The first lesson to realize and accept is to forget all previously learned practice of rooting against the Atlanta Braves. I know, I know, hoping for a Chipper Jones single against Randy Johnson of the D'backs or Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins is akin to blasphemy. But in Commissioner Bud Selig's Brave (sorry) New World, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." It is quite possible that Sheffield and Company may never look so good as they do right now, especially when they go toe to toe with the likes of Florida, Arizona, Los Angeles, St. Louis or Montreal.
After having successfully befriended ourselves about rooting for the Atlanta Braves, we proceed to lesson number two, a necessary tool to reaffirm lesson number one. You see, in order to graduate from Playoffs 101, a vital requirement is to memorize this writer's rule of thumb which says, "if it can't be done in a week, don't worry about it." Let me expound…until the Phillies get within seven games of the Braves, it is useless to worry about catching them. It is much more constructive to concern ourselves with the teams trying to catch us for that last Wild Card birth, and hope they lose. You may ask yourself how I identified myself to the one-week rule of thumb. Well, that's a great question with a very painful answer.
As a youngster, I went to bed on Sunday night, September 20, 1964 with my beloved Phillies 6 1/2 games ahead of the distant Cincinnati Reds. Precisely one week later, on Sunday night, September 27, as I lay my head on my pillow, it was the Reds who were now in first place, with my Phillies one game behind. It had taken a week - seven days - to completely turn around a pennant race. That is when I learned to use the 7-day rule of thumb.
This rule has served me well - and would be a wise roadmap to adhere to now. It not only will make following the wild card chase easier to decipher, but less painful on a daily basis. Once this rule is understood, going forward to the next step is less cumbersome. The next step demands an acknowledgement that when the last regular season game is played in 2003, the Braves are still going to be standing. I know, the thought just got stuck in my windpipe, too.
Since "walking my talk" remains an integral part of my life compass, and barring an unforeseen injury or two, this writer thinks it safe to assume that the Braves, Giants and Astros will be three of the four contenders for the NL Championship come playoff time. It is that fourth spot that is up for grabs.... and here is where this lesson becomes relevant. Ultimately, it matters not who the opponents will be, it only matters that the Phillies have an opponent to play.
So, if only for two months, cast away contempt for everything Brave, and get occupied with animals like Fish, Birds, Snakes, Cubs and Blue Dodgers. In the end, it will be these teams that try to take away the prize, not the Braves.
As I study my schedule, read tealeaves, consult the baseball charts or plainly take a wild guess... it may well be the Florida Marlins that will present he Phillies greatest challenge. They are young, talented, confident, and have shown a propensity for playing the Phillies with absolutely no fear. No further proof is needed than a few weekends ago, when the Fish swam into Veterans Stadium, barely trembled at the then high flying Phillies, and swept ‘em three straight.
In fact, it behooves the Phightens to offer a bit of payback this weekend, when the road show goes south to Florida for a key three-game series with the upstart Marlins. Regardless of how this weekend goes, this writer thinks this team will live up to its name and be difficult to hook.
Next on the difficulty chart will probably be the Dodgers, they of the sterling pitching staff and weak hitting. A pitching staff of Kevin Brown, Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii and Eric Gagne will make long losing streaks almost extinct in Los Angeles, and allow an offense that is hitting challenged, an ample room for mistakes.
The D'backs, Cards and Cubs all have weaknesses that may keep them from challenging the Phillies for that fourth spot in the playoffs, but they are all dangerous enough to bear watching. The D'backs appear old again, and are likely to fade with the desert heat. Reports that Randy Johnson may not be totally healthy, also add to the uncertainty of a D'back playoff run.
No team has a more potent offense than the Redbirds of St. Louis, but if the Cards are going to request that the Giants "meet me in St. Louie, Louie!" they will have to overcome a pitching staff that appears two starters short. Woody Williams is solid and rookie Dan Haren appears capable of helping out, but the untimely injury to Matt Morris may keep these Birds from flying high. Nevertheless, a lineup with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and JD Drew is still a lineup to be respected, if not downright feared.
The Cubs and Expos offer possible diversions but probably can't be counted on to make more than a token challenge in the race to the finish line. The Expos will be done in by a lack of a home base, and the Cubs will be done in by Manager Dusty Baker's proclivity for accumulating incredibly high pitch counts on his starting pitchers. A veteran staff might be able to withstand the pace, but youngsters, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano, probably won't. Look for the Cubs to fade with the winds...befitting a team playing in the Windy City.
So, dear student scholars, you just received a crash course in Playoffs 101. However, with knowledge comes responsibility…and oh yes, you guessed it right. Research is expected and that is to study the standings and watch out for any divergences in play. Observe the trends and prepare for a few last minute swapping of players, while bearing in mind the wise saying of Satchel Page...."don't look back or someone might just catch you."
And, as difficult as it may be to digest, rooting for the Braves when they compete on a nightly basis with the likes of the Marlins, D'backs, Cards and Dodgers may not be the most appetizing thing you have ever eaten, but it may end up being the healthiest.
Come to think of it, Greg Maddux isn't such a bad guy afterall. Imagine, rooting for Greg Maddux and against Curt Schilling. Who would have ever guessed?
Columnist's Note: Suggestions, questions and comments welcome. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD