It is an accepted truth that the Houston Astros are planet-eaters, loaded beyond reason with all the things a baseball team needs to beat its foes stupid. Put another way, manager A.J. Hinch could walk up to either Oakland’s Bob Melvin or Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash Wednesday afternoon and say, “Tell you what. I’ll let you pick my starter. You can have Verlander, Cole, or Greinke. And if you’re nice, I’ll let you pick Miley in Game 2.”
And that’s before he makes out the rest of the lineup card. That’s what the Astros are.
But the Rays and A’s? They are the funky alternative to the muscly might of the Houstons, the really good teams who aren’t quite the doubly good teams that won their divisions. For the second year running (and the second time ever), each of the three American League division-winners won 100 games, and even if it happened in a league that had as many ghastly teams (Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City and Toronto), 100 is 100, and 97 and 96 seems so, well, not 100.
This is wrong. Two teams that have struggled mightily to be noticed in the traditional way, by working the edges of the sport and defying the modern analytical logic, gather Wednesday to fight the great oppressor. Unlike Milwaukee and Washington, who just seem more on-brand with the modern slog that is major league baseball, Tampa Bay and Oakland are the teams that defy notoriety.
There is no reason why Matt Chapman is not a household name except that he plays in Oakland, and Oakland watched San Francisco turn its apparently retiring manager into a daily fixation. There is no reason why Charlie Morton couldn’t be a starter in Houston, mostly because he was Wade Miley a year ago and then transformed into every bit the pitcher he was in Texas.
Mostly though, they represent the underbelly of baseball that Rob Manfred views as in-box problems that are never solved. They are both real-estate conundrums of their own creation who figured that the easier temporary fix was to make baseball worth watching.
But because baseball’s sense of humor comes in a number of sizes, the AL Wild Card pits them against each other as a helpful reminder that hard work and good intentions have nothing to do with it. Tampa got to a World Series 11 years earlier, but Oakland hasn’t advanced in a series of any kind since 2006. Both managements have fixated on their stadiums for decades with the predictable result, that casual fans need to be blackjacked to get to the park to watch the kind of ball that typically gets managers contract extensions.
In fairness, Washington hasn’t advanced out of the first round since 1981 when it was actually and rightfully in Montreal, and the Nats are charming now mostly because the Washington Post says they are, but they’ve also been routine playoff denizens, and have both a ballpark and a sizable following. Oakland and Tampa citizens are largely good at finding other things to do.
And maybe that’s the real thing that makes this game so bittersweet. Two teams that have figured out everything but flipping properties are pitted against each other so that the winner can be designated chum for the best team of the decade’s end. I mean, you may like dropping a few quid on the prohibitive underdog, but that’s hardly the value bet. It’s just the wacky play for a sport that is struggling to find its whimsical spirit, because nothing says a thigh-slapping, commode-hugging good time like a playoff game that opens with the broadcasters admitting, “You know, I’ve never seen these guys actually play. Who’s Choi? Who’s Puk? Who are any of these guys? Help me, someone.”
At least that would be honest.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the A’s haven’t advanced through a playoff series since 1990. It has been corrected to reflect that they last advanced in 2006.
Ray Ratto is typically anti-whimsy.