The problem with the post-season in most sports is that one league or conference is often much stronger than the other league or conference. When this happens, the playoffs become anticlimactic, with the actual championship series or game becoming a foregone conclusion once the stronger conference crowns its champion.
A good example of this came in 2004, when the Red Sox and Yankees slugged it out in seven memorable games in the A.L.C.S. They were clearly the two most talented teams in baseball and massive audiences tuned in for each game, knowing that it was the de facto World Series. Which it was. Everyone remembers (for better or worse) Johnny Damon’s Game 7 grand slam in the Bronx, while the Sox’ 4-0 sweep of the Cardinals is mostly an afterthought. A similar example: Team U.S.A.’s “miracle on ice” upset of the Soviet Union in 1980 is mistakenly remembered by many as that year’s gold medal game. But that’s only what it felt like; the Americans actually had to beat Finland to claim their medal.
Every once in a while, though, the championship game or series that’s supposed to be a cakewalk turns into something entirely different. There’s no better example of this than the 2003 World Series. Just as in ’04, all eyes were on that year’s A.L.C.S., another epic seven-game clash between Boston and New York. The competition was fierce, and the series swung back and forth – Boston took the first game, New York the next two, and then the teams swapped wins all the way through the seventh game, when Aaron Boone’s 11th inning home run sent the Yankees to the World Series. It looked like a World Series in everything but name. Meanwhile, comparatively few people paid much attention to the Marlins and Cubs in the N.L.C.S., which attracted smaller television audiences and spawned far fewer conversations (except for that Bartman thing). To just about everyone, the World Series was settled the second the Yankees beat Boston; the Marlins were just a pesky formality the Bombers would have to deal with while planning their parade.
And then the Marlins won. In six games.
In case it isn’t obvious where this is going, just consider this year’s presidential race. Since early last year, the general assumption has been that the Democratic primary race would be like the ’04 Red Sox-Yankees series – a star-studded clash that would attract international attentions and serve as the de facto general election. And by the end of the primary season, it still seemed that way. Close to 40 million voters had taken part – a record-shattering figure – while interest in the G.O.P. race had been modest. And every indicator pointed to overwhelming built-in advantages for the Democrats after eight years of G.O.P. White House control.
But it’s starting to look like 2003, and not 2004. John McCain has kept the race close all summer, and the most recent news couldn’t be better for him. Just consider what’s in the headlines today:
* Gallup’s daily tracking poll is dead even, 45-45.
* A new poll conducted by a Democratic firm in Ohio also shows a 45-45 tie.
* FiveThirtyEight.com, which uses some of the most innovative and precise statistical tools to analyze the race, reports that: “although Barack Obama remains a slight favorite in this election, his position is more vulnerable than at any point since the primaries concluded, and he no longer appears to have a built-in strength in the electoral college that we had attributed to him before.”
* McCain also won far better reviews for his performance at Saturday’s Saddelback forum. And while this can be dismissed because of the nature of the audience (conservative) and the topics discussed, the contrast between McCain’s confidence and Obama’s hesitant and tentative performance suggests possible trouble for Obama in this fall’s debates.
It is still (relatively) early, and with his VP selection and convention speech, Obama has an opportunity in the next few weeks to improve his standing. But for now, John McCain feels a lot more like the Florida Marlins than the St. Louis Cardinals. And how about this for an omen: The ’03 Marlins were led by “Trader” Jack McKeon who became the oldest manager ever to win a World Series. He was 72 years old.