With all the hype--to put it mildly--that surrounded the Vikings-Packers game on Monday night in Minneapolis, I don't think it even qualifies as the most exciting event being played in that building this week. You can talk all you want about Brett Favre getting revenge against the Packers with the win and God-knows ESPN acted as if it was three Super Bowls--at least--being played on one night but here's what it actually was: a regular season NFL game. Period.
The game being played in The Metrodome this afternoon is one of the rarest and most dramatic things in sports: a one game playoff to decide a spot in the postseason. Baseball is the only sport in which this can happen. In football, basketball and hockey there are tiebreakers that decide who makes the playoffs and who doesn't. In college basketball there's a committee that chooses the teams and in Division 1-A college football there's, well, no playoff.
In baseball, if you are in the same division and you finish with the same record you play one game. It can also happen if there's a tie for the wild card. In the old days, before division play, if two teams tied for a pennant they played off two-out-of-three for a spot in The World Series. That produced some pretty dramatic moments including Bobby Thompson's home run in 1951. Unless my memory is bad--which it often is--the first one game playoff after divisional play began in 1969 was in Fenway Park in 1978. That game is remembered quite simply as, "The Bucky Bleeping Dent game."
Of course every playoff game in football is a one game winner advances, loser goes home affair. Hockey, basketball and baseball have game seven (or in division series game 5) in which one team moves on and the other starts waiting till next year. And of course game seven of a Stanley Cup Final, NBA Final or The World Series is almost always memorable.
But what will happen in The Metrodome today is unique. No other sport has it and, even though it has now happened in the American League Central two years in a row, it doesn't happen very often. Last year the Twins lost in Chicago to the White Sox after rallying down the stretch to catch them. This year, after somehow catching the Tigers from seven games back in early September WITHOUT past MVP Justin Morneau, they get to host the one game playoff. The football game is the reason it is being played today rather than yesterday and the winner will have to fly straight to New York and almost surely begin postseason on Wednesday evening. (Technically, the Yankees could opt to start the series on Thursday but no one expects them to. Why give the opposition an extra day to rest when your pitching is lined up?).
The reason there's nothing in sports that compares to this is simple: These two teams began spring training in mid-February, almost eight months ago. They played almost 30 exhibition games and then 162 games that mattered. And now they play one game for the right to at least raise some kind of banner next April. If you are "AL Central Division champions 2009," you raise a banner regardless of what happens in postseason. If you are, "Guys who lost a playoff for the AL Central Division 2009," that doesn't rate a banner.
What's more, unless you are the Yankees, making the playoffs has meaning in baseball. Only eight of 30 teams make it as opposed to 12 of 32 in football; 16 of 30 hockey and 16 of 30 in basketball. No team has ever made the playoffs, even with the advent of the wild card, with a .500 or sub-.500 record. It is a not infrequent occurrence in the other sports.
It's very difficult to decide who to root for in this game. On the one hand, the Tigers are carrying the hopes and fears of a city that has been under huge duress for the last year and beyond. Detroit and the state of Michigan got a boost when Michigan State made its run to the NCAA national championship game in April but the Spartans were hammered by North Carolina in the final. People there almost counted on having the Detroit Red Wings win another Stanley Cup in June but the Pittsburgh Penguins went into hallowed Joe Louis Arena and won game seven of the finals. At least the Lions finally won a game.
Now though, the Tigers having led the division all season, face a one game showdown with a kid pitcher on the mound to try to make postseason for the second time in four years. The Tigers haven't won a division title since 1987 or a World Series since 1984. To be caught and passed by the Twins would be painful for everyone.
On the other hand it is impossible not to admire the Twins. Year after year they go out with one of baseball's lower payrolls and put a solid team on the field. In Joe Mauer they have the game’s next true superstar--and probably this year's MVP--a catcher who has already won three batting titles. They have a hugely underrated manager in Ron Gardenhire who has already coaxed his team into the playoffs four times plus two one-game playoffs last year and this year.
Every year, as I said, they find a way to contend. It will be one of those games where I'll feel good for the winners, awful for the losers. Those are usually the best games.
Of course once postseason begins on Wednesday, the Yankees, with their 103 wins and $200 million payroll will be the favorites. The Twins or Tigers, with their rotations in tatters will have a tough time against them, no doubt. But the Yankees have had serious trouble with two teams the last five years: The Angels and Red Sox. The Angels always seem to beat them and have beaten them twice in postseason since New York's epic collapse in 2004 against Boston. In fact, the Yankees haven't won a postseason SERIES since then while the Red Sox, who once stood for October futility have won two World Series and came within a game of being back there last year. Either will be a tough out for the Yankees because of those recent memories.
In the National League, the Phillies have the experience of having won last year but little confidence in their bullpen--which was a rock last year. The Dodgers have Joe Torre and the Rockies have been the hottest team. The Cardinals have the best one-two punch at the top of the rotation with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. It is tough not to like their chances.
Of course postseason baseball is entirely unpredictable because the series are short and some teams that are built for 162 games are not so well built for best-of-seven. (See Yankees, New York the last six years). I will enjoy the division series the most because of the variety of games and because a lot of them start at reasonable hours on the east coast. And I will pray that it snows on the November World Series because that's what Major League Baseball deserves for such ridiculous scheduling. Anyone out there remember who won The World Baseball Classic--which is the reason the schedule was pushed back a week back in the spring?
For now though, I'm going to enjoy Twins-Tigers this afternoon. And Thank God it will be at least 24 hours (I hope) before ESPN starts hyping Packers-Vikings 2. (I refuse to give it a Roman numeral). I will concede this: When Favre returns to Green Bay, THAT will be worth watching.