Pennant fever or let’s just play some football
Major League baseball strains to keep people interested in its product. A six-month long season, games slower than an Internal Revenue Service refund, an approaching football season that whets appetites on both the college and professional level and too few players on any team with more than five years in town.
What to do? Can’t just wring your hands or check the latest sabre metrics or analytics to see which players have the best wins-above-replacement numbers.
How can we keep the bodies coming to games? Even after the ever-rising ticket prices and money to park, we need them in our big old ball parks to pay $25 for a team cap, $125 for an authentic team jersey, $11 for a beer, $8 for a hot dog and $7 for nachos and stale cheese.
What if the pennant races don’t exist? The Astros, Nationals and Dodgers have already run away and hidden in their respective divisions. Does that mean that the Angels, Mariners, Rangers and a half-dozen other chasers are finished for the season?
Not exactly. We have the two wild cards in each league. No team has ever claimed a wild card with a losing record. But don’t let Baltimore, Tampa Bay or Toronto know that. When a Monday night in mid-September pits two teams with losing records against each other, don’t breathe a word about the NFL Monday Night games.
Proclaim the late-September games as preludes to your team’s playoff run.
The two wild card teams in each league play each other in a one-game playoff. It’s over in one fell swoop.
But these are the days of unbridled excitement. The Pennant Chases. Pennant Fever. Wring every dollar out of those people in Texas who relish Friday Night high school football more than a 3-hour-15-minute game with the Rangers facing Oakland. But the Rangers are only three games out in the run for the second wild card.
There have been some much-watched, well-attended pennant races in baseball history.
In 1951, the heated Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants rivalry boiled through late September and showed both teams with 97-59 records after the last regular season shot was fired.
Brooklyn had once held a 13-game lead as late as Aug. 11. The Giants ran off a 16-game winning streak to move within six games of the lead. In September, New York won 20 of 25 games, and the two teams were dead even after the last games were finished.
It would take a three-game playoff to determine the National League champion. The Giants won the first game, the Dodgers the second game. In the deciding third game, Brooklyn, behind the pitching of Don Newcombe, held a 4-1 lead when the Giants batted in the last-hope ninth inning.
“The Giants win the pennant, The Giants win the pennant, The Giants win the pennant,” New York broadcaster Russ Hodges manically screamed to his listeners after Bobby Thomson clubbed a three-run home run off Dodger reliever Ralph Branca.
Since baseball had the attention of a sports-watching nation at the time, Thomson’s lower-deck blast was known as “The shot heard round the world.” People cared. They were interested. Football, boxing, thoroughbred racing and the Miss America pageant could wait.
The American League had its 1978 pennant-fever moment.
Age-old rivals New York and Boston ground through September within inches of each other.
It took a one-game playoff to determine the World Series qualifier.
The shadows were long and the stands littered with the baseball discards of thousands of hot dog wrappers, pop corn boxes and beer containers when New York shortstop Bucky Dent moved to the plate to face Boston right-hander Mike Torrez, the much traded victim-to-be of this tense, one act play.
Dent sent a Torrez pitch on a perfect, Green Monster arc over the inviting left field wall, a lionized pennant chase winner for the Yankees.
If there is a playoff necessary to determine the last wild card team into the 2017 postseason, how much of a crowd would they have in Tampa’s above ground mausoleum for a Rays versus Twins game that might be billed as “Sudden Death by the Bay?”