Until the last few years, I always looked at Memorial Day as an important milepost of the baseball season. We’re roughly a quarter of the way in, we have an idea of the personality of a team, and usually this was the time, about two months in, that a starting pitching staff would kick in and start delivering consistent, seven-inning performances – if that was going to happen at all.
Times have changed with the advent of the wild card and the start of performance-enhancing drug testing. While we used to be able to assume a player could play for six months, the banning of steroids and amphetamines have made only the most gifted and best-conditioned athletes able to turn in that type of performance.
Since the wild card came into play, teams that get off to terrible starts or teams that go into awful slumps can still find October magic. The 2006 Cardinals went 12-16 in September, but got healthy in October and rolled to a World Series title. The following year, the Rockies started off 18-27 and were as many as eight games back in mid-May, but found their groove and won the wild card by taking 15 of 16 in September. A team that had no chance for most of the season rumbled down the stretch to make the playoffs, and represented the National League in the World Series.
Last year was the pinnacle of comebacks. The Cardinals, of course, were 10 ½ games out of the wild card in late August, but rallied to make the playoffs and eventually win the World Series. Nearly as impressive were the Tampa Bay Rays, who were nine games behind Boston in early September, but went 17-8 down the stretch to track down the Red Sox and make the playoffs.
For most of baseball history, the personality of a season could be divined by Memorial Day weekend. No longer. There’s no way to predict the outcome of the Cardinals’ season, or the 2012 Reds. As of Thursday night, Cincinnati had taken over a first-place spot occupied by the Redbirds since day one. The Cardinal starting pitching was great in April, nearly awful in May. Cincinnati took two months to figure out who its closer is, and new starter Mat Latos has finally found himself 40 games into the season.
This used to be the time of year where you could predict who was going to be in a race and who wasn’t. In fact, you had an idea of which teams had the capability of being a World Series team and which ones didn’t. That’s not the case anymore. We don’t, and won’t know, until September. And that’s the way it should be. The more baseball can maintain suspense until the end of the season, the better. I prefer not knowing on Memorial Day weekend who’s going to take off, and who’s going to be left in the dust.