Phillips: Wild Card playoffs and memories of Rivera's career

Steve Phillips
9/20/2013 10:48:30 AM
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TSN baseball analyst Steve Phillips looks at the current Wild Card playoff system, a September call-up to keep an eye on, the illustrious career of New York Yankees closer Marian Rivera and the celebration of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

1. Are you a fan of the one-game wild card playoff system or should it be expanded/eliminated?

My Mets teams made the playoffs in 1999 and 2000. We made it both years as a Wild Card winner. We were fortunate that the rules at the time only called for one Wild Card team and that team was unable to play the division winner from our own division in the first round. That team happened to be the Atlanta Braves, who we could never seem to beat. Fortunately, the Braves lost in 2000 in the NLCS so we were able to advance to the World Series.  Avoiding the Braves was a huge benefit to us.

I didn't mind being a Wild Card team at all back then. In fact, there was some value in not running away with a division. We had to play playoff baseball to get to October. That better prepared us for the playoffs once we were there. Let's put it this way, there may not have been a benefit to being the Wild Card team but there definitely wasn't a penalty either.

The new format of two Wild Card teams having to play a one-game playoff is perfect. I like that more teams are in pennant races deeper into the season. I also like that the Wild Card playoff winners are placed at a disadvantage as they head into the League Championship Series. Typically, the clubs pitch their aces in the Wild Card play-in game which weakens their rotation as they advance.

The playoffs can often be a crapshoot. A hot player or hot team can beat a better club. The fewer games in a series, the more an individual can control it. If I could propose any change to the current system, it would be to make the LCS a seven-game series just like the World Series.

I want the team with the best roster to have the best chance to win a World Series.

2. Which late season call-up are you most excited to see over a whole season next year? Who is the name baseball fans will want to remember?

Remember the name Billy Hamilton? This kid can fly. The Cincinnati Reds called him up to the big leagues a few weeks ago and he is showing his speed is a real weapon. You may have heard about him last year as he set a professional record with 155 steals in the minors. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first player since 1920 to have four steals in his first major league start. He has successfully swiped all nine of his stolen base attempts in the big leagues.

Some players can steal bases on pure speed. They may not be able to read pitchers' moves very well but they can just outrun the baseball. Some players can steal bases on instincts. They have a sense for the right time and situation in which to successfully steal a base. They have a feel for the right pitch and situation to surprise the opposition. The best base stealers have a combination of the two.

Hamilton has both speed and instincts. He is a flyer. He can still steal a base if he doesn't get a great jump. He also has the innate ability to read a pitcher's delivery and intent. He has the ability to steal a base when everyone in the ballpark knows he is going. He has the guts of a burglar. In order to be a true base stealer, you can't be afraid of getting picked off or thrown out.

The biggest challenge for Hamilton is how much he will hit in the majors. He is a .280 career minor league hitter with a .350 on-base percentage but he only hit .256 in Triple-A this year. He still stole 75 bases. One thing he will learn is that he can't steal first base. He will have to find ways to get on base in order to use his speed, otherwise he will just be a pinch runner. The good news is that he reached base five times in his first major league start on Wednesday when he stole the four bases.

3. With Mariano Rivera's farewell tour coming through Toronto and coming to an end soon, how will you best remember him, both on and off the field? Where does he rank among the greatest pitchers of all time, starters included?

Enter Sandman!

Mariano Rivera will be a Hall of Famer five years from now. He will go down in history as the best closer to ever play the game. My reluctance to call him one of the best pitchers ever has far less to do with him and his ability than it does his role as a closer.

Rivera holds career records for most games finished (950) and most saves (652). He is 82-60 with a 2.22 ERA in his career. Remarkable numbers. What is even more impressive is that he was even better in the post-season. His post-season record is 8-1 with 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA in 96 games. When the games meant the most and the pressure was at its highest, Rivera performed his best. That is a telling fact about him as a man and a player.

