The just-completed National League Division Series between San Francisco and Atlanta represented a clash of ill postseason reputations: Barry Bonds' vs. Bobby Cox's.
Bonds has been almost perfectly imperfect in October. Prior to this year, he'd played in five postseason series, batted just .196 with one home run in 97 at-bats. And worst of all, his teams had lost each of those five postseason series.
Bobby Cox ... and we have to think of these dynastic Braves as Cox's teams, because only Tom Glavine and John Smoltz remain from 1991 ... Bobby Cox didn't enter the 2002 postseason with the stigma attached to Bonds, but he's certainly had his autumn problems. Since 1991, 10 postseason berths but only one World Series title, despite boasting the best pitching staff in the game for most of those years.
Bobby Cox didn't help himself in 2002. Ever since 1985, when he managed the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, Cox has lost postseason series because he found himself a hitter or two short at the end of close games. You have to admire people who maintain great strength in their conviction, even after it's become apparent that their conviction flies in the face of all available evidence. And Cox's continuing belief in the importance of carrying three catchers on the postseason roster is touching. Reminds me of those people who keep the Flat Earth Society alive.
However, I suspect that it's not quite so touching if you're a Braves fan. If you're a Braves fan, it probably drives you crazy, watching Steve Torrealba rot on the bench while 40-something Julio Franco represented the tying run on first base. If you go back and look at the postseason games the Braves have lost since 1991, you'll find that they did not lose because their bullpen blew a bunch of leads, and they did not lose because those world-famous starters blew up. Rather, they've lost because they didn't score enough runs, and they didn't score enough runs because 1) John Schuerholz didn't provide Cox with a good enough everyday lineup, and 2) Cox, when given the chance to construct his postseason roster, didn't take advantage and stack his bench with competent hitters.
Bobby Cox is a great manager, and richly deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. But I also believe that, in addition to receiving less than their fair share of breaks in October, the Braves have received less than their fair share of good managing in October. And when you evaluate Bobby Cox, you do have to include the performance of his teams in the postseason. If the Braves had won five or six World Series, Cox would be getting plenty of credit. So he deserves at least some of the blame for them winning only one.
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Apparently, now the story is that Barry Bonds has exorcised his postseason demons.
Hold on a minute there, pardner. Five games and three solo homers does not an exorcism make. Bonds now sports a .211 postseason batting average, with an OBP and slugging percentage still well short of .400. His teams are now 1-5 in postseason series, which is better than 0-for-5 but not by much. I believe that if the Giants lose the NLCS to the Cardinals and Bonds does not play well, that scarlet letter (C) is going to be pinned on his jersey once again.
While the C might not be fair, I do believe it's fair to consider Bonds' postseason performance when evaluating him. Don't we admire Bob Gibson's 7-2 mark in the World Series? Didn't Catfish Hunter's 7-2 postseason record with the A's help get him elected to the Hall of Fame? Isn't Reggie Jackson's continuing fame due, in large part, to the performances that got him nicknamed "Mr. October"?
And if you think all of those things are fair, then you have to think it's fair to recall Barry Bonds' postseason struggles. These last five games have been a big step in the rehabilitation of his reputation, but it's only a first step. Bonds is obviously the best player since Ted Williams without a World Series to his credit, and only a World Series can take that scarlet C away.
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It's also worth pointing out that while the Giants were the underdogs against the Braves, there's no obvious reason why this should have been the case. The Giants played in a tougher division this season and they finished with a (just slightly) better run differential than the Braves. And before you say that the Braves had the edge because of their superior pitching, haven't the Braves spent more than a decade demonstrating that having better pitching doesn't guarantee a thing in October?
And speaking of things that don't guarantee anything, aren't the teams with postseason experience supposed to win these things? Yet in all four Division Series, the team with significantly less postseason experience wound up winning. And, coincidentally or not, in two of them, the team with the better regular-season run differential won. I mentioned the Giants and Braves already, but the Angels actually had a better differential than the Yankees (and of course the Angels played in a tougher division), and the Cardinals finished with essentially the same differential as the Diamondbacks (the Cardinals did play in a significantly weaker division).
Most would argue that all four Division Series were upsets, but I would argue that only the Twins and Athletics went seriously against form. And based on form, on October 19 the Angels will host the Giants in Game 1 of the 2003 World Series.