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August 4, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Destination Delusion

by Dustin Parkes

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True Story Number One: The Washington Generals have beaten the Harlem Globetrotters in six exhibition games since 1953. Over that span, they’ve lost more than 13,000 times to the Globetrotters, whose ostentatious brand of showboating makes Carlos Guillen look downright humble.

True Story Number Two: For the last eighteen years, at least one of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox has represented the American League East in the MLB playoffs as either the division or Wild Card winner. In fourteen of those years, both clubs made the playoffs.

True Story Number Three: When life hands you lemons, you must make lemonade.

Historically, it’s been hard out there for fans of the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays, and this year is no exception. With fewer than sixty games remaining in the season, all three of the non-evil empire teams in the American League East find themselves in the double digits of games behind their division leader. And as each day brings them closer to the 2011 season finale, the odds of learning that the teams are all merely stuck in a sort of Buddhist purgatory are every bit as likely as those of any of them mounting a serious challenge on the playoff hopes of the Red Sox and Yankees.

So, what’s left to live for? It’s a question that fans of one of the division’s less privileged teams ask ourselves almost annually at this time of year, because it’s at this point we should realize once again that our team is playing Travis to Boston and New York’s Radiohead, Chicago Hope to their ER, Deep Impact to their Armageddon, and yes, Paul Auster to their Don DeLillo.

And yet despite our favorite team’s position in the standings as the season winds down, there are those among us who believe that the miraculous will occur and somehow, someway, will find itself back in the race.

First it starts by looking at the schedules and seeing an easy patch of games for the team you support and a difficult bunch for the team in first place. This is a gateway thought. Suddenly, you hear yourself starting sentences with: “Well, if we sweep the next two series . . .” completely oblivious to the fact that your team has swept only a single series all summer. Then you catch yourself thinking about recent call-ups being better than they truly are and using that to justify incredibly unlikely performances. “Well, if that guy had been up all year, we’d easily be playing .600 baseball right now. Why can’t we win 45 of our last 60 games?”

And so it goes for the typical fan. But as we know from the content of this website and the comments of its readers, the Baseball Prospectus community isn’t necessarily populated by typical baseball fans. We may forget this from time to time as we shelter ourselves from the more common and casual fan with twitter feeds that include all the same writers, but we’re in the minority here. There’s an element of critical thinking and an overwhelming dependence on reason from the website’s readership that keeps us from completely abandoning reality and embracing delusions.

But don’t worry; you don’t have to feel left out. I’ve got you covered with the following guide to deluding yourself into believing that your team can still make the playoffs even though it actually can’t.

Step One: Dismiss the Realists
The Bible suggests that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. George Michael suggests that we all just gotta have faith. Between those two sources, we should have most of our bases covered.

Anyone suggesting that irrational beliefs have no value would do well to ask himself or herself if the New World would have been discovered if realists had had their way. Would the United States of America ever have emerged as a nation from under British rule without looking at more than just the odds?

Underdogs achieve success every day, and for all of our analyses and predictions, baseball is full of surprises. That’s not an argument against using statistics to understand probable outcomes, as some have used it. It’s merely suggesting that fandom and reason shouldn’t necessarily always be intertwined.

After all, it’s fun to hope that your team will overcome insurmountable odds, and your willingness to delay disappointment is a key factor in maintaining a certain sense of pleasure that comes from your allegiance. No one is going to congratulate the guy who said the season was over the earliest. Enjoy the slim possibility that your team could still do it while it still exists.

Step Two: It’s All a Conspiracy
Little else ramps up an unreasonable belief quite like a common enemy. And in the 21st century, few common enemies are easier to find than those in the media.

Imagining a slight or prejudice at the hands of the media is a preferred method for explaining why your favorite team isn’t considered to be in contention despite being only ten games back. And with the amount of national attention that’s constantly given to the Red Sox and Yankees, like all the best conspiracy theories, there’s likely some truth to claims of bias.

“Why isn’t ESPN including the Tampa Bay Rays in its Wild Card race graphic?”

Isn’t it obvious? They want the Red Sox and Yankees in the playoffs because it means more viewers for their network. And they would never give the Rays their due anyway because they hate small-market franchises!

