John Riordan: Why hope is a fragile thing for the Mets, the Mayo of baseball 

With their cross-town rivals back doing their best Kerry impression and divisional contenders Braves mirroring Limerick, a familiar fatalism sets in in Queens
John Riordan: Why hope is a fragile thing for the Mets, the Mayo of baseball 

IT NEVER RAINS: Jeff McNeil and the New York Mets have thrown away a seemingly unassailable lead in the National League standings and now face a tricky postseason playoff path. Pic: Elsa/Getty Images

Today is the day October can truly start in America.

Baseball's largest ever postseason begins this evening and it will be the first time that as many as 12 teams embark on the playoff phase that ultimately sends two of the remaining ball clubs to the World Series by the end of the month.

Up until the start of the 20th century, there was no such thing as a World Series and the two baseball bodies in the US, the National League and the American League, existed in splendid isolation of each other.

To this day there is a snidey disregard of the other, even though greater cross-fertilisation has been made possible since the late 1990s. It's roughly equivalent to football's top flights in England and Spain, for example, avoiding each other until the 1950s and then taking another 40 years to realise there would be limitless revenue available in a continental-wide league of champions that doesn't necessarily keep non-champions out.

The most elusive and most prestigious player record in the sport was broken this week by a New York Yankee called Aaron Judge. He finished the regular season with 62 home runs, ending the 61-year reign of his fellow Yankee, Roger Maris.

Maris spent his apex season chasing another iconic Bronx Bomber, Babe Ruth, whose 60 home runs in 1927 anchored the so-called Murderers' Row of Yankee sluggers that dominated the latter half of that decade.

Aaron Judge's journey through the 162-game season has been as high pressure as it can possibly get. He began it by rejecting a new contract, feeling physically ready to prove that he was worth $100m more than his club was offering. And then the home runs began to flow. His gamble paid off and after the Yankees end their postseason, his contract negotiations will be daily New York tabloid fodder.

Inevitably, after the hulking outfielder steamed towards 58 and 59, his engine stalled and the spotlight became more glaring. Would he even get to 60? And when he shakily did, were there now enough games left to get to 61 and 62? After a not insignificant drought of seven games, Roger Maris' son was in Toronto to see Judge level it with a booming crack to left field. And then in Texas on Tuesday evening, the penultimate game of the season saw him deliver 62, sparking joy for both home and away fans alike.

The background noise accompanying his chase for supremacy was confusion as to how to measure this once-in-a-lifetime achievement. He may have broken the American League record but above him in the charts sit three National League players.

Sammy Sosa finished higher than 62 in three different seasons and Mark McGwire did it twice. Top of the pile on 73 is Barry Bonds. All three hitters dominated the game between the late 90s and early 2000s and all three were found to have been juiced to the gills.

So where does that leave Judge? The greatest clean home run slugger of all time? Or does the skill and timing of hitting a ball to the fences rank higher than how comprehensively you've sculpted your upper body in order to heave the baseball out of there.

The National League fan will tell you Bonds is the greatest and the American League fan will push Judge right past him. And the playoffs will then decide which of the leagues can claim the most important bragging rights for 2022.

A long-suffering Mayo supporter and now fellow New York Mets loving friend of mine inspired me to try and draw comparisons between baseball clubs here and GAA counties back home. “The New York Mets are Mayo,” he texted me after we watched our chosen team throw away a season-long lead at the top of the National League, crashing and burning at the end to set up a tricky playoff bracket as one of the Wild Card qualifiers.

The vast majority of Mets fans will know little of Mayo but they will understand deeply the feeling of optimism rising before dramatically falling to such an extent that nobody remembers why hope was allowed to fester in the first place.

So what of these other baseball contenders? Who can I arbitrarily twin them with in Ireland in a forlorn attempt to keep the baseball doubters and haters reading? I have tried to keep it proportional to the ratio of higher tier football and hurling teams, figuring out seven football counties and five hurling, two of those being dual.

Starting with football and unavoidably with the top dogs; the Yankees are Kerry. Insufferably successful and leading the way in terms of titles and legacy. Their supporters are as demanding as they are arrogant, safe in the knowledge that they will be eternally relevant. But the Yankees are currently suffering through a Kerry-esque drought, although admittedly one with which most teams would happily swap.

The St Louis Cardinals are Dublin. Second only to Kerry and the Yankees when it comes to titles won, both Dublin and the Cardinals were sleeping giants at the start of the 2000s before becoming as dominant a force as possible with the caveat that baseball makes it more difficult to be truly alone at the summit. As much as we hate to see it, St Louis and Dublin will always find a way, even during their struggles.

The Houston Astros are Tyrone. A relatively recent rising force that has discovered new ways to create edges in the game in order to crush their rivals. Not always legally, of course. The Astros and Tyrone inspire similar levels of antipathy at other clubs that have nothing to do with the normal tensions stoked by geographical proximity.

The Toronto Blue Jays are Cavan. Not just the shared royal blue they wear in combat but also the annual suffering they put their passionate fanbases through. They exist slightly awkwardly by the border, fully accepting of the fact that everyone else sees them as a default team, competing neither here nor there. In 2020, they were forced to play their home games in nearby Buffalo and this season they have enjoyed the advantage of anti-vax opposition players being refused access to Canada.

The Seattle Mariners are Roscommon. A distant outpost in the northwest, it's a true rarity for the Mariners to ever reach the business end of the season. After 21 years, the Mariners ended the longest running drought in North American major league sports this week by advancing to this weekend's three-game series in Toronto. Just like Roscommon, Seattle struggles to find a way to inspire any strong feelings and it'll be a surprise if they are still around next week.

The Philadelphia Phillies are Cork. This can apply to both hurling and football but probably more so to the small ball. Shared colours and shared levels of supporter avarice and aggression when it comes to the trials and tribulations of their teams. There has been plenty success but it’s never enough.

The Cleveland Guardians are Galway. The Tribesmen and the outfit formerly known as the Indians each enjoy a long tradition and a dedicated fanbase but with little to show for it in terms of overall titles. They flared fleetingly in the mid 2010s and by dint of their weaker province and division, they can be pretty much guaranteed of a routinely achieved spot in the knockout stages each year.

The Tampa Bay Rays are Clare. Sparsely populated with a ramshackle home ground, the Rays have made the best of a bad budgetary situation by establishing themselves as a stubborn threat each season. Just like the Banner, they are tenacious and thrive off being underestimated and feared in equal measure.

The San Diego Padres are Wexford. Everyone is envious of their sunny climates and nobody knows how they dragged their teams to the top table. They each boast a unique colour combo and they both enjoyed brief success in the mid-90s before being forgotten about for a long time. If we’re not careful, they could overtake their bitter rivals and near neighbours to the northwest… The Los Angeles Dodgers are Kilkenny. A blue chip institution of the game, the Dodgers are World Series favourites this year and every year and just like Kilkenny, they thrive off having a particularly large target on their backs.

The Atlanta Braves are Limerick. Big in the 90s and champions in 2021, they’ll be very confident of a repeated success this year. They are a force on every level and although almost equally talented rivals feel crushed under their effortless supremacy, there is palpable admiration for how they have come to dominate the sport.

Let's play ball!

@JohnWRiordan

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