[Quick non-sequitorial question: am I the only one who leaves Fire Joe Morgan in my RSS reader, even though nothing new ever pops in, as a kind of memorial?]
Yesterday, a friend of mine claimed she could smell Fall on the air. I acted like I didn’t know what she was talking about, but it’s hard to deny that the sad and joyful truths of this baseball season now feel set in stone for most of fans of most teams. The halcyon days of summer can no longer mask the gray pallor of failure for the lion’s share of the league, and the long middle days are giving way to the short, action-packed ones.
For the teams with a chance at postseason access, the season is heating to a glow. The Texas Rangers, of all teams, are challenging the Red Sox and the Rays going into the final turn. I have general awareness of three or four of the Rangers pitchers, but as far as I can tell they are a band of unknowns doing an above average job as led by old Millwood, holding the line while the artillery–Kinsler and Cruz and Young and Blalock–pepper the enemy from three trenches back. At a glance, though, no Ranger hitter is having a world-class season, a Pujols-type year, but rather a bunch of them are hitting well enough at once. After wowing the baseball world last year, Josh Hamilton has been cooled by injury and ineffectiveness. One of the go-to storylines of this past offseason, Michael Young’s move to third to make way for Elvis Andrus, seems to have worked out just fine, if only to keep Young still-potent bat readily available. It’s a team that has milled a winning product from a tenuous blend of well-balanced averageness. Hardly a dynasty-making proposal, but at this time of year it’s not dynasties that matter, but flashes in the pan.
That simple exercise above is another symptom of this time of the year, when the glamour of spring has worn away to the grind of late summer, which is to say the parsing of all of the stories. Every season has its Texas Rangers, and literally hundreds more when you take into account the breakout years and the remarkable runs of fortune. One can hardly follow all of these stories without devolving into a post-modern zombie state, so we, I think, take a moment here and there to investigate them from afar, to put ourselves in the shoes of, for example, the typical Rangers fan. He or she is no doubt halfway to the moon right now with a kind of desperate hope, that this team will drive forward on the wings of optimism and make a real run at it. My brief synopsis does little to capture the crescendos of passion that come with a season like this Ranger one, but sometimes it’s the best that we can do to live vicariously for a few minutes.
Other notable (and pleasant) surprises: the Giants looking to recapture the Bonds era success, the Rockies looking to repeat 2007, the Marlins who are a surprise every year, the young and powerful Dodgers, the unsurprising surprising Yankees…. The sour apples of the bunch: the Unmazing Mets, the fire-saling Indians….
So what’s the flip side? Joe Posnanski has chronicled the putrid Royals franchise with the zeal of an Egyptian royal scribe, so there’s nothing more I can add to that unadulterated pity party. My Astros team might be a less extreme example of the anti-Rangers (or Phillies or Rays of last year) storylines. The Astros have had a remarkable run in the last decade or so, with late season triumphs and under-the-radar buzzes of the tower. But this year, mediocrity has come home to roost, with healthy winning streaks undercut by an overall malaise, despite some legitimate star power. Unlike the Rangers, the Astros have been unable to balance their faults with their strengths, so it’s been a long year that around this time seems ultimately futile.
I don’t introduce the Astros just to insert my home team for no reason. Rather, their 2009 tale embodies the plight of most teams, those trending towards the middle of the pack, with seasons that rise and fall but ultimately end up smack dab in the middle, which is, in the baseball universe, nowhere. Optimism and pessimism for fans is leveled out into a broad plain of normalcy. The list of teams that aren’t out of it but aren’t in it is filled with last year’s surprises and next year’s surprises, with solid clubs and clubs over-performing even to reach average–the Cubs, the Braves, the White Sox, the Twins. Some twists of fate could put them in the running easy, but for now they’re mellowing out in the middle.
If I’ve rendered the regular season too complete, then I’ve gone too far. Whatever doldrums this time of the year contains, there are just that many or more plot deviations standing at the ready to confound the predictive nature of the past. A four-game series can change the fortunes of the last three months in a half a week; a minor slump mixed with a minor run of luck is an intoxicating cocktail. So let’s not close out our tabs too early. Except for you, Posnanksi, you’re the designated driver.