It ought to be the best race in baseball. Ought to be.
It's Red Sox and Yankees -- two teams you might have heard about -- separated by one game in the standings, with 46 games to play.
If Major League Baseball, the ESPN television network and poets around the continent could design their perfect stretch-drive script, this would be it, right?
Except for one minor glitch:
It's all about as meaningful as the fourth quarter of an NFL preseason game.
Essentially we know right now, with a month and a half left in the season, both of those teams are going to be playing in October. And if you think it still matters who wins the East and who makes it as a wild card, go ask the 2010 Rays. Or the 2004 Yankees.
Under this playoff format, it barely matters. That's too bad. But that's a fact.
The good news is, baseball has figured out a solution: Add an extra wild-card team and force the two wild cards to battle each other just to live to play in the Division Series and voila -- you have produced massive incentive to finish first.
But here comes the bad news: Despite what you may have heard, very possibly from your favorite commissioner of baseball, there's now almost no chance this sport will be expanding the postseason by next year.
And it's far from a lead-pipe lock that an expanded postseason will be part of the next labor deal at all.
That news may come as a shock to anyone who read Bud Selig's quote a few months ago that this change was "inevitable." But we're getting the impression a crazy thing happened behind the scenes on the way to that inevitability:
Nobody has been able to agree on much of anything. Imagine that.
We know both sides think expanding the postseason is a swell idea. But beyond that? They're going to need to figure out a whole bunch of details. And we're hearing that part isn't going so hot.
We've had to piece this tale together from numerous conversations with people around the sport, because the labor talks are taking place in total secrecy, complete with a pact of silence from everyone involved.
But enough tidbits on this particular topic have seeped out to others within the industry that they could at least paint us a picture of where the big roadblocks are located.
So here is where it appears they're running into trouble:
The players view expanding the postseason as just one piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle. We know this because union chief Michael Weiner laid out the players' vision last month in a meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Weiner said the players see the expanded postseason as part of an extensive redesign of the regular-season schedule, the October schedule and the whole league and division structure. All those things, he said last month, are "connected."
In other words, if baseball wants to start penalizing wild-card teams by forcing them to play an extra wild-card survivor round (or, very possibly, a one-game winner-moves-on, loser-goes-home sudden-death game), that has a bigggg ripple effect.
At the moment, as this Yankees-Red Sox race reminds us, what the heck is the difference, when the playoffs start, between what it means to finish first and what it means to make it as a wild card? It's miniscule. That's been proven many times.
But if that's about to change -- really change -- the players want to see a radical adjustment to the schedule. If it matters that much who wins the division, shouldn't all the teams in each division be playing basically the same schedule? Of course they should.
And what would have to happen to make that possible? Realignment. That's what.
Why? Because you can't map out a "fair" schedule unless all six divisions are the same size and both leagues are the same size. That's Math 101. And we know everybody out there passed Math 101, right? Sure, you did. We won't even make you take a quiz to prove it.
But just because all those folks in baseball understand the mathematics doesn't mean they're now raising their hands to say, "Hey Bud, whatever you need us to do to make this happen, you can count on us." That, of course, is the big issue here.
There are more people in favor of realignment now than there have ever been in the history of baseball -- just as long as it's somebody else's team that's realigning.
Oh, there are teams that would move out of the AL East, but nobody wants to move INTO the AL East. And teams in the West don't want to get stuck in the same division as teams two time zones away. And teams in the Central divisions don't want to play a bunch of road games that end after midnight back home.
Get the picture?
These same arguments have been going on for months. And there has been so little progress that an official of one club told Rumblings this week, "I don't think there's any chance whatsoever" realignment winds up happening. Why is that?
"Who's going to realign?" he replied, pithily.
Excellent question. But next week is a big week on that front. How come? Well, there's an owners' meeting next week, in which Jim Crane is scheduled to be approved as the next owner of the Astros.
Crane is a pivotal figure in this drama. Pivotal.
That's because the other 29 current owners have the right to veto any move of any kind -- to another league, to another division, to any place they don't feel like moving.
But Crane doesn't have that right, just because he's the new guy. We keep hearing that he's told Selig behind the scenes that he really doesn't want the Astros to leave the NL Central. But face it. He doesn't have much leverage here.
If realignment ever happens, you can bet the Astros will be moving -- somewhere. But where?
To the AL West? We're not sure the Mariners, A's and Angels would throw a Welcome to the West party over that announcement.
To the NL West? Then some other team -- presumably the Diamondbacks -- would have to shift to the AL West. And of course, they're not wild about that idea.
So round and round they go, riding the same Ferris wheel they've been riding for months. The trouble is, we're approaching the point at which something needs to give.
Next season's schedule, for instance, has already been tentatively drawn up and circulated -- and needs to be finalized in the next few weeks. We're hearing it looks a lot like this season's schedule, and the season before that, and the season before that.
