Published September 29, 2011
The regular baseball season ended last night with more of a whimper than a bang.
The abysmal performances of the Red Sox and Braves in the final month of the season overshadowed remarkable comebacks by the Rays and the Cardinals.
We were focused, many of us, on the collapses of fine teams when we might have been paying more attention to those good teams that were winning a lot of late season games.
Meanwhile Jose Reyes, the marvelous Mets shortstop, got a bunt single in his first at bat and then, satisfied with his chances to win the batting title in the National league, took himself out of the game. In doing so he reminded me again of the differences between great players of my youth and the modern kids who watch their individual statistics intently, appear to care little for their fans, and ignore the sanctity of team results. Reyes won the batting title but lost my respect. If you start the game you play the game unless you are hurt.
As a kid my hero was the magnificent Yankee Joe DiMaggio. One day not long before his death, as we were enjoying a pasta lunch together and I was certain he would not be offended by my question, I asked him why he had never hit .400. I doubt he had been asked that question many times and he seemed eager to respond.
He told me a wonderful story.
“You remember, Commissioner, the Yankees in my day usually clinched the pennant by Labor Day. This one year I was having one heck of a year and going into September I was hitting well over .400. I think it was 1939.
That year we clinched the pennant early but all of a sudden I got a bad infection in my left eye and I could barely see. Every day the manager Joe McCarthy has me in the lineup. Every day was the same. And every day my eye swells up and gets worse and I stop hitting. My average kept falling. They even gave me a shot in the eye. But still he played me. You know, he made out his lineup in April and he never changed it. Finally I had to swing around in my stance just to see the ball. "Now, I am not complaining. I had a good year. I think I hit about .385. But that was the year I should have done it.” In fact he hit .381 that year."
I could not resist asking whether he had ever been told by McCarthy why he kept playing him and Joe said the issue had come up only once. McCarthy answered-- with no apology-- he did not want Joe to be “a cheese champion.”
McCarthy never explained what he meant but today I cannot help seeing Reyes as either cheddar or brie. Definitely not American.
To me individual records mean most when the team also is successful. To me DiMaggio is great because his teams won so regularly and he led them. One has to wonder what form of leadership Reyes was exhibiting. His team finished last and well out of the race.
In spite of the drama last night, little was decided and the season rolls on.
The teams that won last night and celebrated will play again this week.
When this playoff system was instituted, I recall worrying about the effort in meaningless games that would be forthcoming from teams like the Yankees who were already in the playoffs but playing the Rays who had to win to stay alive.
My concern was unfounded as the Yankees played to win and made a determined effort even though some of their veterans rested in the final few games. One must salute Joe Girardi for his stellar leadership and for his sense of honor and respect for the game. No one can fault the Yankees effort.
Even the celebrations last night seemed hollow. The champagne baths lose their joy when the games begin again after one day off.
Of course this is all about television money. The more playoff games the more revenue to be produced and shared.
Yet for me and for millions of fans, the fascination of our game is the same as it has always been.
The clock never runs out so the Cardinals win in the 13th inning.
A .108 hitter named Dan Johnson can save the Rays with a clutch homerun.
And the Red Sox, almost universally chosen by every savant to play the Phillies in the World Series, wins only 7 games in the final month of the season and is eliminated by the last place Orioles.
Yes, it is stranger than fiction but it is baseball and we love it because computers cannot hit the curve ball either.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.