a couple of minutes of your time to go through the reasons why this is stupid.

Nobody needs to be reminded of the fact that the best team, according to whatever standards you wish to apply, doesn’t normally win the World Series. Is there anyone in the world, is there anyone even in Missouri, who thinks that the St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in baseball last year? I’d be hard-pressed to put them in the top 10.

If winning the World Series doesn’t tell you that the 83-79 Cardinals were the best team in baseball, what does it tell you? It tells you that they won the World Series. That isn’t nothing, but I don’t think that it’s as much as it’s made out to be. What it tells you is that however hard it was over six months for the Cardinals to win just a few more games than they lost, they did get hot at just the right moment.

Now you’re probably thinking, well maybe we shouldn’t make too much of it, but people do. That’s what people remember, that’s what people care about, who wins the World Series. But you know what? This isn’t even true.

Look at your own baseball memories. Think about National League baseball and great National League teams in the past two decades. What do you think about? What do you remember? I remember Atlanta’s astounding and unprecedented decade and a half of dominance. I remember the great Astros teams of the late ‘90’s built around Bagwell, Biggio, and Alou, the great Cardinals teams with and without McGwire, the great Giants teams around Bonds and Kent (yeah, I know, I know). I remember Arizona’s few years in the spotlight with their one-two pitching punch of Johnson and Schilling. I remember, of course, the four exciting years the Mets had from 1997-2000. So what National League team has won more World Series than any other in the 1990s and 2000s? You know? The Florida Marlins. What does this tell you? What does this mean? Do you remember more about the Marlins and their glory than you remember about these other teams? Are you likely to tell your grandchildren about the turn of the millennium being the era of the Marlins?

I started following baseball in 1962. When I think back on National League baseball in the period between the first year of the Mets and their first World Championship, I cherish my memories of all the great teams: the Giants with Mays and McCovey, the Braves with Aaron and Matthews, the Pirates with Clemente, Stargell, and Clendenon, the Reds with Robinson, Rose, and Pinson. Quick, old timers! How many World Series did the Giants, Braves, Pirates, and Reds combine to win between 1962 and 1969? You know the answer. Zero. Zip. Does that make those legendary teams any less legendary? The Dodgers and the Cardinals did win World Series in this period because of their overpowering pitching, but when I remember that era, the Dodgers and the Cardinals are just part of the mix. Their World Series victories don’t erase, they don’t even dim my memories of these other great teams that didn’t win the Series.

Look, making a big deal of winning the World Series is a necessary fiction. You need goals. You have to have something to aim for, and winning the Series has been defined as the ultimate baseball accomplishment for a team in a given year. But we all know that it is not as big a deal as we make it out to be. The Mets have, I think, a 90% chance of having an exciting and satisfying season of baseball. But even the most optimistic projection can’t give them more than a 10% chance of winning the 2007 World Championship. I think it will be fun to aim for that 10% and to hope for it. I want the players to play as if it’s absolutely necessary. But if I ever really reach the point where I need it, and crave it, and think I deserve it, and am not going to be happy unless I get it, then I will have become no better than a heroin addict.

So maybe this will be the year in which we go all the way. But this may also be the year when we will have the best Mets lineup ever, when Jose Reyes reaches the outer limit of what an infielder can accomplish, when David Wright reaches the level of Musial, when Oliver Perez gets it back for good and becomes a latter-day Koufax, when Pelfrey and Humber pull a Gooden and Darling, when Pedro Martinez returns resurrected, when Lastings Milledge puts it all together the way Jose did last year. We have so many possible miracles to hope for. We’ll only get one or two of them, if we’re lucky. And the Series may or may not be in the cards. But as the curtain rises, I’m not going to spend all my time thinking about winning the World Series. I can’t wait to see what this season brings me, to remember all my life.

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