Days of Braves and Padres
Tough times for fans of the National League.
I'm an old-fashioned National League purist. I stand firmly against the designated hitter and believe that NL games are more sophisticated and interesting. Even during the prime juice years of McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds, there was still a pitcher hitting ninth; baseball isn't baseball without the double switch. I've never even lived in an American League city except for Chicago, but I rented on the North Side and rode my bike to Wrigley on game day. Why, then, do I find myself captivated by the American League playoffs year after year while the National League has me flipping to Comedy Central?
As I write this, six playoff games are in the books. In the AL, the Yankees and Angels played two taut games full of good pitching and clutch hitting. The White Sox unloaded massively and melodramatically on Boston in the first game then rallied in a Game 2 thriller. The National League has had two uninspiring slogs. Reggie Sanders put the severely overmatched Padres away with a fifth-inning grand slam in St. Louis. San Diego's 11th-hour "comeback," basically a barrage of too-little, too-late singles, looked like something out of split-squad spring training. The annual Houston-Atlanta snore pretended to be close until the seventh, when the Braves trotted out their minor-league bullpen and the Astros hunted and pecked their way to a foregone conclusion. The American League message: October baseball is a thrilling spectacle. The National League? Um, do you remember the Big Red Machine?
It's not fair to generalize from six games, but it is fair to generalize from 10 years. The balance of power, or at least the balance of intrigue, has been this way since Division Series play started in 1995. That year's Mariners-Yankees series was one of the best of all time, with New York losing at the wire to a historically inferior team. In the AL's other matchup, the long-suffering Indians swept Boston. The National League featured a four-game victory by the already-perennial Braves over the Rockies, and a three-game Reds sweep over an uninspired, bickering Dodgers team. I'll be hard-pressed to forget Griffey's jubilant slide into home to beat the Yanks. I remembered the not-so-dramatic pitcher's duel between Greg Maddux and Kevin Ritz because I looked it up.
The NL has had some good individual series. In 2003, the Marlins tagged out a runner at home to beat the Giants in four games then kneecapped the Cubs in a legendary seven-game, curse-extending duel. But there's where the problem lies. It was the Marlins doing the vanquishing.
The National League predates the American League, the "junior circuit," by 25 years. But the august NL seems to have misplaced its historical identity. In the AL, every team gets caught up in the sweep of dueling empires. Cleveland and New York, Oakland and Boston: Every recent combination except for Baltimore and Seattle has felt like operatic drama. Sure, the Red Sox-Yankees thing is getting old. But there's always the fun of rooting against either or both of them.
The NL doesn't have teams anyone loves to hate. It's the disposable Braves and any three other teams out of a hat except the Pirates and Brewers. The league's rivalries (Dodgers and Giants, Cardinals and Cubs) have withered because traditional foils never manage to make the playoffs in the same year. Even the Mets-Braves contretemps, which burned brightly in the glow of John Rocker's cornpone racism at the end of the last century, have faded to embers. I'd take the Cubs against the Brewers at this point. But those are long odds.
Since 1995, three NL franchises have won World Series. In the first year of the three-division era, a wormhole opened and spat the trophy toward Atlanta. Since then, it's been Florida, Arizona, and Florida again. Both Marlins were worthy champions, and so were the Diamondbacks. But the way in which they won, by flinging money out of deep pockets, struck me as very American League. The most unexpected recent AL title winner, the 2002 Angels, actually had an air of respectability. They weren't money-flingers and were loaded with cred because they mercifully ended the Yankees' run of four straight World Series appearances.
The quality of National League playoff games is so inconsistent because the stakes feel lower. A Cardinals-Padres game has a high bar to scale to achieve historical importance. A 20-inning duel punctuated by a game-winning home run by the backup catcher might fit the bill. Otherwise, that series, which features the worst team ever to qualify for a big-league playoff series, sends a chill down no one's spine but Jerry Coleman's. Astros-Braves seems like a better matchup. But any playoff game involving Atlanta must be taken with a grain of bullpen dirt.
The early stages of this year's NL playoffs can be summed up thusly: In the bottom of the ninth of Wednesday's Braves-Astros game, Atlanta scored a run and had men on second and third when the final out was recorded. Rick Sutcliffe, an analyst who could have made Game 1 of the 1988 World Series sound boring, droned on about how the Braves had won a small victory because the Astros' closer had to start warming up in the bullpen. Atlanta's "comeback" brought them to within 10-5. That is National League playoff baseball.