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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
It definitely does matter

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the seventh installment of Neel's journal.

Wednesday, Sept. 18
Tuesday's scoreboard: Angels over A's, 1-0 in 10 innings; Giants defeat Dodgers, 6-4.

Status: Angels hold a one-game lead in the AL West; Giants lead Dodgers by one game in NL wild-card race.

I read an article in a major online publication today arguing that the division race between the Angels and A's was a dud because both teams were likely to advance to the playoffs, regardless of who wins the division. I've heard a lot of folks making this argument these last couple of weeks and I have to tell you, reasonable as it is as a critique of the wild-card system, it just seems to have nothing do with the actual games being played. I wrote a diary entry last Saturday about how and why I think the players are plenty motivated to try to win this thing. I should have added to that list the simple fact that players on both teams and fans in both cities are having a blast.

The games are tight as a drum and very well-played. The two teams have split 18 games this season; nine of their last 13 have been decided by one run. Get that, now: nine of their last 13. It's all just been ridiculously exciting and entertaining, the kind of stuff players, fans and cities thrill to, the kind of stuff that is valuable and important in and of itself.

When the playoffs come around in a couple of weeks, they'll be the story, and they'll have that familiar live-or-die intensity, and that will be great. But these games right now -- last night's one-run, extra-innings battle, the squeaker on Monday -- they're the story of the hour. And it is a great story, about playing hard because you know no other way, about feeling adrenaline flow through your veins, and about celebrating and reveling in the moment for what it is -- incredibly intense competition for its own sake; the thirst to win, because you want so very much to feel the rush of it again -- rather than for what it isn't.

Mark Mulder struck out 12 and went nine last night; Jarrod Washburn matched him with eight dominant innings. This is good baseball, man. Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada -- these guys are getting big, crowd-goes-wild-players-storm-the-field hits. What's not to like? Get on board.

Two teams who know they are good are learning more every night about how good they can be. They're playing tense, tight games and trading blows, and in the midst of it, they're making baseball -- which, only about a month ago, looked like it was on the brink of extinction -- seem robust and worth falling in love with.

When people say these games don't matter, or when they say the Angels-A's race isn't interesting, do they really feel that way? Is it just some pose they strike to look sufficiently skeptical and sophisticated in this modern world? Are they worried about looking too na´ve or romantic?

Are they even watching the games? Because if you watch the games, or if you listen in, you're going to get wrapped up in this stuff -- if you feel for baseball at all, if young players making terrific plays, inning after inning and night after night, is appealing to you, how can you help but be charmed by this race. How can you be satisfied with the idea that these games are irrelevant? I don't get it.

Wouldn't you much rather hang on every pitch and sweat out every groundball? Wouldn't you rather feed off the energy and ambition the Angels and A's players are bringing to the yard every night? Wouldn't that be more fun? Come on, give it a go. Nobody's watching you. Give yourself up to the race, even though that little man in the back of your brain keeps shouting, "It's not really a race, you know!" Shut the little man out. Let the kid loose. Be short-sighted. Get lost in the now. If the last week is any indication, you're in for a treat.

Previous entries: Sept. 17 | Sept. 16 | Sept. 15 | Sept. 14 | Sept. 13 | Sept. 12 | Sept. 11 | Sept. 9-10

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.