It’s easy to lose perspective during a playoff race. The only goal is to have the best possible chance of winning the World Series, which usually means trying to win your division and trying to win home field advantage. If a team falls short of that, their season can be viewed as a bit of a disappointment, no matter how good they are.
Take the Pirates as a huge example. After last night’s win against the Rockies, they sit 90-60. That’s 30 games above .500 with just 12 games remaining. It’s a .600 winning percentage, which is good for second best in baseball. As I’ve noted throughout the season, the only serious problem the Pirates have is that they play in the same division as the Cardinals. And that’s not really a problem where they’re at fault.
They’re on pace for 97 wins right now. That would have been good enough to win every division in baseball last year except the AL West, where the Angels won 98 games. No team has won more than the 2013 Angels since 2011, when the Phillies won 102 games. The 0nly other team to win more than 97 games in 2011-14 was the 2012 Washington Nationals, who also won 98. In the NL Central, the division was won from 2011-2013 with 96, 97, and 97 wins.
I don’t need to point all of this out in order to tell you that being on pace for 97 wins this late in the season is a good thing. Heading into the season, if I told you they would win 97 games, you’d be looking forward to a division title.
Unfortunately, because the Cardinals have been ridiculously good, the Pirates aren’t looking forward to a division title. Every time they’ve gotten close this year (and usually those times result in a 99-100 win pace), they still end up two games behind or more in the standings. This would be like the 2012 Nationals being in the same division as the 2011 Phillies. Being in that hypothetical division wouldn’t make the 98-win 2012 Nationals a worse team. It would just make their situation unlucky.
It’s important to keep perspective in these types of situations. Too often, the only focus in baseball is on that one prize at the end: the World Series. Anything less can be deemed a failure. And that’s true in the sense that the ultimate goal is to win it all. But what use is that if you’re not going to enjoy the ride along the way?
Tonight the Pirates have a chance to clinch the playoffs. They would need Washington and San Francisco to lose, and would need to beat Colorado for this to happen tonight. So it’s not a guarantee, but it could happen. The idea of just clinching the playoffs at this point is pretty ho-hum. We’ve known that they’d be in the playoffs for a long time. And after two straight years of making the post-season, this has kind of become the expectation.
It wasn’t long ago that this was an unrealistic dream. The hope for a long time was that the Pirates could somehow win game number 82 on the last day of the season. This year most fans didn’t notice when they won game number 82, and most didn’t care, other than to think back for a moment about how bad it used to be.
And the idea of the Pirates one day reaching the playoffs? It was usually surrounded by “if everything goes right for the team, and if nothing goes right for any other NL Central team, then they might have a shot.” For the most part, everything is going right for the Pirates this year. Sure, they’ve had big injuries, like losing Jung-ho Kang, or mid-season injuries to guys like A.J. Burnett, Josh Harrison, or Jordy Mercer. They’ve also had periodic struggles from certain players. But these are things that happen to every team. It’s hard to point to a lot of things that went wrong with a team on pace for 97 wins. As for the other teams? You could argue that a lot is going right for the Cardinals and Cubs as well. And yet the Pirates are still sitting with the second best record in baseball.
Not that long ago, a winning season was a distant goal, and a playoff shot was unrealistic. Now, a winning season is just a step in the process of making the playoffs, which is seen as expected. This is how sports work. The goalposts keep moving. The goal is to have a winning season, and when that happens, a winning season isn’t good enough anymore. Then the playoffs aren’t good enough. Eventually the division won’t be good enough. And even if your team wins it all, that’s only going to buy a short amount of time before you start focusing on the next season.
As you know if you’ve read my work, I don’t consider myself much of a “fan” anymore. A lot of that is due to this job (it’s hard to be a “fan” when your job is to cover a sport or a team), but a lot of that is also due to the grind of being a fan and always looking toward that next big goal, while discounting any other goal that has been achieved. For me, it got to the point where I felt that a Super Bowl or a Stanley Cup or a World Series just wasn’t worth all the hassle. You pull for a team everyday for months, focusing on that goal, and when it finally comes you celebrate for a few weeks and then start thinking about next season. It almost feels like the reward period isn’t even worth the time leading up to that.
There is a way around this: Enjoy the journey. If watching sports becomes about reaching that next milestone, then you’re going to miss a lot of the enjoyable moments along the way. And when that milestone is reached, you’ll probably be in the habit of looking for the next accomplishment.
The Pirates could reach one of their milestones tonight by clinching the playoffs. It might not happen tonight, but it will happen this week. It’s not a huge accomplishment (unless you ask pre-2013 Pirates fans), but it’s one of those steps along the way that should be celebrated. Otherwise, focusing on the next big reward can cause you to miss a great season, and makes the journey to that reward much less enjoyable.