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In defense of mediocrity

Or: an elegy for the era of 90 wins.

Christian Petersen

On Thursday night, Travis Ishikawa hit a walk off homer to send the Giants to the World Series off last year's postseason darling, Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha. Before the Giants had time to put on their brand new World Series hats and t-shirts, Fox Sports analyst Tom Verducci was already recounting Ishikawa's unbelievable story on air over replays of his trip around the bases: toiling in the minors since 2011, DFA'd by the Pirates in April, tearfully debating retirement over the phone with a friend. And it was really something, matching the audio of those defeated words to images of twenty-five delirious faces caught up in a moment of rapture, surrounding home plate to greet the man who had just, for at least one night, relegated all those years of mediocrity to the wastebin.

Since then, Ishikawa's story has ballooned into one of the most celebrated moments of the entire 2014 MLB season. The video was matched with audio from Bobby Thompson's famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World," sure to be a fixture on MLB Network bumpers for the next five years. The man who caught the ball returned it to the Giants' hero, receiving a signed bat and World Series tickets in the process. Some are already calling for Ishikawa's enshrinement amongst the franchise's best, and rosters have still to be set for the World Series. The baseball world has Ishikawa fever, and rightfully so, for this is why so many of us fell in love with baseball in the first place: the chance for the last to be first, the possibility of the impossible emerging out of years of drudgery. Miracles are not unique to baseball, but you have to admit that there is something that feels uniquely magical about baseball miracles.

And yet, it seems there some who are now upset that the 2014 World Series will be played by two miracle Wild Card teams that didn't hit the 90-win mark during the regular season, as if it is a problem for Major League Baseball. This alarm-bell mediocrity narrative has been slowly gaining steam since the introduction of the second Wild Card two seasons ago, and nobody seems to agree on why or how this is happening outside the strange idea that Ishikawa's miracle dinger is a thing to be celebrated while a Wild Card World Series is bad for baseball. It's quite strange, and as we have it, there seem to be two ways of approaching the whole conundrum:

One: Increased parity drives fan interest deeper into the season, sustaining regional revenue and democratizing the game by letting teams like the Mariners play meaningful baseball until the last day of the season, hoping they can sneak into the playoffs where anything can happen.

and Two: Increased parity fools bad teams into thinking they are competitive, and runs the risk of sending boring teams like the Giants into the World Series, where the rest of the country will have no interest in watching them, somehow diluting the sepia-tinted purity of the idea of the World Series.

I realize that Van Riper's critique in the article linked above is centered around television ratings and revenue, and you can absolutely make the argument that the trade deadline has gotten a lot more boring as a result. But there is a strain of weird nostalgia for a time that never really existed running through his whole article that feels similar to the disconnect between Verducci's words and Ishikawa's dinger, if you read it with that in mind:

The three remaining contenders highlight a fundamental baseball problem: a watered-down, 10-team playoff field that’s become little more than a crapshoot among decent teams...None of the three remaining contenders won more than 90 games this season. The Royals and Giants didn’t even win their divisions. Face it, each club’s ability to outlast the rest of the playoff field so far has been as much about luck as anything else.

Okay, so when has baseball been about anything other than luck? Perhaps when the Yankees won their division (and thus a trip to the World Series, there was no Championship Series) 22 times over a 29-year span between 1936 and 1964, because they were a "good" team? Or was that because there were only eight-to-ten-teams in the entire league during that timespan? Was the Yankees one-in-ten chance to make the playoffs back then more than the "crapshoot" for any playoff team's one-in-ten chance for glory now? Or were the Yankees "good" because they were playing before the Free Agent era, in a more conservative game, with different economics, essentially locking up a spot that other teams could only dream of attaining sometime after an entire generation of players had retired? Change is scary.

Alright, alright, I'm not here to argue semantics. Van Riper's central problem with increased parity seems to be that rewarding mediocrity somehow dilutes the appeal and purity of a sport trying to appeal to a national audience. It's a point further elaborated (with different emphasis) by Geoff Baker and Dave Cameron, noting that despite how anyone feels about it, baseball has shifted to rewarding mediocrity precisely as a model of competitive advantage in an adapting market. Here's Cameron:

I still don’t think the Royals are a great team, and I’m not sure I was wrong about their moves simply pushing them into mediocrity. But I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ve underestimated the positive returns on mediocrity in Major League Baseball. That isn’t a goal to be derided anymore. The sport rewards it, especially if a few things break your way.

So why does any of this matter? Is anyone actually upset about any of this? To be fair, I haven't heard anyone complain that the Royals won 89 games and are now in the World Series, except maybe a few A's, Angels, and Orioles fans. Van Riper even calls Yost's crew "fun to watch," although he quickly points out they are from a small market, and therefore still problematic to the Good of the Game.

But why does mediocrity need to be a bad thing? How do we know it's turning viewers off? Its not: in fact, game one of the ALCS between the Royals and the Orioles drew 5.9 million viewers--up almost a million over last season. Mediocrity is winning: Go listen to that roar after Ishikawa's dinger, and then listen to the sold-out Kaufmann Stadium crowd celebrating the Royals clinching a trip to the World Series. But just remember: they are both bad at what they do.

Regardless, the point isn't television ratings or age demographics or anything of the sort. The point is who gives a shit if the Royals didn't win their division? Why does it matter if the Giants were the Wild Card team in the NL? Who cares if any of the teams in the World Series weren't the best during the regular season? The game has changed to reward multiple ways of reaching the postseason, just as its changed hundreds of times before. Why do we even want the Yankees to win 22 pennants over a 29 year span? Why do we care if the "wrong" teams are making it to the top? If it's a problem that mediocre teams are beating good teams in these best-of-seven series, then...maybe the good teams shouldn't let themselves be beaten by mediocrity. Don't lose. The last can be first, the impossible possible, etc.

So yes, mediocrity is being rewarded in Major League Baseball's current economy. I fail to see how that could be anything but a good thing--it gave Ishikawa's dinger storybook context, it is giving the Royals miracle season a wonderful enshrinement in the history books, and hell, it is making me feel like the Mariners may actually do something with all this next year.

It ultimately comes down to this: If the Royals win the World Series, they will still be a mediocre team that doesn't hit for power that bunts too often. But they will have a World Series trophy, and that's the entire point of why any of these teams are playing baseball games in the first place. You won't be able to take their trophy away. You can't take Ishikawa's dinger away, because that's how this all works.

So long live mediocrity.

Besides, we all know its the only way the M's are seeing any of this happen next year.