The view from the bench

Paul Salomon

On the day that Albert Pujols became the first player to hit 30 HR in each of his first 5 seasons, he said, “I don’t care … when I retire I just want to look back on World Series rings.” Is Albert right? Is it really all or nothing in the MLB postseason? I think not. The title of “League Champion” isn’t simply “World Series Runner-up.” The LCS isn’t simply the ticket to the big show. It’s what the whole season is about. After that, October just becomes a strange “my dad can beat your dad” competition.
Baseball’s regular season is built in a most beautiful way. It is a grueling 162 games long, and only the best of the best teams can stay tough enough to keep winning. Except for maybe 9 games of inter-league play, a team plays the same 13 or 15 other teams for six straight months. 80 of those games are played against the same handful of teams within their division. It’s a tiring half-year battle amongst four to six teams all vying for the same thing: position in the division.
When it’s over, if you’ve won enough games to be the best in your division, or you’re the best of the rest (wild card), then you head to the playoffs. You try to show once and for all that you can finish what you started in the regular season: showing that you’re the best of your peers, that you’re better than all of your opponents. But who are your opponents?
In all likelihood, the two league champions never played each other at all in the regular season. That’s part of what makes the World Series interesting to watch – the unpredictable clash of different leagues, but they can’t really be considered “opponents.” They didn’t battle each other to get there, and they are already champion of every team they did play.
Maybe they’re peers, then. After all, they do both play baseball, right? But NL and AL games differ as wildly as the NBA and WNBA. They differ as wildly as apple pie and peach pie – similar ingredients, different results. You would never shove them both in your mouth and try to figure out which is better, and yet we have the World Series.
They do have their similarities. Nine batters come to the plate, and nine play the field, but that one ingredient – the DH – changes the taste so completely that the games aren’t particularly comparable. The kind of strategy that it takes to win an NL game, let alone championship, is nowhere in the AL game. Likewise, AL powerhouse hitting is not as prevalent in the NL.
This October, when baseball’s two worlds crown their kings, they will go on to play each other in one last series, but don’t let that fool you. Don’t let what the players say fool you either. The season is not about that. If the American League Champions call themselves that, instead of “World Champions” they’ll remember that it’s because they weren’t WS winners, but you should remember that it’s because they truly would be champions over their league.