The changes that started to happen in Major League Baseball when the red light came on atop that first television camera have only expanded and accelerated in the ensuing half century, but one of the most profound is the all-or-nothing philosophy surrounding the postseason.
The importance of the World Series was always enormous – and thus the failure to get there a significant disappointment – but it wasn’t until the Fall Classic moved into prime time in the early 1970s that the true distortion really took flight. Now, failure to get there is a cross to bear for individuals and teams, despite the fact that mere numbers make it so much tougher in 2009 than it was in 1959.
Just looking at it as a question of raw numbers, without accounting for things like big market vs. small market, etc., a team today has about a 7 percent chance of getting into the World Series; that bald number would have been about 13 percent in 1959. So in the same span that we have grossly overemphasized the importance of the prize itself, we have made it twice as difficult to achieve it.
I personally blame Brooks Robinson for all of this. His remarkable 1970 World Series upped the ante for ballplayers in terms of what the ultimate stage could mean to a career. I had never seen one player so completely dominate a Series in the fashion he did that glorious autumn; another Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente, would have the same kind of extraordinary impact just one year later, this time as the game’s marquee event made its first-ever sorties into television prime time.
Thus we have these annual rituals where we have to tolerate incessantly regurgitated blather about Cubs Curses, A-Rod’s October misses and related meanderings about this or that player who – gasp! – has never been to the postseason.
One wonders if Ernie Banks would have been forgiven his career-long absence of October pay stubs enough to have still made his way to Cooperstown.