Yankees fans have been spoiled. They have no idea how good they have had it. Not only has he saved more games than anyone else but the way he did it was even more impressive. Rivera never seemed to pitch himself into trouble. He seemingly always retires the opposition 1-2-3. Yankees fans are in for a rude awakening. It just doesn't work that way. The rest of us know that closers often times put runners on base, give up runs and still earn saves. Welcome to our world, Yankee fans.

For all the on-field accolades that Rivera has earned and deserved, he is even better off the field. He is a gentleman. He is charitable and giving. He is a good teammate. He is a general manager's dream come true. He is great on the field and an even better representative of an organization off the field. Rivera is a baseball Hall of Famer and a human being Hall of Famer.

Believe it or not, my lasting memory is of Rivera standing on the mound in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series as the Yankees won the Series against my Mets team. It was a tough loss in a tough series. We lost four games by a total of five runs. But as the game ended and we lost the Subway Series, I had no ill will toward Rivera. I felt respect for him. That speaks volumes for the man that he is. The Yankees are the Mets rivals. They battle over players, media coverage, back pages and fans. Yet, when we lost to them, I felt nothing but respect for the man who got the final out.

Rivera is winner on and off the field. He is the consummate professional. The game will be a little worse next year without him in it.


Fair or Foul

The LA Dodgers clinched the NL West on Thursday as they defeated the Diamondbacks 7-6 in Arizona. It is their first division title since 2009. They are a remarkable story. What a turnaround. The Dodgers were sitting in last place at 30-42 on June 21, but they have gone a major league-best 58-23 since. Their manager, Don Mattingly was on the verge of getting fired. They looked like a $200M bust of a team. Yet things turned around. They got healthy. Their good players started playing well. Rookie Yasiel Puig energized and challenged his teammates with his presence and performance. They made a change at closer and made a number of other key acquisitions.

They deserve to celebrate this accomplishment. It is not easy to win your division. The season is a long grind and teams go through so much to get to the playoffs. Spring training starts in mid-February. The season is 162 games long. In fact, they play 162 game in 181 days. That takes a physical and emotional toll. So when teams make the playoffs, there is good reason to celebrate.

Boy, did the Dodgers celebrate! They did the typical dog pile on each other and poured and squirted champagne. (By the way, ice cold champagne poured on your head can give you a brain freeze like nothing you have ever experienced. Plus it can burn your eyes. I sure miss that feeling!) Of course, there was loud music blaring with dancing and singing as well. I will never forget screaming the lyrics to "Who let the dogs out?" in our clubhouse celebration in New York. I am so embarrassed.

The Dodgers took the celebration to a new level, though as they decided to take a dip in the Diamondbacks pool in right centrefield. Adding the cannonball to the playoff celebration the Dodgers acted like they had won a World Series or something more.

I didn't know this until my team went to the World Series in 2000 but as teams progress through the playoffs, the quality of the champagne in the celebration improves. It makes sense. Each round of the playoffs gets you closer to the ultimate goal and is something more significant to celebrate.

Celebrations should follow that pattern as well. Teams should celebrate making the playoffs but save room to ramp up the celebration if they win the League Championship Series. Then if they go to the World Series, celebrate a bit more and then if you win a World Series, feel free to jump off the high board and do a triple twist into the pool.

So yes, the Dodgers did over-celebrate to a degree. And yes, the Diamondbacks were offended. They thought it rude of the Dodgers to use their pool without asking. There is one thing worse than over-celebrating and that is complaining about a team's over-celebrating in your stadium. If you don't want a team to celebrate in your ballpark, then beat them.

The Dodgers are going to be a tough team in the playoffs. They have solid starting pitching, a good bullpen and an explosive offence. I can't wait to see the celebration if they win in the League Championship Series.

I am going to go turn on the Baha Men, put on some goggles, listen to my favorite song, "Who let the dogs out?"  and pour champagne on my head. I hope my landlord doesn't get mad.

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