I gotta quit having spicy food right before bed …
Clouds roll in. Eerie music plays. Dream sequence begins.
In a rare move, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced this week that the National League Central teams would not bother to play their games in 2016, conceding the division title to the greatness and genius of the Chicago Cubs.
“The more we thought about it, the more we realized we had no chance,” a glum St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, his head in his hands as he sat in his office at the club’s spring training headquarters in Jupiter, Fla. “We just kept reading about how great the Cubs are going to be, and we finally concluded there’s no point in playing out the season.”
Matheny’s dispiriting words were echoed by his counterpart in Pittsburgh.
“Yeah, sure, we won 98 games last year,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, a rueful look of resignation on his face. “But there’s no way that’s enough to catch Joe Maddon’s guys. I mean, all we’ve heard all winter is how terrific they’re going to be, how nobody can stop them, how darn daring and fun Maddon is to play for.
“When you think about all that, you just realize it’s best to just concede at this point. Why get people hurt playing the games?”
The Cubs had their first winning record in six seasons last year, were 118 games under .500 in their previous five seasons, and have recorded back-to-back winning seasons only three times since 1972.
Cincinnati Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty tried to look on the bright side, but his voice faltered as he went along.
“You know, we’ve tried to keep up a brave front, but sometimes you just have to bow to the inevitable,” Jocketty said, shaking his head. “Sure, somebody tried to tell me that last year was the first time the Cubs have had a winning season in their last six years, that they were 118 games under .500 the previous five seasons, and that they’ve had back-to-back winning seasons only three times since 1972.
“But what does that matter now? With Theo Epstein running rings about me and John Mozeliak and the rest of us, is there anything we can do?”
Not surprisingly, the NL Central non-competition pledge meant little to Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.
“Hey, are we even still in that division?” Braun sniffed. “When you never bother to look at the standings because your team is so bad, I mean, you kinda forget these things.”
The Cubs meanwhile held a muted celebration in their spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., the players popping only a few champagne corks as Maddon – dressed as a magician, wearing a top hat, monocle and all – led a parade of penguins and cockatoos through the facility.
“We thought everybody might give up eventually,” Maddon said before changing into a tuxedo to accept his Manager of the Year Award eight months early. “I guess we were a little surprised it came so early, though.
“We’re still mapping out plans for setting up our rotation for the playoffs, and it is a little tough trying to get that done. I mean, we have to go the next six months not knowing who our first-round opponent will be.
“Some of the guys on the club were saying they really didn’t think that was fair to us, but we’ll work through it. The big thing is to not get complacent; we should have plenty of time when September rolls around to get back into peak playing form.”
Maddon’s postseason preparations should be eased by plans for what would have been the games played in each NL Central city this year.
Cubs games will be replaced by three-hour frat parties at Addison and Sheffield, with Maddon holding regular pep rallies to remind the fans to get their playoff tickets early. Live renditions of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” in what would have been the seventh inning will be replaced by a recording of Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” and fans will be invited to sing along depending on their degree of sobriety.
In St. Louis, meanwhile, games will be scrapped in favor of three-hour radio call-in shows conducted live from a nearly empty Cardinals dugout, with fans invited to a microphone to ask Mike Shannon and John Rooney why the Cardinals won only 100 games under Matheny last season.
Also planned: Large portraits of Jason Heyward and John Lackey will rotate on Busch Stadium’s right-field scoreboard, reminding fans of what they’re missing. Neither the Clydesdales nor any red-jacketed Hall of Famers are expected to make an appearance at any point during the season. And the annual parade of Cardinals in convertibles for opening day will be scrapped in favor of a swap meet on the infield for fans looking to unload the cash they had socked away for playoff tickets.
Similar programs will be in place in the other NL Central ballparks, though the Brewers and Reds may play a few intrasquad games just so their fans can actually see the home team win a game once in a while.
“We know this is an extreme move on our part,” a somber Matheny conceded. “But we don’t see any reason to play the games if the Cubs are so much better than the rest of us. Sometimes you have to make concessions to reality, and that’s what this amounts to.
“We salute the Cubs on their fine season, and as longtime competitors we wish them the best as the postseason unfolds in six months.”
I woke with a start. Darn those chips and salsa.
Joe Ostermeier is the chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512, @JoeOstermeier