Major League Baseball has come to the end of a long, hot summer and the World Series looms large on the near horizon.
The American League teams entering the divisional playoff series sport better win/loss charts than do their counterparts in the National League. But the National League teams enter the crisp fall weather on the crest of hot streaks which have catapulted at least two of them - the Phillies and the Cubs - into what a mere month ago seemed most unlikely playoff scenarios.
In fact, just 17 games before the regular season's end, the New York Mets owned a fat seven-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East division. The Mets suffered through a thoroughly unbelievable collapse down the final stretch, and now face what will certainly be a brutal winter of soul-searching, starting with having to watch the baseball playoffs on television.
Regardless of the Rockies winning that exciting extra-inning game over the Padres on Monday night, I can't help but pull for the Chicago Cubs. How many times have the Cubbies been to the brink, only to break the hearts of the faithful behind those ivy-covered walls of historic Wrigley Field? Maybe, just maybe, this'll be the year which will bring brisk sales of Cubs paraphernalia for that special Christmas gift.
Turning to the American League, the Boston Red Sox and their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, waged a season-long tussle for the AL East title. Late winning surges by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Cleveland Indians brought those teams up to the season-long win/loss standard set by the BoSox and Bronx Bombers, as they dueled for the AL East lead. But it's my gut feeling that either Boston or the Yanks will represent the AL in the World Series.
Growing up in the South, all I ever knew as a kid playing baseball was that us Georgians were supposed to hate the Yankees. It was kind of hard to do, though, when players like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek and so many other boys of summer frolicked in "The House that Ruth Built."
Now, as an old guy who still gets an electric tingle whenever I enter a major league park and catch that first glimpse of the most beautiful playing field anywhere, I'm partial to the Yankees.
I'm one of the few, I guess, who believes Joe Torre to be the best manager in the American League. To have come through the pressure cooker year after year in the arena always under the harshest spotlight in professional sports, to have endured the relentless meddling of an overactive and demanding owner, to have maintained a gentlemanly demeanor throughout all of that while losing a brother and fighting against cancer all the while, Joe Torre owns my admiration for sure.
So if I could pick 'em, the 2007 World Series would feature the Cubs going up against the Yankees. I want to watch the Series and nightly see either Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium. I want to remember Wrigley Ville, with all its charm, as well as my visit to the Bronx, and seeing those centerfield statues in person.
Those of you wonderful folks who have read me steadfastly through the years know of my great powers of prognostication. For the benefit of newer readers, the previous paragraph almost ensures that neither the Cubs nor the Yankees will be present in the October classic.
So perhaps, to give my favorites a shot at it, I should say I'm pulling for the Cleveland Indians to meet the Arizona Diamondbacks, or the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to meet the Colorado Rockies or perhaps the Phillies will go up against the Red Sox. Or....
Hey, that's the beauty of baseball, as those Mets learned once again down the final stretch of the season. As Berra once said, "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." And that's why they play 'em between the lines on that diamond, not in the sports columns or on sports television shows with so-called expert talking heads making the authoritative judgments.
Looking at things in the cold, harsh light of statistical analysis, however, I know this: The Cubs turned in the best overall defensive season in the National League, as they surrendered merely 690 runs to their opponents. Over in the American League, the Red Sox gave up even fewer, a paltry 657 runs.
In the batter's box, those Yankees put a prodigious 968 runs across the plate. The best offensive team in the National League certainly benefited from the Mets' unexpected fall from grace; the Phillies scored 892 times. But in the final analysis, though, wizened baseball fans know the truth of the adage that "good pitching will beat good hitting" in most any series, most any time.
And so it comes down, as it always does, to which team is hottest at the right time. Whoever's got the healthiest players, the hottest bats, the best guns on the mound and the stingiest gloves in the field has the best shot at winning it all in October.
We'll know a lot more by this same time next week, of course. In the meantime, though, those of us who had hoped for a return to glory for our Atlanta Braves can lick our wounds, even as we start contemplating which of the remaining teams we'll give our loyalty to as the World Series approaches.
Me? I want a thrilling seven-game, down-to-the-last-out series between the Cubs and the Yankees. I want "the Windy City" up against "the Big Apple," Wrigley Ville versus the Bronx, royal blue clashing with navy blue and pinstripes on both opposing uniforms.
But regardless of which teams get there, it's October! The World Series is quickly approaching, so let's play ball!