Thrill of pennant race is hard to match

August 17, 1993|By George Vecsey | George Vecsey,New York Times News Service

Take a look around you. This is a pennant race. This is the last one.

Take a good look. There are people who wished they had taken one last look at Ebbets Field or Pennsylvania Station or the American buffalo herds, to commit them to memory before the money people tore them down or drove them over the cliffs.

Take a good look at the four teams scrambling for one place in the championship rounds. Winners only. Losers go home. This is the last time. Mediocrity arrives in 1994.

We are observers of the last hurrah of that unique baseball institution known as the pennant race. Baseball probably doesn't deserve this, but the lucky dogs have gotten themselves a four-team race in the American League's eastern division that will be hard to unscramble. Only one of these teams is going to the American League Championship Series.

"I like it the way it is; either you win the division or you go home," said Jimmy Key, the Yankees left-hander who had it both ways with Toronto, and accepted the consequences. Bobby Thomson sent the Brooklyn Dodgers home for the winter. Bucky Dent put the Red Sox out of their misery. No wild cards. No also-rans. No back-door champions. That all ends after this stampede.

Next year, baseball is getting itself gussied up for a date with the golden goose. Some of us had major problems when baseball went to four divisions in 1969, but at least you still had to win your race.

Next year there will be eight teams in the playoffs. Will they still hold the "World Series" or will it be "the finals?"

The owners will meet in Boston on Sept. 8-9 to determine just how this will be done. Six division winners in two leagues with two wild-card teams? Four division winners and the runner-ups in each division? Four division winners plus the next two teams in each league?

"To me, it's almost unhealthy to play for second place," said Paul Gibson, the personable itinerant relief pitcher who considers it a "privilege" to be with the Yankees in a real race. He was with Detroit teams that faded in 1988 and 1991; he accepted it as part of the game. But the game is changing.

The discerning reader will surely detect a hefty dollop of sentimentality herein, but the reader will also note that I am refraining from condemning the new order. This is because in a moment of weakness last spring I decided that the NBA playoffs were hot stuff.

I mean, sane people were debating whether Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic could upset Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in an abbreviated first round, No. 1 vs. No. 8, if only the Magic could qualify.

These are the absurd things you think about when you are confined in stuffy arenas in the springtime, watching tall men lope up and down the court.

Suffering from oxygen deprivation, I came down on the side of playoffs. I'm stuck with that position. But a lot of good people are still defending the lost cause.

"Bob Costas says to me, 'How dare you tinker with the game?' " admits Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, who has been running baseball since the owners forced Fay Vincent out last September. Selig has been criticized for worse things than adulterating the post-season. This one he can defend.

"I put myself in the category of traditionalist," Selig said the other day. "People say, 'Bud, you used to say, "over my dead body" about playoffs, but now you're on the other side.' Well, we can't continue to do what we did."

Selig points out that eight qualifiers among 28 baseball teams is a lower rate than basketball, football and hockey. And he recalls the excitement of watching the Green Bay Packers trying to cop the last wild-card spot.

He suspects that traditionalists in Milwaukee would not mind watching the Brewers try to sneak into the last playoff spot.

On the other hand, are we ready for a manager resting his pitching staff in the last week of the season because he's already got a playoff spot sewed up? Basketball plays all season for one extra home game. This is the future.

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