More than ever before, the 2005 World Series is not just a clash of two teams but a clash of opposing philosophies on the playoffs. You could say that this debate goes all the way back to the original Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, Plato and Aristotle.
I’ve always enjoyed the fact that we have many different ways of crowning a champion. College basketball gives 64 teams a shot at the title, while college football pits the top two teams against each other (and was entirely determined by a vote until a few years ago). What I think is regrettable is that since more playoffs bring more money, there is a seemingly irreversible trend toward having more teams participate in the postseason. Some people enjoy the excitement of expanded playoffs, while others think that it’s a poor way of choosing a champion. Which raises the question: just what is a champion?
One of Plato’s most important ideas was the theory of forms. He believed that there existed a world outside of space and time that held universals, or archetypes, and that what we experience in our own existence is just an approximation of what exists in the world of forms. The most common example used is that of a chair. Plato said that when we call something a chair, we do so because it has “chairness”; that is, it calls to mind the ideal form of a chair. We will never experience a true chair, only our own earthly approximations of a chair.
Aristotle thought differently. He said that if something is made of wood (or something else suitable for making a chair) and is in a shape such that it can be sat on, then it’s a chair. There are no forms; the particular is the thing.
So to Aristotle, the champion of a sports league is probably the team that walks away with the trophy. But to Plato, the true champion exists in the world of forms, and playoffs should tell us which team best exemplifies this ideal.
Once upon a time, the best team in each league won a trip to the World Series. Starting in 1969, each league was split up into an east and west division, whose champions would play in a league championship series. In 1995 the number of playoff teams was doubled once again, as a central division was added and a wild card slot was awarded to the team with the best record that did not win its division.
Those who take a Platonic view likely believe that the team that wins the most games is most likely to be the “true” champion, just as a larger sample size yields a greater chance that an observed result is the “true” result.
The wild card has greatly increased the chances that a team that has demonstrated itself to be not as good as a division rival can still have a shot at the title. Luck, and other factors, can account for 2 or three game differences between a division winner and its nearest rival, but the 22-game deficit with which the 1998 Red Sox won the wild card is pretty clear cut. Ditto the 2001 Athletics, who finished 14 games behind the Mariners. Of course, neither of these teams had much success in the postseason, but what are we to say about the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, who won the World Series despite finishing behind the Braves by 9 and 10 games, respectively?
Well, that depends on where you’re coming from. Someone sharing Plato’s views would probably argue that a long season is a better determination of the champion than a short playoff, but an Aristotelian would argue that a champion is whatever Major League Baseball says it is.
Which brings us to this year’s World Series. Throughout the year, the Chicago White Sox have displayed quite a bit of what Plato might call “championhood.” All year they have had one of the two best records in the league, and they have been solid in every aspect of play (hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning, pitching, and defense). Plato would be proud.
The Houston Astros, as has been pointed out, have been built for the postseason. They have three dominant pitchers, a solid bullpen, and an almost unhittable closer carrying a team that is proficient but not dangerous with the bat. Actually, even proficiency took a while to develop. When the Astros started 15-30, and during some offensive droughts that were spread through the season, they routinely wasted great pitching performances by scoring one run or fewer. Though they had the eighth-best record in baseball during the regular season, if they prevail in the Series they will have done everything Aristotelians require to call them a champion, namely winning eleven postseason games.
So, by rooting for a participant in this year’s World Series you’re actually participating in a philosophical debate that has been argued for centuries.
Applying Greek philosophy to baseball may sound far-fetched, but actually it’s quite appropriate. You see, Plato was quite a baseball fan, and the game inspired some of his most important ideas.
“Gee, Mr. Peabody, I didn’t know that Plato watched baseball!”
“Why yes, Sherman. Surely you’ve heard of the…allegory of the dugout?”