Cubs, Rays are best stories in baseball
Two teams lead divisions despite histories of futility
Along with the five remaining division races and the two Wild Card races, there is one other contest yet to be settled: The race for the absolute best story in Baseball, 2008, team division.
That race is between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays. No disrespect is meant here to the other 28 franchises. They all have worthwhile stories, although the story of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, for instance, will be somewhat more satisfying than that of the Seattle Mariners.
The Cubs and the Rays are baseball's best stories because they provide the happy element of potential historical breakthroughs. The Cubs, of course, are attempting to break the 100-year World Series Championship drought. All other franchise bouts of futility pale in comparison, but the 2008 Cubs do not remind you of futility. They are the best team the National League has to offer, by some significant distance, according to the most reliable source, the standings.
There have not been many years in which you could say this, but here goes: The Cubs should be in the World Series. That in itself would be a 63-year first for the North Side operation. But the thing is, with these current Cubs, the usual distant dreams and starry hopes no longer seem far away or even far-fetched. That is why the Cubs are still in the hunt for baseball's best story, team division.
The Rays are at the other end of baseball's time continuum. Their entire history is but the blink of an eye compared to that of the Cubs. But the thing is, until this year, their history never contained more than 70 victories in a single season. And yet here they are, with less than two weeks remaining in the season, still leading the American League East with the second-best record in the AL.
This dramatic turn of events was not brought about by a miracle. It was brought about by greatly improved pitching. And an influx of terrific young talent. And a solid organizational approach. And an intelligent, innovative manager, Joe Maddon, who may be to managing what Thomas Edison was to invention.
On paper, on history, the Rays seem to be surprising to the point of being shocking. But then you watch them play and their success is not at all surprising. They are really sound in all the fundamental facets of the game. They should be winning and they have been winning. Their success this season is novel, but it is not just novelty value that makes them a contender for baseball's best story, team division.
How do we determine which is finally the better story? If one of these clubs wins the World Series, that kind of ends the argument, doesn't it? But the Rays' incredible leap forward gives them at least a temporary edge.
With their 2-1 victory over Boston on Tuesday night, the Rays hung on to first place. Do they need to finish first to be baseball's best story? No. Successfully traveling as far as they have traveled, any sort of postseason qualification keeps them in the running. But winning a division over the defending World Series champions -- not to mention the team that used to be the New York Yankees -- would be a breakthrough of epic proportions.
The difference here is that the Cubs were a reasonable pick to win the NL Central at the beginning of the season. The Rays were not exactly a popular pick to win the AL East. What they would accomplish with a division championship, achieved against the best possible competition in the form of the Red Sox, could trump any other regular-season accomplishment.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have all but clinched the NL Central. Their 5-4 victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday night put them nine games up on the Brewers with 13 left to play. They appear to have next to nothing to worry about, because the Brewers are in a 3-12 September freefall.
(The Brewers are not in the running for baseball's best story, team division, but they are in a class by themselves in another category -- most bizarre managerial dismissal. Ned Yost had been the Milwaukee manager for nearly six seasons. He had led the Brewers to a 20-7 record in August and a 5 1/2-game lead in the NL Wild Card race. He had two bad weeks and was bounced. The Brewers replaced him with third-base coach Dale Sveum. For his leadoff hitter in his managerial debut, Sveum chose Mike Cameron, who has struck out 127 times in 397 at-bats. When the opposition does this sort of thing, it tells you again that this is a Cubs year.)
The Cubs had a brief bad patch, losing eight out of nine, but that was when both Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden were temporarily out of the rotation. The Cubs have won their last five straight, and both starters are back. Zambrano returned in total triumph, pitching a no-hitter against the Houston Astros, who had won 14 of their past 15 before encountering Big Z. When Ted Lilly followed Zambrano's no-hitter with seven innings of one-hit ball, the clear indication was that, yes, the Cubs' rotation was indeed ready for the stretch drive and the postseason possibilities beyond.
So in baseball's best story, team division, we can anoint the two deserving leaders in no uncertain fashion. But we cannot make a final call. Some of the key precincts have not yet reported.
Either one of these stories, as baseball's best, would be a terrific baseball story. The Rays' success is, in a way, the leading edge of baseball's push toward parity, the proof that all things are possible, even without Yankee money, for an organization that does things the right way and a team that plays the right way.
And the Cubs' story is always unique, singular, and popular, among what is now officially baseball's longest-suffering fan base. This year, ultimate triumph on the 100th anniversary of the 1908 championship would be not only baseball's best story, but a story for the ages.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.