I’ve always loved the final day of the baseball season.1 Anyone can go to Opening Day, but it takes a real fan to go to Closing Day when your team is 25 games out and has been since Father’s Day.

When the end of the season rolls around, I often think of a year in the late 90s, probably 1998, when a group of us planned to go to the Royals’ final home game. It was a mid-week game – they would go on the road for their final three games – and a few of us wanted to spend one more night at The K before it closed for the winter. But there was a torrential rainstorm that night. We went to the park, waited for awhile in the parking lot, but eventually the game was called before it even started. Those few of us who sat and waited, chugging beers in steamed up cars while we listened to the radio for final word on the game’s status, felt like we were paying a tribute to the baseball gods. A thanks for those chilly nights in April and May, those steamy summer afternoons, and that sense of community that other sports can’t quite match.

Bart Giamatti got it right when he wrote:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Our hearts weren’t broken. Our team had sucked for months rather than pulling one of those traditional September swoons that Giamatti’s beloved Red Sox were famous for. And we had football to entertain us, with college basketball right around the corner. But he was right in that we all felt a sense of emptiness as the lights went off until April.

Where there was cautious optimism a year ago, this off-season just feels like it will be a bad one for the Royals. Last year, there was the hope they might snag a decent arm or two, maybe move a prospect for another piece, and while contention was probably out of the question for 2012, certainly having meaningful games after the All-Star Break was in play. And it was all supposed to be a springboard for 2013, which really would be a year of contention, finally.

But 2012 sucked. Hosmer sucked. After a decent start Moustakas sucked. Hochevar sucked. Sanchez was a complete disaster. Frenchy sucked. Chen sucked. Soria, Paulino, and Duffy made sacrifices to the UCL Gods. And, of course, Wil Meyers never got called up. The season was over by June, just like every season but one since 1994.

Alex Gordon shined. Sal Perez came back in June and did some wonderful things. Alcides Escobar was a surprise at the plate and still great in the field. Jeremy Guthrie was an inspired pick-up. But those four could not erase the stink of the rest of the roster.

Maybe the Royals were just saying the polite thing, but the news that they fully intended to bring Luke Hochevar back in 2013 nuked the off-season for me before it even began. Wasting money on a waste-of-talent like him, after seeing over-and-over that he can not figure it out, is a sure sign that there is no hope for the franchise with the current front office.

The might surprise us and news will come soon that they will not offer Hochevar arbitration, making him a free agent. But I’m not holding my breath. And I expect the news that he has been resigned to be the first step in a bad off-season, which will bleed into another lost season in 2013.

It may not break your heart, but baseball can piss you off.

The fantastic second-half performance by the Oakland A’s just rubs salt in the wounds of Royals fans. The A’s gave up on the 2012 season a year ago, trading their two best pitchers for a bunch of prospects. They signed a bunch of has-beens and never-weres to fill out their roster. In July they were well off the pace, as expected. Then they turned it around. Despite still being five games out with nine to play, they kept fighting and, amazingly, not only clinched a playoff spot but grabbed the AL West crown yesterday. So a team that was basically booting 2012, and probably ’13 and ’14, wins 94 games and a division title while the team loaded with young talent that was in position to sign a difference maker a year ago could manage only 72 wins in the weakest division in baseball.

It’s clear that Billy Beane and Dayton Moore are playing completely different games.

OK, baseball does break your heart. And then stomps on it.

My late-season bitterness caused me to miss a couple great races and some great stories. One is the smack-down between those arguing about who the AL MVP should be. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, something that had not been done since 1967. Mike Trout, after spending April in AAA, came up to have one of the best rookie seasons ever. By several advanced statistics, Trout had the better year, and was right there with Cabrera in all the traditional stats.

For the last month there’s been a pissing contest amongst baseball analysts about which player was most deserving of the MVP award. Some say winning the Triple Crown should make it a no-brainer for Cabrera. Others cling to the stats that show that Trout has a bigger effect on each game. This morning I heard two different radio hosts going on-and-on about how Cabrera “carried his team in August and September” to a division title. They didn’t mention how Trout’s Angels won one more game than the Tigers, but had the bad luck of playing in the AL West instead of the AL Central.

I don’t know that there’s a right answer, as each player had a season for the ages. And this is the kind of argument that makes sports great. But I think it is indicative of what’s wrong with the age we live in: the middle ground in discussions has been torn away. You’re either for something or against it. You can’t be nuanced in your support or aversion to something. You have to dig a trench, stick your head in the sand, and demean those who disagree with you. This is true in discussions like Miggy vs. Trout, who deserves a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, what kind of smartphone you use, and politics. Especially politics.

I used to love debating things like this. But we’ve forgotten how to debate and discuss and go straight to lobbing bombs at people with different points-of-view. We’re not happy unless we can divide everyone into clearly defined camps of winners and losers, with no space between those sides.

OK, some quick playoff picks. After I look and see how this new playoff system works.

Coin Flip Games

Texas over Baltimore
St. Louis over Atlanta

Divisional Series

Cincinnati over San Francisco
Washington over St. Louis

Detroit over Oakland
New York over Texas

League Championship Series

Cincinnati over Washington
New York over Detroit

World Series

Cincinnati over New York

  1. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about that at some point in the last nine years. Probably multiple times.