There’s a lot of excitement here in the East Bay for today’s Giants-A’s match-up, or more specifically for the pitching match-up between retiring former “Big Three” members Tim Hudson for S.F. and Barry Zito for the Athletics. This valediction almost didn’t happen, until the Oakland brass relented and brought Zito back from the minors for one last moment of potential glory.
It’s possible to look at today’s game as simply a gimmick to sell tickets, or just a one-off lark to do something weird or interesting with the end of the season, now that both teams are well and truly out of the hunt (the Giants were eliminated from the Wild Card yesterday, and they won’t be the Dodgers in the division). But people wouldn’t care about this game as much as they do if there wasn’t something far from gimmicky behind it. And that deeper something has everything to do with the problem with unalignment.
We discussed unalignment–the idea of getting rid of the divisions and going back to top to bottom leagues in Major League Baseball–a couple of weeks ago. I argued several points against the idea, but today’s game makes a far more eloquent argument against the concept than anything I wrote in that previous post.
A’s fans are eating up this Zito/Hudson match-up because of the success the team had with those two in the rotation back in the early years of the last decade. That success included three division titles and four playoff appearances in a row from 2000 through 2003. (Oakland added a fifth postseason appearance with just Zito–after Hudson was traded away–in 2006.) Those were good times to be an A’s fan, and Zito and Hudson were a big part of that.
Famously, those playoff years included zero advances in the postseason. Hudson was never part of a team that won a playoff series with the A’s. Only Zito experienced any postseason success in Oakland, when the A’s made it into the ALCS in 2006 (only to be swept by the Tigers).
Consider how fans here in the East Bay would feel about those teams, those years, if there had been unalignment prior to the 2000 season. The A’s finished with the second best record in the AL in each of those four seasons, so they certainly would have made the playoffs, as they did in reality. But there would have been no division championships; no flags to fly in the ensuing days. Presumably, there’d just be those playoff losses. Fans would still look back fondly at those days, those teams, and in particular these two players, but without the tangible accomplishment of those division titles, the good feelings would be substantially muted.
And make no mistake: that sense of a team’s accomplishment is extremely important to the fan base. If you dispute that, go over to Kansas City and see what those fans think about clinching their first division title in 30 years. Even a year after making it to the seventh game of the World Series, K.C. fans went nuts over their team winning the AL Central crown.
Divisions matter. They give teams–and their fans–that don’t win the pennant or World Series something to point to as a matter of pride and achievement. That generates interest in the team specifically and the game in general. Divisions serve a powerful role in keeping fans interested, and that interest is crucial to the future of the game.
Zito and Hudson will take their bows today and receive the accolades for their personal achievements, but they will also be out there representing those A’s teams from back in the day, and reminding everyone of how good it felt when A’s fans could say, “We’re the champions of the West.”