Don’t Choke

The Boston Red Sox have seen their nine game lead in the American League Wild Card shrink to just two games as we enter the final six games of the regular season. And while it has been fun seeing the panic of all the Boston fans, I will admit that I don’t want to see them choke it away. Now before you come after me with torches and pitchforks and say I must be burned at an interlocking NY-shaped stake, let me explain why.

First of all, let’s look back at the drama the Red Sox have created in the postseason over the past decade. In 2003, they staged an 0-2 comeback over the Athletics in the ALDS to win the series in five games. Afterwards, they went on to play the Yankees in an epic Seven Game series, and were five outs away from going to the World Series, before Grady Little pulled one of the great managerial gaffes in baseball history. Keep in mind that they made it that far even with then-centerfielder, Johnny Damon battling concussion symptoms sustained in the final game of the division series. Keep in mind that in the ALCS, the rivals were involved in a Game 3 brawl that force Pedro Martinez to shove down a charging, well-aged Don Zimmer. Keep in mind that the Yankees were nine outs away from the pennant in Game Six of the ALCS before Boston stormed back, aided by a blustery wind at Yankee Stadium, and won the game 9-6. The series, with the 2001 World Series and 2008 ALCS, some of the most competitive postseason baseball I have seen played.

The following year, with bad blood still raging through both sides, the Yankees jumped out to a 3-0 lead in an ALCS rematch. Then, in the greatest postseason comeback in the history in baseball, the Red Sox became the first and only team to win a post-season series from an 0-3 hole. The Red Sox would then storm through the Cardinals for their first World Series victory since 1918. Three years later, with some new faces, they would breeze through the Colorado Rockies for their second title in four years.

In 2008, with the Yankees not in the postseason for the first time since 1994, I needed some way to find a reason to watch the baseball playoffs. I found myself in an odd situation: I wanted to see the Red Sox lose and yet watching them was the only thing keeping me interested in the playoffs. On the National League side, the Phillies were tearing through the Brewers and Dodgers en route to the pennant. What saved the baseball season, for me, was the seven game ALCS that the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays played. The Cinderalla Rays fell into an 0-1 hole, before winning an incredibly dramatic Game 2 in eleven innings. Games three and four, at Fenway Park, were blowouts in favor of the Rays, and Game 5 was looking to be the same thing. The Rays led 7-0 after six and a half innings, with the Red Sox season just a matter of outs away from ending. Except that the Red Sox scored four runs in the 7th, capped by a 3-run homer by an injured David Ortiz, and made the game interesting. J.D. Drew would hit a two-run homer an inning later to cut the lead to one, which would then be fully erased when Coco Crisp hit a two-out RBI single. The Rays offense went cold, and in the 9th, again it was J.D. Drew that provided the hit, a game-winning single over the head of rightfielder, Gabe Gross.

The Red Sox also took Game Six, and set the stage for a pitcher’s duel in Game Seven. Matt Garza pitched lights out for the Rays, and backed by some clutch hitting, the Rays won the game 3-1, advancing to their first World Series.

It ended right where I, and any other Yankee fan would have liked it to be: right before the World Series. Yankee fans were spared the embarrassment of having the Red Sox advance to the Fall Classic and were given an unbelievable series. It kept New York, the most important media market, interested in the playoffs. I remember writing a note on Facebook (way before the days of NASB) and looking at all the Yankee fans that had lived and died with the results of the series, and how exuberant all the Yankee fans were when the Rays won. From a baseball and broadcast economic view, having Boston in the playoffs draws in two markets – Boston with all its passionate fans rooting on the Red Sox, and New York, with its Yankee fans rooting for the opposing team.

Flashing forward to 2011, let’s look at the other options other than the Red Sox for the Wild Card. Obviously, you have the Tampa Bay Rays, who are as improbable of a story as they were in 2008. The Rays lost nearly their entire bullpen, including closer Rafael Soriano, and Matt Garza, from last year’s team. They had to deal with injuries to Evan Longoria and an inconsistent and disappointing B.J. Upton, as well as an anemic offense. Their pitching and defense has been lights out, led by James Shields and David Price. But is this team, a team with a regular season fanbase consisting of 20,000 people per night, really worthy of a playoff spot?

Following the pennant-winning season that Tampa Bay had in 2008, many wondered if their attendance would improve out of the abysmally awful status it has always held. But it has not. Although up from their 2007 average of 17,000 per game, from 2008-2010, the average attendance was still around 23,000 per game, or roughly half of Tropicana Field’s capacity. This year, with the Rays having a historic September comeback, attendance is at 18.5 thousand per game, the lowest it has been since 2007. The Rays were a great story in 2008, and provided some drama in last year’s playoffs too. Tampa fell behind the Rangers 0-2 in the ALDS before taking the next two at the Ballpark in Arlington, before Cliff Lee dominated them in Game 5 and ended their season. I don’t think I want to see the Rays again. Not with an offense that in their last 12 postseason games (which would be since Game 6 of the ’08 ALCS) has averaged 2.75 runs per game. It’s an offense that continues to be bad. Their team .244 batting average is the second-lowest (behind San Francisco) among any team still eligible for the playoffs and is fifth lowest in the league.

The other team other than the Rays that is in contention is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Like the Rays, their offense struggles at times. They have scored less runs than the Rays but they have hit ten points higher than the Rays. If not for Justin Verlander’s historic season, Jered Weaver would be the run-away Cy Young favorite. The Angels also rank fifth in attendance in percentage of ballpark capacity sold. They have a history of playoff success, a World Championship in 2002 and two other trips to the American League finals in 2005 and 2009. But they’re a young team. Torii Hunter is at the twilight of his career. Although Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo will one day be stars of the game, they do not carry the superstar draw that the Red Sox have.

Even with a September collapse, the Red Sox still have the names that draw people to the game – Gonzalez, Ortiz, Crawford, Pedroia, Papelbon, Beckett. Even if the Red Sox do not even win a game in October, they bring Major League Baseball a ton of revenue due to an increase in local and national television ratings.  The Rays and Angels do not have that sort of power. The longer the Red Sox stay in the playoffs, the more money for Major League Baseball. If the ultimate match-up – a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS – does happen, the sport would have its greatest and most historic rivalry at the top of the sports world for a week. Commissioner Selig will argue that competitive balance is good for baseball, and I am not arguing that it isn’t. But after a Rangers-Giants World Series in 2010, which brought in dreadful national ratings, there should be no doubt that people in charge MLB would like to see the premier teams in the postseason.

So yes, kill me if you like, but I would like to see the Red Sox make the playoffs. It gives me another baseball game to be passionate about at night. I will be a fan of postseason drama. They can win, until the moment or game that they need to win. I will root for them to comeback from an 0-2 hole if it means having them play the Yankees in the ALCS. I want them to make it an interesting postseason. I want a postseason like 2003, where both League Championship series went seven games and the World Series went six games, which has not happened since.

Because a dramatic, heart-stopping, postseason victory over your biggest rival makes it all the sweeter than just a walk in the park.

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