This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It's the last week of the regular baseball season and all the teams in the league now fall into three distinct categories. First are the teams that have already clinched positions in the post-season: the Indians, the Angels, the Red Sox. Then there are the teams sweating bullets on the fence: the Cubbies, the Phillies, the free-falling Mets. Half of these guys are facing heartache. Half of them will have traveled the long road of 162 games, will have tasted the tease of soaring out of the regular season to the big stage. Half of them will fall just one proverbial run, just one out, just one pitch short and will slowly empty their lockers and go home to watch the post-season on television, the last botched plays turning over and over in their minds like recurring nightmares.
Some would say it's less cruel to be part of the third group, the bottom of the league: the Kansas City Royals, the Baltimore Orioles, without even a breath of hope for the post-season, than a team gasping for that one desperate moment that will earn them a final spot. It's akin to the Olympic fourth-place swimmer. Would you rather place fourth, a thousandth of a second out of the medals, after ten years of training and envisioning yourself on that medal platform, or would you rather finish fiftieth, nowhere near the medals, and save yourself what some have reported as a lifetime of heartbreak, forever regretting the instant you feel made that thousandth of a second difference?
Well, that sounds like the stuff of compelling Greek tragedy, but I'm sure any Major Leaguer would rather be a Philadelphia Philly right now, on the fence, than a Kansas City Royal, bags already packed. Don't you wonder how the pros of any sport, the ones who don't have a prayer of producing a winning season, keep their spirits up? There was a photo from the upper decks of a Royals/Orioles game this past Monday night that caught my eye.
The PA announcer had tallied the crowd at nearly 16,000 but that number represents the technicality of actual tickets sold for the game, including regular-season fans who don't show. In this photo, there are clearly a couple of thousand people, tops. A sea of empty seats. How does Orioles first-baseman Kevin Millar feel, trotting out of the dugout to a virtual ghost-town of a stadium, after being part of the raucous, historic Red Sox World Series championship just three years ago? Millar had said, after that long, dramatic 2004 season, "Only the strong survive." It would seem to me that it takes considerable more strength to survive this 2007 season with the Baltimore Orioles, playing miserable ball in front of the few hard-core fans at storied Camden Yards, fans who have celebrated—and remember--the glory days of Frankie Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, Jr.
I guess any Major Leaguer can appreciate his paycheck. Kevin Millar, back in 1993, was playing for the St. Paul Saints in the Independent League, bunking in with a kindly family for the season. With the Orioles, his base salary this year is $2.75 million. And, even with his team in the cellar, Millar has incentive this last week in that he will tack on another quarter million if he winds up having played in five of the Orioles' last six games. It's the contract bonuses, and impressing the team execs for next season's plans, that keeps these pros coming out to the field each day with pride and focus. And of course there are the spoiler moments. Last week the lowly Florida Marlins beat the self-destructing Mets in an extra-inning thriller and you would have thought those boys had won the World Series. The celebration was fervent. They beat one of the Majors' top teams and, even though the game results wouldn't change a thing for the Marlins' season, they were reeling with the power of shooting holes in the Mets' record down the home stretch.
It's easy for us to envy the winners of sport. And to admire the top challengers. But we don't think much about the athletes who lose on an almost-daily basis. That fat paycheck is surely not so sweet, devoid of the high that comes with winning.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo: Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images