The Secret Fun Of Wild Card Bumper Cars Without An Audience

Illustration for article titled The Secret Fun Of Wild Card Bumper Cars Without An Audience
Photo: Lachlan Cunningham (Getty Images)

Having been surprised and inspired by Comrade Burneko’s scolding paean to the virtues of minor league baseball (namely, that it’s fun and people you don’t hang out with seem to like it so it deserves its continued existence based solely on that fact), I decided to avert my eyes from the smoldering ruins of Antonio Brown, USA Basketball, the Miami Dolphins besmirching the lofty reputation of tanking games, the Alaska swimming establishment (which I want to call Wedgiegate because I’m a 9-year-old), and the rights of Philadelphia sports fans to beat up one of their own players because Philadelphia. So it’s on to baseball, where:

  • Christian Yelich fractured his kneecap with his own foul ball.
  • Javy Baez fractured his thumb sliding headfirst into a base where sliding headfirst isn’t really helpful tactically.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates had another fight with themselves, and pitcher Kyle Crick fractured a finger on his pitching hand.

Just as we expected—there is no escape.

Except that there is one, in the least noticed place in sports. The upper reaches of the American League.

Without making a single peep to indicate that fun is happening, the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, and Oakland Athletics have been rampant in all the old ways, having to win at a frantic pace just keep pace with each other, knowing that one of them could win 95 games and not make the postseason because they chose the wrong year to be excellent.

All three teams are mutated versions of great baseball teams, and operating under the cover of largely empty ballparks. Cleveland and Tampa Bay hate homers in an era in which there are only homers, while Oakland hits them often enough to pencil out as the ninth-most homer-y team in the history of the sport. Tampa brought us the concept of the opener and Oakland seized on the idea more stridently than nearly any other team, while Cleveland has more starting pitchers than it can keep healthy. Cleveland and Tampa Bay have solid bullpens, Tampa so much that it traded a significant chunk of it to teams less worthy and didn’t miss a beat, while Oakland averages a blown save every fifth game. Cleveland plays in a hitter-friendly park while Tampa and Oakland play in lunar craters without the gravity assist. They all have the Manager of the Year in a year when the only Manager of the Year is Aaron Boone, unless it’s Rocco Baldelli.


And they win all the time, sometimes in ridiculous proportions. The A’s, for example, lost 15-0 to Houston Monday and won 21-7 Tuesday, because ... well, hell, I have no idea why.

Also they rank 23rd, 24th, and 29th in attendance because rank-and-file fans in their cities apparently hate fun. And when I cite this statistic, I cite it knowing that these are the highest rankings for the three of them in tandem since 2006.


What makes this better is that one of them will not make the postseason, and fun at this level requires the agony of defeat. Cleveland is currently third in the two-spot race and is playing at a 94-win pace. In the wild card era, only one team has ever won as many games and hit their next tee time on time, and that was the 1999 Cincinnati Reds, who won 96 but watched the New York Mets win 97.

Originally, this was going to be a tale about how the A’s are the weirdest team in the weirdest market, the last pro sports team standing in a city that once had four (yes, we’re going back 50 years on that), but the truth is that all three teams are weird in their own ways. The A’s are drawing slightly more folks than a year ago but still have created no rivalries in their own division despite being connected to the same three teams for 25 years. And now that they’re borderline superb, as they occasionally are, they inherited as competition the best Houston teams ever as a reminder that sometimes fate just hates you for no reason. Their mini-market is losing its football team, has lost its basketball team and is clutching half-heartedly to its bronze medal team, but they’re holding up their own end—to no discernible benefit.


Cleveland has put a competent-plus team before its city for seven years now, and Terry Francona might be its best manager ever. Bob Melvin has navigated the sometimes-mercurial Billy Beane era to the point that he is a year and two weeks away from being the longest serving A’s manager since Connie Mack. Tampa’s Kevin Cash has helped reinvent the concept of the pitching rotation and won for two years with the shortest hand of any team not actively trying to lose every game it plays.

But none of them can pull away from the others, even though the noise of empty seats being vaulted by foul ball hunters should be deafening. Since the all-star break, they are a combined 104-62, and Cleveland is only half-game out. More recently, they are a combined 20-8 in September, and have been pretty much within three games of each other since the end of June. They are bumper cars, and have been all summer.


Most of the attention in the American League has been foisted upon Houston for being the best team and Minnesota and New York for hitting all the home runs, and at the other end, Toronto, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Detroit for trying to lose more aggressively than the Dolphins. But the three most persistently accomplished and anonymous teams, each with exemplary players who meet all the requirements for the baseball-should-market-its-young-exciting-players crowd, are the ones putting up the best shows night in and night out.

And one of the three will be hosed in the end. That’s what makes it a great story, one we always used to fall for and for which we still can in the final two and a half weeks. Three teams that you don’t pay attention to because your lives are just so bloody full are giving you daily success in a frantic atmosphere amid a shrinking calendar—who can’t sign on to that? By showing that not everything ought to be subject to the tyranny of efficiency experts, Comrade Burneko has shown us the way, as revolting a notion as that is. Sometimes fun is a secret, not subject to the demands of click fascism or ageist bullying. I’m watching the secret fun. The rest of you are on your own.


Ray Ratto lives in fear of the phrase, “Now the latest on Antonio Brown.”