During the All-Star break, the numbers-crunching analysts at Baseball Prospectus calculated the Seattle Mariners’ chances of earning a playoff berth to be 0.2 percent.
Putting my high-school math education to work, 0.2 percent translates into 500-1 odds.
That’s not much, as Ron Fairly would point out. That’s not much at all.
But why throw a wet blanket like mathematical probability on the resurgent Mariners? A 12-5 victory Sunday at Houston gave them a second consecutive series sweep, extended their winning streak to six, and awakened the lunatic-fringe voice from that part of my mind where facts aren’t processed into reason.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” it asked.
“Shaddup,” I said.
“But other teams have made amazing comebacks in the second half of the season,” the voice persisted. “And if it’s happened before, that means it’s possible. Not probable, not even vaguely realistic. But possible. Just sayin’. ”
“Knock it off and go back to sleep,” I replied, but it was too late. The seed had been planted.
Odds of 500-1 are daunting, but not comparable to the 10,000-1 odds the Boston Braves faced in 1914, when they were 26-40 on July 4, mired in eighth place, 15 games behind the New York Giants.
July 5 was an off day for the Braves but not really: They played an exhibition game against a minor-league club from Buffalo, losing 10-2. The humiliation compelled second baseman Johnny Evers, a salty veteran
who’d been acquired from the Cubs, to take his new teammates to task.
The Braves went on a second-half tear unrivaled in baseball history, putting together winning streaks of nine games, seven games, six games, five games (twice) and four games (three times). Their longest losing streak over the final three months, meanwhile, was two.
The Mariners share some similarities with those Braves. Both began the season in a seemingly endless rebuilding mode. (Boston hadn’t finished with a winning record since 1902; Seattle has finished with only three winning records since 2002.) Both found sustenance from the fountain of youth. (Boston’s roll coincided with manager George Stallings’ decision to replace unproductive veterans with kids off the farm. The Braves ended up starting one position player over the age of 30, same as the Mariners).
Boston’s pitching staff was anchored by two dominant starters — sound familiar? — although in the case of the Braves, their duo was beyond dynamic. Bill James went 26-7, with a 1.90 earned-run average. Dick Rudolph, another 26-game winner, had a 2.35 ERA.
Two starters winning a combined 52 times. It’s no wonder the Braves overtook the Giants in early September and cruised to the National League pennant, with 101/2 games to spare. Statistician Nate Silver determined the 1914 Braves could have gotten off to an 0-34 start and still qualified for the postseason.
It could be pointed out that baseball in 1914 little resembled baseball as we know it today. Pitchers wouldn’t ask to be removed from games in which they were throwing for a no-hitter bid, as the Astros’ Erik Bedard did the other night in Houston, but then again, pitchers didn’t have to deal with power bats.
The Braves won the pennant despite hitting a mere 35 home runs. Shortstop Rabbit Maranville led the team in RBI with 78. It was a “dead-ball” era, and fans wouldn’t crave fence-clearing blasts until the emergence of Babe Ruth — a rookie in 1914 who debuted as a pitcher — for the other team in Boston.
And yet it was still baseball, with rules that have been intact for a century. If you’re hooked up with a time machine taking you back to 1914, you’d find the fundamental things applying: Walking the leadoff man is never a good idea. A routine ground ball won’t be converted into an easy out if the infielder is more concerned about the throw than the scoop.
Sweat the small stuff, because in baseball it’s the small stuff that differentiates winners from losers.
The 1914 Braves were from another time, but not another planet. When their amazing comeback captured the public’s attention, they worked out an arrangement with the crosstown Red Sox to play home games in a brand-new palace spacious enough to accommodate big crowds.
It was there that the Braves achieved a World Series sweep over Connie Mack’s heavily favored Philadelphia Athletics. With a 10,000-1 chance to finish in first place, the Braves not only finished in first, but they wound up with an eternal moniker: “The Miracle Braves.”
Apparent non-contenders are better able to salvage playoff berths down the stretch than they were 99 years ago — there now are two wild-card berths in each league — but, still, the chances of a Mariners playoff can be summed up in five words: It’s gonna take a miracle.
“Do you believe in miracles?” the voice in my head asks.
No, I answer. No, no, no.
And then I notice Bill James, the Boston pitcher who won 26 games, was given a nickname to distinguish him from another big-league pitcher of the era, also known as Bill James.
The Bill James who had a major role with the Miracle Braves played minor-league ball in Seattle. He was called “Seattle.”
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