Every baseball season yields its own pearls, no two exactly alike. So it is that this year, though not as spectacular as the last, bears a luminosity not seen even in 1998, the mother of pearls. Behold the old-fashioned playoff race, in which 90 wins isn't good enough.
To find the kind of epic struggle being waged by the Braves, Mets, Astros and Reds in the National League—and to a lesser extent the Red Sox and A's in the American—you'd have to go back to the pre-wild card era, when baseball didn't give out consolation prizes. The Giants closed the '93 season on a 14-3 tear, won 103 games and went home. Atlanta had won 104, prompting Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton to say, "It'll never be as good as this again."
But this September has been about as good as it gets. The level of play has been so high that the worst record since Aug. 1 among the four National League and two American League clubs hanging on by their fingernails belonged to Houston—and through Sunday the Astros were playing .600 ball over that span.
No team has won 90 games without making the playoffs since the wild-card era began in '95. This year three teams with 90 wins might go home early. In the National League East, Atlanta couldn't shake New York even with a 21-7 August. The Mets have been tougher than cowhide—from June 6 through Sunday they were 24-6 after losses. The Reds, the only contenders who haven't lost more than three in a row all year, have clung to the Central-leading Astros like bad body odor despite a 12-game Houston winning streak this month.
The A's? They endured four four-game losing streaks before the All-Star break, but a 39-22 run through Sunday has kept them in the wild-card fight with the Red Sox, who were on a 20-5 finishing kick at week's end.
Yes, the taste of bittersweet is back in baseball—a flavor San Francisco knows best. From '64 to '67 the Giants tied a record with four straight 90-win years in which they didn't make the postseason. Only the '42 Dodgers won more games without advancing than the '93 Giants, whose manager, Dusty Baker, eulogized that season with this gem: "You ever lose a girlfriend? Every song reminds you of her."
Another memorable breakup awaits.