It's not just that the O's have overcome a baseball career's worth of futility by qualifying for the playoffs. They did so in style. Beginning last September, when they knocked out Boston on one of the best end-of-season days in recent memory, the Orioles have played an unusually exciting brand of ball. In the regular season, the team posted an amazing 29-9 record in one-run games. (This statistic also has baseball's mathematical models concluding the team is more lucky than good—but regardless, it makes for good spectacle. Until last night, the team had won 16 extra-inning games in a row.) The only guy on the team who makes more than $10 million, Nick Markakis, broke his hand on a C.C. Sabathia fastball and will miss most if not all of the postseason.
The O's streaked into the playoffs and won a one-game qualifier on the road against Texas, the two-time defending AL Champs and pre-season pennant favorites. Craig Sager said Oriole Park on Sunday night—when the O's won a 30th one-run game, against the Yankees—was the loudest stadium he had ever been in.
Yankees history since the '96 ALCS, of course, has been exactly the opposite. The team has made the playoffs 17 out of the last 18 years, and won the World Series five times. It has emerged from a title drought in the '80s and early '90s to become, again, the team everyone loves to hate. Yankees fans are used to this. The "Evil Empire" critiques that come blowing down the coast from New England do not rattle our windows. The small-market whiners do not disturb our sleep.
We like being the best. Over the years, the Yankees have dispatched countless underdog teams—the A's, the Twins, the Twins again, and again. But this year throws a wrench into my karmic calculation of baseball justice. I'm having trouble reconciling my love for the Yankees with my love for the game. For if the game is the thing, how can I hope for the end of this crazy dream in Baltimore?
And if we advance to play Oakland? The surprise of the Athletics' success—in a division arguably the toughest in the majors—has the baseball press, no stranger to hyperbole, searching for words. Oakland began the season by trading away their three best pitchers. Their entire team costs about 1.7 A-Rods. They are the first team in postseason history with five rookie starters. The A's, Phil Taylor writes in Sports Illustrated, are "the best kind of baseball party." Their victory last night—three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the heavily favored Tigers—was the stuff of baseball cinema.
The Bombers aren't helping things. The Yankees have good story lines—the return of Andy Pettitte, the resurgence of Derek Jeter, the title quest of Ichiro Suzuki—but also have some unattractive qualities. The average age of the line-up is nearly 33, which is almost five full years older than that of the next-oldest AL contender. There's the A-Rod problem. And some homegrown stars have been lost: the long-awaited catching prospect Jesus Montero to a trade, Jorge Posada to retirement, Brett Gardner and Mariano Rivera to injury, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to disappointment.