It’s the man keeping a team down, and finding an us-against-them mentality only serves to make a delusional resolve even stronger.

Step Three: Let’s Make a Deal
Despite a lack of belief in anything close to resembling an omniscient space daddy, whenever enormous obstacles get laid in my path I almost always find myself willing to make deals with the very things that I don’t believe in so that the longs odds I’m facing might be overcome.

For instance, many times while attending baseball games in which the team I supported was losing, I fervently believed that if I just consumed enough overpriced beer, everything would be all right.

More often than not, though, people like to use a reverse strategy. They tell fate that if their team wins or makes it to the playoffs, they’ll give something up. They’ll stop doing drugs, cheating on their taxes, whoring themselves for fame, shagging their child’s nanny, acting in movies where they portray a character with an inflated sense of self, or looking like a rat with a receding hair line.

“Dear God, I promise not to do anything Jude Law would do if you only make it so that the Baltimore Orioles aren’t the biggest laughing stock in baseball. And if you could do that by actually letting them win some games instead of making the Houston Astros even worse, that would be great.”

As a bonus, when your team inevitably fails, this allows you to put the blame at an anonymous creature’s feet instead of where it actually belongs.

“God, I didn’t act like Jude Law at all this summer and the Orioles still didn’t even make it to .500. Now, I’m going to go star in several terrible movies just to show you up!”

Few things soothe disappointment quite like blame.

Step Four: Rally Cry
They say that there’s power in numbers, but how do you know what kind of numbers support an unreasonable belief without something to round up the deluded? I doubt anything reinforces illogical dedication as much as a rally cry.

Getting others on board and kidding ourselves into thinking that if more people believe, it will come to pass is part of what makes us human beings and not robots programmed to cheer for a losing baseball team. Every time we hear shouts of “PLAYOFFS!” or “The Blue Jays can do it!” our own faith in unseen evidence is extended and reaffirmed.

This is the group mentality. And it’s ultimately why we choose to become fans of a specific team in the first place: to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

By investing any of our emotional capital at all in nine grown men playing a game on a field, we’re already so far removed from reason that whipping ourselves into a frenzy by cheering along with others almost seems like the next logical step.

Step Five: The Return is Worth the Risk
While we’re on the subject of emotional capital, it’s important to keep in mind that believing in the improbable is a bit like gambling. Betting on a long shot is obviously far more rewarding than putting your money on the favorite. And the same holds true with hoping for an unlikely playoff berth.

Yes, it’s more than likely that your “bet” will turn out badly and those who claimed the season was over on June 12th will attempt to overwhelm you with the classic, “I told you so” once your team is officially eliminated, but remember, this is a far weaker currency than the “I knew it from the beginning, you negative jerk.” That’s a real reward for hope.

In other words, the small amounts of ribbing you’re bound to receive when your team is finally out of it is worth the potential of being one of the believers who were right when they said it would happen all along.

Baseball is an amazing sport. For all of the statistical analysis that goes on and the resulting predictability that surfaces from the super brains, there is so much randomized randomness that a team that was five games back in the middle of May can not only hold a playoff spot in August but be running away with a division.

Sure, it’s not very reasonable, and it’s probably borderline delusional to believe in and hope for any teams other than Boston and New York at this point in the season, but cheering for a team isn’t about accuracy or getting it right.

It’s about finding those bits of joy in a game that’s designed to bring more failure than success. It’s about believing in a baseball team. It’s about seeing through that which has haunted us all summer, alienated us from friends, caused us late nights when the team was visiting the West Coast, and gave ammunition to the annoying guy in your office who found out you were a fan.

This is why we cheer for our teams right to the bitter end, even when they have more in common with the Washington Generals than the Harlem Globetrotters.

Random Fuel for Feeling Hard Done By (Or Not)
AL East records in one-run games:

Baltimore 14-9
Boston 14-10
Tampa Bay 15-14
New York 13-15
Toronto 16-20

Dustin Parkes is the editor of The Score’s baseball blog, Getting Blanked.

Related Content:  The Who,  Team

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