Five things have been on my mind as Major League Baseball reaches the end of yet another regular season and begins playing the games that really matter:
1. Theo Epstein is approaching the cusp of history.
Don’t look now, but the Chicago Cubs have the third-best record in baseball, behind only fellow National League Central inhabitants St. Louis and Pittsburgh. The Cubs and Pirates will meet in the wild card death match next week, and it’s worth noting that both of last year’s World Series participants (the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals) played in their respective wild card games.
Eleven years ago, at 30, Epstein guided the Red Sox to their first World Series win in 86 years. If the Cubs win it all this postseason, it will be their first title in 107 years. Epstein will be the only common denominator between those teams, making him arguably the greatest ghostbuster in the history of American sports.
Admittedly, I’m biased. I’m from Boston and worked as a reporter covering Epstein’s years in Boston. The 2004 Red Sox were largely built by Dan Duquette, but Epstein did add Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and David Ortiz, among others. If he wins another title with the Cubs — this year or any other — he will go down as one of the great figures in the history of the game. They build statues for people like that.
2. Baseball could use some drama this postseason.
The playoffs almost never disappoint — in any sport — but baseball seems to have a little more at stake this postseason than in past years. Simply put, the pennant races have been a dud. Every division race but the American League West has effectively been decided for some time, and all five National League playoff spots were effectively decided weeks ago, if not months.
Certainly, the race for the final AL wild card spot is now officially a barnburner, with the Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins vying for one spot. As such, there is the very real possibility of Mike Trout and the Angels facing the Yankees in the one-game playoff, which would make the play-in games in both leagues must-see TV.
All of that said, if MLB is smart, administrators will take a hard look at how to improve the game in a world of instant gratification. The regular season should be shorter (144 games?) and the postseason should be a little longer. And if MLB could somehow figure out a way to put more emphasis on the three-game regular season series, they might be able to introduce more urgency into a regular season that lacks enough of it.
The in? Baseball managers treat the regular season as a marathon, not a sprint. It needs to feel at last a little more like a sprint.
3. The Washington Nationals need a good flushing.
Blame the manager, blame, the GM, blame ’em all. The Nationals have been a train wreck for about five years now. (As an aside, how does GM Mike Rizzo still have a job?) This year’s meltdown culminated in the weekend dugout fight between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper, an altercation in which America could not decide whom to root for.
For now, the Nationals have unsurprisingly sided with the younger and more talented player — Harper — but here’s an idea: dump `em both. Harper has three years left in Washington before Scott Boras takes him to free agency and is starting to feel like the next Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez (we use those comparisons loosely). He’s quickly become the game’s most selfish and egomaniacal superstar.
As for Papelbon, his act has now grown tired in three cities — Boston, Philadelphia and Washington — and the simple truth is that his stuff isn’t all that good anymore.
Earth to Nationals: get rid of the knuckleheads. Stop amassing talent and start building an actual, you know, team. The Boston Red Sox learned that lesson the hard way, which brings us to…
4. The brightening future in Boston.
There’s an old adage in baseball: you don’t make evaluations in spring or September. Nonetheless, it’s hard to look at the Red Sox and feel anything but optimism. Boston is 33-22 in its last 55 games and 9-3-1 in its last 13 series. With Tuesday’s win over the Yankees, Boston has won five straight for the first time this year and assured at least a split of its current four-game set. The Red Sox still have a chance to finish .500 or better.
Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any team in baseball but the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets. Boston has a core of talented young players like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens and even Travis Shaw, all of whom have performed quite well over the last two months. (Interesting aside: all but Rodriguez were drafted or signed when Epstein was in charge.)
Since taking over the Boston baseball operation, Dave Dombrowski has given every indication that the Red Sox will add a front-end pitcher over the offseason. Boston also needs to rebuild its bullpen. But if the Red Sox do these things, they’ll be a playoff contender in 2016.
5. America has zero interest in a Subway Series, a Freeway Series or an October trip to the Show Me State.
Yankees-Mets? Dodgers-Angels? Cardinals-Royals? Sorry. Count me out. I have a zero interest in a World Series in which all of the travel — if there is any at all — can be done via automobile. More important, I think most of America would tune out a World Series that felt more like an intramural championship.
Earth to New York: most of us couldn’t give two hoots about the subway routes. Ditto for the traffic patterns on I-5 (in Southern California) or I-70 (in the Midwest). Quite frankly, the Yankees bore me these days. So do the Cardinals. And the only things I find remotely interesting about the Dodgers is their repeated October failures and the choking tendencies of Clayton Kershaw (1-5 with a 5.12 ERA in his postseason career).
This postseason has some new blood: the Blue Jays, Cubs and maybe the Astros. I can handle one World Series team from New York, California or Missouri, but don’t give me two from the same state. That would sort of defeat the purpose for the rest of us.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.