In 1973, the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds were the two National League division winners. The Reds won 99 games and got big offensive seasons from Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. The Mets won 82 games and got big offensive seasons from no one, but they had a great starting rotation of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, and George Stone.
Even then, the staff was in no way historically great, nor, as the team’s record would suggest, did it make up for an offense that was nearly the worst in the league. Nonetheless, New York won the NL Championship Series and went off to the World Series. The Mets experienced the other side of that random selection process in 1988 when a team that had won 100 games bowed to a Dodgers club that was broadly similar to New York’s ’73 team.
Keep this history in mind when thinking about the 2017 Los Angeles Angels, currently in sole possession of one of the two American League wild-card spots. There are seven teams within three games of the Angels (loss column only), so the Scioscia-men’s appearance in October is far from assured. Given that the average record of the Angels and their rivals for the second spot is 60-60, what does seem certain is a ’73-Mets style mediocrity will have a decent chance of representing the AL in the World Series.
Your perspective on this will no doubt vary depending on whether you’re a fan of one of the teams in question and if you are as charmed by a team’s story-quality as by its quality-quality. The ’73 Mets had story-quality. They were receiving a clubhouse lecture from team executive M. Donald Grant about how they couldn’t give up on the season despite being wholly miserable — at the time of their late-August nadir, they were 58-70 (.453) and in last place in the NL East. Reliever Tug McGraw shouted, “Ya gotta believe!” He was almost certainly mocking Grant, but the rallying cry caught on and the team went 24-9 the rest of the way.
The Mets, then, were the prototypical Cinderella story. The Reds of that season were (please allow me to beat this analogy into the ground) the princes Cinderella aspires to marry. This was one aspect of the Big Red Machine god-team that went to the postseason six times in the 1970s and reached the World Series four times. That was the team destiny demanded be on the screen when fans turned on their television set in October. No disrespect intended to Seaver, an all-time great who could whiff 19 batters in a game when he was at his best, but as a pitcher he could only get into two games in the Series. The rest of the time, fans saw Buddy Harrelson when they could have been watching Johnny Bench.
There could be an even worse scenario this year, one of those nightmares in which one of the two play-in teams has a losing record, or might as well have one. The Yankees, present holders of one of the two slots, are 10 games over .500 and have the depth appropriate to a team with that record, but even the 1927Yankees could drop one high-pressure game, especially if the choices to start it were down to Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, Jordan “Kid Lefty” Montgomery, and a series of ragged veterans who are held together by Post-It Notes and wishful thinking.
At that point, the Angels, consisting of Mike Trout and waiting for Mike Trout’s next at-bat, would be a couple of steps from the World Series. Actually, that’s not quite fair. They consist of Mike Trout, waiting for Mike Trout’s next at-bat and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who is hitting .296/.349/.449 and playing his usual brand of Mercury-style defense. If Mercury played defense. He was fast and he didn’t wear pants, so the analogy breaks down, but stay with me. Anyone hitting as Simmons is and playing defense the way Simmons does is about 99 percent of the way to being a perfect ballplayer.
Simmons is also 0 for his past 17 plate appearances, raising fears that the previous condition of Trout, the whole Trout, and nothing but the Trout will apply going forward. Simmons was, after all, a career .261/.308/.363 hitter coming into this season, and players tend to regress back to the center of their performances. If his ride is indeed coming to an end that wouldn’t leave much, except perhaps Albert Pujols, 37 and having the kind of season that brings to mind the one that a 42-year-old Willie Mays had for the ’73 Mets. Mays was a bit better, actually, but he retired right after the season. People then said it was painful to watch Mays play past his peak. The same could be said of Pujols now.
He’s signed for another four years. At some point soon, the Angels are going to have to pay him off in the same way the Yankees paid off Alex Rodriguez.
If you’ve read this far, there is no earth-shattering takeaway here, no life-altering conclusion, just a sigh of, “Well, that would suck” that has always been inherent in the expanded playoff system. There has always been a non-zero chance, however small, that the World Series could one day be populated by two .500 teams while teams like this year’s Dodgers or the 2001 Seattle Mariners stay home.
Even then, there would be nothing wrong with that if the teams that replaced them had the “Ya Gotta Believe!” thing the 1973 Mets had going, the sense of a scrappy upstart fulfilling its destiny. The Royals might have that, because they’d be a former champion taking one last ride. The Rangers might have it, because they’re a good team in degraded form. There would be none of that if the Angels proceed. There would be a bad team, poorly run, that somehow emerged from a dogpile with the golden ticket. That’s all.
A baseball season is never like assembling furniture, with all the edges fitting neatly. The storybook ending is rare. That doesn’t mean the opposite is automatically fun, or good, or beneficial. It’s just something that happens. The postseason should be something more than that.