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The Race That Isn't

This time of year, we are inundated with references of the baseball season as a 'race.' But things are more in focus without it.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

It's the bottom of the 9th in a heated pennant race with two competing divisional rivals.  The visiting team had, a few innings earlier, coughed up a two-run lead, and now, with the game tied, the home team had the chance for a memorable walkoff victory.  Indeed, in the final frame, the home team scored one run, beating up a pair of relievers in the process.  The very next game, the visiting team lost the lead early, but came back in the top of the ninth to tie the game.  Yet it was all for naught, as the home team again scored the crucial winning run on a walkoff, this time in extra innings.

Two full games in the standings had been yielded by the visiting team to the home team, an extremely important two games late in the year that could be felt in the offseason--or lack thereof.  Two weeks later, the visiting team lost another brutal game to another divisional rival, and in a span of fewer than 20 games the visiting team had won 1 of 5 games against its main divisional foes.

Everything in those two paragraphs is true, as our very own Royals were the visiting team and the Tigers and Indians were the home teams.  These games occurred at the beginning of the season, the start of a fresh new campaign.

What, you say?  The beginning of the season isn't part of a pennant race?  I disagree.  The 'pennant race' has been a part of baseball as long as ERA, RBI, and any other baseball tradition that you can think of.  It usually refers to the period at the end of the season when teams are reaching the end of the season, though can be used earlier in the year with two closely-matched divisional opponents.

Unfortunately, it's just not an accurate term. The 'race' metaphor is used widely, not just in baseball, although it is heavily used in the sport.  So often you hear of the season being a 'marathon' and not a 'sprint', for instance, in addition to the pennant race that lasts for 40-60 games or so.

There is no racing in baseball.  All teams reach 162 games played, regardless of how well or poorly they play.  Furthermore, the date that they reach it is totally irrelevant, as is the amount of time taken in playing those 162 games (the Red Sox would lose every season if this was true).  Time is not any factor in the season, which is necessary in a race.

So no, the baseball season isn't a race.  Rather, it's more of a scavenger hunt:  teams scramble to collect as many wins as possible.  It doesn't matter where the wins are, it doesn't matter how they are acquired, and it doesn't matter when the wins occur.  Sure, a scavenger hunt isn't nearly as exciting as a race. But it is much more accurate than one.

What does this means for us as fans, though?  Well, it gives us some perspective that we might lose otherwise.  The Royals have played 69% of their regular season games by now.  When the Royals lose games, we don't need to freak out as if they are of extraordinary importance--they aren't.  At the same time, Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, and company don't get a free pass, ever, as the entire season is important.  They deserve to be judged on the entirety of their 2014 performance, especially if the Royals play extremely well but don't make the playoffs.  Ned Yost's inability to manage a bullpen (Game 1) and the offense's inability to score any runs (Game 2) ought to be criticized just as heavily as if the same games were played in September because they count just as much.

Of course, we know that mathematically and emotionally on some level.  But we often get so caught up in the moment that we adhere to the race metaphor regardless.  To be honest, there's nothing explicitly wrong with that, especially as we close in on September and the fall.  Indeed, the Royals have not been good enough to care about at this point in the season for many, many, many years, so race or no race it is an important and fun thing to enjoy fall baseball.

For management, though, there are no excuses.  The Royals' dismal performance in May counts, just as the winning streak that preceded it.  All of Yost's blunders, all the bullpen meltdowns, the offensive ineptitude--all of it is part of the 2014 Royals.

Though you may feel differently, I feel that many hide behind the idea of a race, including Moore.  It is not enough to be in the 'pennant race,' because the thought process itself is flawed.  This is your team, Moore.  May it stand on its own 50 feet in the playoffs as it has in the regular season.