That's why it's no longer feasible to think we'll see any expanded playoffs next year. If that expansion is going to be tied to a major change in the schedule, it's just too late for that.
It's not too late -- yet -- for things to change by 2013 and beyond. But the hope within the sport was this labor deal could be wrapped up before the next offseason begins. And that's only two and a half months away.
In theory, that's enough time to agree on just about anything -- even issues as major as blowing up the league, division and postseason formats as we've come to know and love them. But ...
What happens if the owners get hung up on realignment, can't agree on who would go where and give up on the whole idea -- for this labor go-round, at least?
It's very possible the players would decide they aren't ready to go along with expanding the postseason, either.
Then a great idea gets tossed onto a back burner, referred to another one of the commish's very special committees or drifts off into space forever. Too bad.
Now maybe that isn't how this turns out after all, because this concept is far from dead. But unfortunately, it certainly isn't "inevitable," either. Not anymore.
Ready to Rumble
• We'd love to believe all the denials coming out of Toronto that the Blue Jays would never, ever steal signs. But other clubs have been buzzing about that possibility since last season. One of the biggest reasons has been the transformation of Jose Bautista -- but not so much in his power numbers as in his amazing ability to lay off tough breaking balls he used to hack at.
Toronto Blue Jays
"This guy could always hit a fastball," one scout said. "But he'd chase so many other pitches, he didn't get in enough hitters' counts to get those fastballs. Now he doesn't chase those pitches. I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen a player make that change and do it that dramatically."
Bautista at home last year: 55 walks, 44 strikeouts, .403 OBP, 1.118 OPS.
On the road last year: 45 walks, 72 strikeouts, .353 OBP, .879 OPS.
His splits this year aren't anywhere near so pronounced. But let's just say AL executives and scouts we surveyed didn't dismiss this sign-stealing flap as preposterous. Nevertheless, said one AL exec, "I'm guessing you won't be seeing a guy in a white shirt holding up his arms there anymore."
• The commissioner's office has done its best to crack down this year on the leaking of names of players who made it through waivers. But here's one interesting name we've heard who cleared: Johnny Damon.
Tampa Bay Rays
Teams that spoke with the Rays last month report they never had any "heavy" interest in Damon before the deadline. But he's still viewed as a winning player who could entice an AL contender to make a run at him over the next three weeks. MLBTradeRumors.com doesn't currently project Damon to be a Type A or Type B free agent. So he's not a player the Rays would hold onto just to accumulate a draft pick if he leaves.
• One executive did tell us this about the early-August waiver scene: "The Yankees and Red Sox are claiming everyone who can pitch at all."
• The Astros don't have to choose the Class A prospect to be named later in the Hunter Pence deal for another two-and-a-half weeks. But there are rumblings out of the Phillies' Florida State League outpost in Clearwater that an injury to one of the minor leaguers believed to be on the Astros' list -- outfielder Leandro Castro -- might be complicating that selection. It isn't clear if Houston has the right to replace Castro with another name. But one Florida State League source said he expects the Astros to attempt to expand their shopping list because of Castro's injury. That has a chance to be an issue.
• Teams such as the Yankees clearly backed off their pursuit of Ubaldo Jimenez last month because of concerns he might be hurt. But a source familiar with the Indians' physical of Jimenez reported his MRI came back "remarkably clean" -- cleaner, in fact, than those of many pitchers who are considered completely healthy.
• The Indians always recognized the risk involved in trading four players for a pitcher such as Jimenez. They also saw more than just a rare opportunity to deal for a top-of-the-rotation arm who fits into their budget through 2013. They saw an opportunity to acquire a pitcher whose contract runs through what should be his peak years -- and lines up with their window to win. They have Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo under control through 2013; Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner under control through 2012; and Justin Masterson and Chris Perez under control through 2014. So their time is now -- and over the next two years.
• As another Orioles season fizzles before our eyes, it's time to wonder if their esteemed president for baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, would be better off moving on to a higher calling -- such as commissioner of baseball, for instance. (That, of course, assumes Selig really does plan to retire at some point in this century. And who would ever assume that? But play along with us, OK?)
For years, MacPhail has heard his name dropped as an oft-rumored potential successor to Selig. But one baseball man who has known MacPhail for years has his doubts, saying, "If he did it, he'd do it out of loyalty to the game. But I wouldn't say he has a burning passion to do it. Andy has always been a guy who took pride in the fact that the game does not define him."
• Just two years ago, the only two NL third basemen who out-homered Ian Stewart were Mark Reynolds and Ryan Zimmerman. Now the Rockies have banished Stewart to the minor leagues again, with zero homers (and a .221 slugging percentage) in 136 trips to the plate. And clubs that have spoken to them say the Rockies are openly advertising they'd like to swap their favorite needs-a-change-of-scenery guy for somebody else's needs-a-change-of-scenery guy. The one problem with that scenario is: Other teams suspect Stewart is a non-tender candidate next winter.
