There are three outcomes for any published sports predictions – accidentally right, accidentally wrong and totally, completely wrong. The trick is mixing it up enough that people are fooled into thinking you know what you’re talking about.
On the Toronto Blue Jays this year, this column went for the third option and with some gusto. Seven weeks ago, while the Jays floundered, they were written off in this space: “The Jays … remain pretty much the same team they were last year” and, “The Jays are still not good. Again.”
I liked the final two beats. Hemingway-esque, I thought.
Also, as it turns out, wrong. Totally, completely wrong. The Jays have made the playoffs for the first time since the Donaldson/Bautista glory years.
So as sports prognostications go, I didn’t just shank this one into the parking lot. I managed to shatter the windshield of my own car.
Were I defending myself in sports court – an idea I just thought of and which you should now consider trademarked – I would say this about that.
Ladies and gentleman of the jury (I’m thinking Bobby Clarke, Hope Solo, Charles Barkley, an academic who hates sports and a frothing soccer mom/dad combo here), this expanded, transparently cash-grabbing playoff format is a bad idea. It punishes good teams for taking the trouble to be good, and rewards mediocre ones for not bothering so much.
Even worse, the 16-team post-season will start with a three-game round that is effectively a coin toss. Every once in a while, even the Washington Generals are going to win two out of three. How is that fair?
Also, your honour (I’m picturing Alex Rodriguez or Shaq in this role, if I can get their theatrical agents on the phone), the Jays were bad when I wrote this. Really bad. They were headed toward last place in the American League East, just about to blow a weekend series to the Rays.
Plus, may it please the court, none of the leading indicators suggested a turnaround. Their stars – and they don’t really have any of those – had not been stars. Their kids were still kids. Someone had apparently laid a bunch of rakes in the tunnel leading into the dugout and unscrewed all the light bulbs, because one Jay or another was injuring himself every five minutes.
So, in summation, no one could have predicted at the time that things would turn out differently.
Final arguments? Yes, thank you, your honour. I’m just a sportswriter, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t know nuthin'. But I know this. If we are to be judged by the things we think or say or write in the newspaper, and are then expected to be correct about those things … (imagine a long pause as I stare into everyone’s eyes like Clarence Darrow) … well then, wouldn’t we be making a lot more money in Vegas instead? Think about it.
Then after getting settled for a long term in sports jail, I’d begin coming to terms with how I fumbled this whole thing.
All sports seasons are weird right now. Try watching football without fans. It’s like watching a movie filmed without extras – the action is the same, but the overall effect is numbing. But no season has been weirder than baseball’s.
This is not down to pandemic restrictions – at least, not entirely. The expanded playoffs – a move tossed in to salvage some revenue – have unsettled baseball’s equilibrium.
A year ago, only 10 teams made the playoffs. The bottom four were forced into a one-game, do-or-die qualifier. In essence, only six franchises earned a guaranteed stretch of games in the playoffs.
In that scenario, you want to build only one of two sorts of roster – a reliable winner, or an ambitious loser that might one day become a reliable winner.
The sort of team you definitely did not want was one caught in the middle, neither very good nor especially bad. That middle way – without top draft picks or a lineup packed with young, inexpensive talent – was death.
Now 16 teams get a shot at a proper playoff series (albeit a three-game one). That middle way is starting to look pretty good.
Last year, the worst team by record to make the playoffs (Milwaukee) finished 16 games over .500.
With this year’s shortened season, five teams that sat below .500 heading into the last weekend of the schedule still hadn’t been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Jays weren’t a mushy middle team. They’d put their hopes in the get-really-bad-to-get-better strategy. That was still a work in progress. In any normal year, Toronto was not a playoff team. But COVID-19 and management’s bottom-line panic have turned it into one.
It’s not yet clear if baseball will stick with the 16-team playoff format. But have you ever known anyone to willingly hand back a cash bonus? That’s the thing about perks – they stop being perks once you’ve enjoyed them. From that point on, they’re earnings.
The players don’t get any extra money in this new set-up, but it spreads the possibility of October baseball around to more of them. So they’ll find a way to live with it.
By next season, teams that were still three years away will be hustling to make sure they’re three months away. Teams that would once have been happy to slip into terminal decline will be trying to figure out if some sort of managed descent makes more sense.
In the end, this will make regular-season baseball more competitive. So maybe an expanded playoffs is not so ridiculous.
Either way, full credit to the Blue Jays for what they’ve managed. Playing i…tinerantly in Buffalo, riven by injuries, prone to rookie mistakes, without much lockdown pitching, the Jays have done it the hard way. So who’s to say they can’t keep doing it?
Ladies and gentlemen of the sports parole board, I for one promise not to make that mistake twice. This week. But fair warning – once free, I will commit more crimes against sports prediction.