I want you to close your eyes, and remember how the 2017 All-Star Game ended.
I was there. I can remember my view, my seat partners, what I ate for dinner, the way the artificial cold stuck to my skin. But I cannot remember who won or how. I think it was a sac fly. I think it was the American League. I’ll Google it, and it will all come rushing back. But that doesn’t mean I remember more than two things that happened.
Oh, wow, yeah, I remember that extra-innings home run now. Wild.
The most important part about the 2017 All-Star Game remains the only important part about the 2017 All-Star Game, which is that it won’t mean a damned thing about where the World Series is played. If you can remember the details of the All-Star Game, bless you, you’re a better fan than I am. But I’m thinking about the Dodgers winning 110 games and not getting home-field advantage because Zack Cozart couldn’t hit Brandon Kintzler, and it’s like an itch under the cast that covers my soul.
It’s two months later, and the Indians have won every game since the All-Star Game, more or less. The Dodgers have lost every game since then, more or less. As of two-and-a-half weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers would have the best record in baseball by at least a dozen games. They were 91-36. The closest team was the Houston Astros, at 78-50. The Dodgers were going to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, the Dodgers were going to host the first game of the World Series, the Dodgers were going to host Game 7 of the World Series if it got that far, the Dodgers, the Dodgers, the Dodgers.
Here’s what the Dodgers have done since then:
I’m not going to argue that these teams are preoccupied with the race for home-field advantage now. The Dodgers will still 10-day rest whoever needs to be 10-day rested. The Indians and Nationals will focus on keeping their players healthy and sharp, probably in that order. Most of the advance scouts will focus on the postseason rivals instead of the teams at the end of the regular season schedule. And, most importantly, the Dodgers still hold a four-game lead on the Nationals and a five-game lead on the Indians with three weeks to go, which is still rather substantial.
In previous seasons, the Nationals would have cared about only the Dodgers, and the Indians would have cared about only the Astros, and it would have been kind of fun. But if the Dodgers steamed into the postseason with 110 wins, taking down the Diamondbacks or Rockies or Cubs or whomever to win the pennant, they would have reached the red velvet rope of the World Series and been told, “Sorry. Robinson Cano hit that home run. Remember that home run?”
It was always obscene that the All-Star Game decided home-field advantage in the World Series, but it was even more obscene that it used to be decided by flip-flopping the leagues with the advantage every year. The Bill Mazeroski game? That was in Pittsburgh because, uh, the Philadelphia Athletics had home-field advantage in the 1905 World Series, so it was only fair. I’ll take This Time It Counts!™ over that system if I absolutely have to.
It’s also true that if home-field advantage provides an insurmountable advantage in the World Series, it sure doesn’t have to show up regularly. The road team won Game 7 in 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1971, 1975, and 1979. The home team won in 1960, 1964, 1973, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2011. The road team won in 2014 and 2016. Home-field advantage means everything until you lose Game 1, at which point it means nothing. It’s possible to make too much of this. Look, I’m doing it right now.
The Indians and Dodgers right now, though, are providing the best possible example of why home-field advantage in the World Series absolutely has to be based on which team has the best record. It was just a couple weeks ago that the Dodgers had a 20-game lead on the Indians. While Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs don’t give odds on an American League team catching a National League team for home-field advantage, I’ll stick my neck out and guess that the Indians would have had a 0.0-percent chance. Maaaybe 0.01 or 0.001. Statistically, the chances of a team that’s been unbeatable suddenly becoming incapable of winning at the same time another team is suddenly incapable of losing should be non-existent.
Except that’s what happened. The Indians are doing everything right, and they’re the talk of the sport. They have one of the longest winning streaks in baseball history, and it’s not like they’re squeaking by with a bloop hit in the ninth here and a generous called third strike there. They’re obliterating other teams.
The Dodgers aren’t just losing because of a few bad breaks, either. They’re getting obliterated. Why, it’s like they’re playing the Indians every night!
If this keeps going on and the Indians come from 20 games back to overtake the Dodgers for the best record in baseball, this is what they could have looked forward to last year:
ROB MANFRED: Congratulations! You finished with the best record in baseball!
ROB MANFRED: ...
ROB MANFRED: ...
INDIANS: can we get a letter of congratulations on official letterhead, or
ROB MANFRED: No.
Their prize this year is something more. It might not mean anything by the end, when the Cardinals win everything anyway because of something you did, but it’s still a prize. The Indians can look at their wins and losses as something more than a curiosity, as something more than a way to pile on the Twins and Royals, teams that used to have adorable ambitions of winning the AL Central as recently as the All-Star break. They can imagine their fans celebrating in the same way Marlins fans celebrated in 1997 ... except they’ll have about seven decades of pain and misery that are packed all the way down into their toes, and it’ll all have to come out somehow.
If they can do it at home, in another Game 7, they’ll have given them that chance by having the best record in baseball.
If the Dodgers give the same gift to their fans, it’ll be because they figured out the secret of baseball before they washed the slip of paper they wrote it down on, then recovered to charge through the postseason like they were planning to do in the first place.
If the Astros or Nationals do it, they’ll do something they’ve never done before in either of their franchise histories. Neither team has ever won a World Series game. If they have the kind of brilliant season that ends with them having the best record, they’ll be rewarded with something that can give them a little confidence, at least.
This time the best record in baseball counts, and somehow that’s turned into one of the best races in September. As of three weeks ago, it was just another medal to pin on the Dodgers’ historic season. And they still have the advantage. The Indians are charging, though, and the Astros and Nationals have a decent chance. This is how it should be. This is how it should have been the whole time.
Thank you to the Dodgers for not being greedy and helping us remember this. It was a noble self-sacrifice, and I can’t express this baseball nerd’s gratitude enough.