• Another Rockies tidbit: We're hearing they could take a flyer on J.C. Romero -- who already has been released by the Phillies, Nationals and Yankees this year -- as a third left-hander in their bullpen.
• When Dusty Baker pulled the plug on Yonder Alonso's left field audition after a rough weekend at Wrigley Field, a lot of folks jumped to the conclusion Alonso has no future in Cincinnati. Uh, guess again.
Yes, Alonso is blocked at first base by Joey Votto. But the Reds still balked at including Alonso in a Jimenez package, and they still project Alonso as a special bat. So with Votto's long-term future in Cincinnati a very large question mark, the Reds' quest isn't to find somebody to trade this guy to. It's to find a place Alonso can play as long as Votto is hanging out at first.
All they've asked Alonso to do in left is avoid trying to do too much, the Reds' vice president for player development and scouting, Bill Bavasi, told Rumblings. So guess what he did when he got to the big leagues and found himself playing left field in Wrigley?
"What all kids do," Bavasi said. "He tried to do too much."
So they've now backed off on that experiment -- for the time being, anyway -- just because "the whole issue probably needs to settle down a little," Bavasi said. "One thing is for sure, folks at both the major and minor league levels here like and believe in the kid, his hitting and work. Any moves made with him are made to help him find a place to play."
• Speaking of the Reds, scouts who have seen Dontrelle Willis are sold, after six starts in which Willis has averaged more than six innings per start and pitched to a 3.41 ERA and even ripped off a 10-strikeout game against Colorado on Tuesday.
"That's as good as I've seen him in three or four years," one NL scout said. "He threw strikes. His delivery was a little firmer. He had a good downward angle on everything, as opposed to being quick and open and under everything. He made a lot of good pitches."
• Finally, time to hand out our Injury of the Week award -- to Brewers pitcher Chris Narveson. He was hanging out in the clubhouse Tuesday in St. Louis, decided he wasn't happy with the laces on his glove, grabbed a pair of scissors to perform some minor glove surgery and accidentally sliced up his left thumb. Eight stitches later, he was heading for the disabled list. Oops!
Five Astounding Facts (Friday edition)
1) The Mariners have used five third basemen this year, and the five of them have combined to hit exactly one home run -- by Chone Figgins, on OPENING DAY. If they don't hit another, the Mariners would be the first team since the 1986 Cardinals to get one home run trot all season from their third basemen. Terry Pendleton hit the only homer for that Cardinals team, by the way -- off Ron Darling.
2) Jimmy Rollins led off Wednesday's Phillies-Dodgers game with a 15-pitch at-bat. You sure don't see that much. Our favorite pitch-count guru, Aneel Trivedi, reports that no leadoff man in the 24-season "pitch-count era" has had a longer plate appearance to start a game than that. And this was just the fourth at-bat of exactly 15 pitches in all those years. The others: Derek Jeter versus Jered Weaver two months ago (June 3); Johnny Damon versus Manny Aybar on June 30, 1998; and Dave Martinez versus Mike Bielecki on June 23, 1989.
3) Justin Verlander has already ripped off five seasons of 17 wins or more. The Elias Sports Bureau reports the only other pitchers in the last 30 years to do that before their 29th birthdays were Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden. Last pitcher to have MORE 17-win seasons before his 29th birthday: Ferguson Jenkins ran off six straight 20-win seasons between 1967-72, at ages 23-28.
4) The two league ERA leaders -- Jered Weaver (1.78) and Johnny Cueto (1.94) -- still have ERAs below 2.00, with a month and a half left in the season. Last time the two league leaders had ERAs this low this late in the year: 1997, with Clemens (1.69) and Pedro Martinez (1.72) doing the honors.
5) Chien-Ming Wang's no-hit bid at Wrigley on Tuesday reminded the Detroit Free Press' John Lowe that the Cubs still haven't been no-hit since Sandy Koufax did a perfect-game number on them in 1965. Who was managing Wang's team this week? That would be Davey Johnson -- aka the last man ever to get a hit off Koufax (in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series).
Tweets of the Week
No one in the Twitter-verse summed up the beauty of watching those leisurely paced Yankees-Red Sox games better than Late Show tweeting genius @EricStangel:
• Yankees-Red Sox moving to the 9th. Just flipped over to CNBC for the opening bell of the Stock Market...
• Seriously, Yankees-Red Sox are the best 7 hours you could spend watching sports...
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this just in from the comedians at theonion.com, in the wake of the Indians' stunning deadline deal for Ubaldo Jimenez:
Visa Calls Indians To Confirm
They Actually Did Intend To Take On More Salary
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst