Every April (or very, very late March) 30 teams embark on a journey with high hopes of being one of only 8 of those teams to stretch their season beyond 162 games. To be exact – they want to win 11 more. That’s how many playoff wins it takes to win it all: 3 wins in the best of 5 Division Series + 4 wins in the best of 7 League Series + 4 wins in the best of 7 World Series = 11 playoff wins; aka a World Series Championship Title. But that could all be changing for the 2012 season and beyond.
Bud Selig has been exploring the idea of expanding the playoff teams from 8 to 10 for some time, and it looks as though it’s going to happen. The current format is this: The first place team from each division and two wild card teams – the team with the best record of all the remaining teams in each league. The new format moves to 10 teams by allowing TWO wild card teams to qualify from each league and having them play each other in a new wild card round to determine who moves on. The playoffs would then continue with the LDS, LCS and WS remaining as is.
The details of the wild card round are undecided as of now. The players want a 3 game series but the owners prefer a 1 game play-in. The latter means that the four wild card teams will have their playoffs decided by only 9 innings. No player wants that. Now a 3 game series means that you have to make room for that many additional games in an already tight schedule – without running a potential WS game 7 into November. No one wants to shorten the 162 game season, and players are opposed to a handful of scheduled double headers each year. It also means that the 6 division champions teams will have to spend 4 or 5 or even 6 days sitting around waiting to get started, which can be detrimental to momentum, not to mention – these guys are gonna get impatient! That 1 game play-in is starting to sound a little better huh?
So we know which side the owners will be on and which side the Players Association is taking…so what about the fans? Tell me what you think!
A balk is a funny thing. It doesn’t happen too often and when it does it often leaves fans – and sometimes even players, managers and umps – confused. This season we have already seen several balks, the most notably from Justin Verlander. His balk was incredibly unusual and it took both teams’ coaches and all 4 umps to figure it out! He was going to throw to first base but didnt turn his body enough, so in hopes of slipping his mistake past the umps, he lobbed it towards home, bouncing it and hitting the batter.
The batter went to first base assuming he’d been “hit-by-pitch”. Unfortunately for him it was (after several lengthy on field conversations) ruled a balk – meaning the ball is dead, the pitch is neither ball nor strike, the at bat continues, and any base runners advance one base. (Last year I believe there was a bases loaded, bottom of the 9th, tie-game balk….aka a “walk-off balk”) At any rate, a balk can even be ignored if there are no runners, because calling the balk effects nothing and no one.
So what makes a balk a balk? Well outside of the guys on Baseball Tonight and a collaboration of umpires on any given diamond….I’m guessing no one really knows. It has something to do with the specific motions a pitcher can and cannot make before he commits to throw either to home plate or to a base. Check out the wikipedia on balks – every last confusing detail is there. And if you can manage to make sense of it all, do you think you can explain it to me?
Cardinals fans know the story and know it well. It’s the Cinderella story of one-time pitching phenom turned center fielder and hitting phenom Rick Ankiel. Eleven years ago the 21 year old rookie left hander came to the Major Leagues and won 11 games as a starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, helping the team into the playoffs. But the pressure of October baseball, or perhaps being the Game 1 starter, proved to be too much to handle as he sailed wild pitch after wild pitch to the backstop. He was sent back to the minor leagues to try and work out his problems in hopes that he could one day return to the stellar form of an ace in the making.
Now when a young pitcher is trying to get signed, he typically throws a few sessions for management to show them what he’s got. But after Ankiel showcased his talents from the mound – he refused to let the decision makers leave until they also watched him hit. Wait – that’s right. He made them watch him – a pitching prospect – hit. This kid knew he could hit and wanted to make sure they knew it, too.
After spending several years in the minors, unsuccessfully able to recover from his pitching meltdown, he decided to give up. He made a decision to walk away from what he thought was his best God-given talent – the ability to pitch a breaking ball that drops off a shelf and win games for his team by dominating from the mound. Though he was done with pitching, he wasn’t done with baseball. He spent 2-1/2 more years in the minors – this time working on his hitting and fielding skills – so he could try to make it back to the show as an outfielder. Throughout all of this – he remained in the Cardinals organization, a club that refused to give up on him. Eventually he did make it back, and he even hit a home run in his Major League Re-debut in front of a packed Busch Stadium. I was there, and it truly was a touching moment. (Even Tony LaRussa, who is rarely seen smiling, was grinning ear to ear as Ankiel made his trot around the bases.)
Rick is now a member of the Washington Nationals, who are currently in town to play the Cardinals. To show his deep appreciation for the fans of St. Louis and how much their willingness to stand by him meant as he worked his way back, he took out a half page add in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
The quote reads:
“Many Thanks to Cardinals’ fans and the City of St. Louis for your support and cheers over the years. It was a privilege and an honor.”
Ankiel may not wear a Cardinal uniform anymore and he may sit in the 3rd base dugout now when he plays at Busch Stadium, but I have a feeling that in reference to his baseball career – he considers St. Louis to be his home. We raised him, broke him down and built him back up, all the while refusing to give up on him, just as he refused to give up on baseball.
Rick – I think I speak for Cardinal fans everywhere when I say congratulations and good luck to you – even when your playing against us.