PHILADELPHIA, PA - Ryan Howard #6 of the Philadelphia Phillies stumbles as he runs out of the box on his ground out for the final out of the game as they lost 1-0 against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Five of the National League Divisional Series. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
If you were an author, and your novel ended with Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez making outs to end their teams' seasons, your editor would send it back with a note: "Too obvious." In stark red ink. Baseball doesn't work that way. It deals in surprises, and abstractions. Not obvious, unmistakable metaphors.
Yet it happened. Ryan Howard is often disparaged as a player who thrives during the regular season, but wilts in the postseason. This failure to help his team advance in the playoffs reminds us of noted October choker Reggie Jackson, who was a career .227/.298/.380 hitter over 11 League Championship Series in his career.
Alex Rodriguez is often disparaged as a player who thrives during the regular season, but wilts in the postseason. And by "often," I mean that 49,921 different people are complaining about this right now. Even though he was the best hitter on the Yankees during their last World Series run, he'll probably never shake the label. This is reminiscent of Yogi Berra, who hit .174 in his first five World Series and never recovered in the eyes of Yankees fans.
Howard is a symbol of excess, with a $125-million contract extension given out almost two years before remotely necessary -- a huge commitment to a player who can be neutralized by left-handed pitching. And there have always been concerns about his frame and body holding up through his 30s. The Division Series ended with Howard in a heap, his 2011 season over and his 2012 season in jeopardy. The beginning of it, anyway.
Rodriguez is a symbol of excess, a player still due $144 million until he's 41 years old, yet already showing signs of breaking down. His OPS and games played this season were their lowest since he was 19.
Of course it was Howard who made the last out of the 2011 Phillies season at home.
Of course it was Rodriguez who made the last out of the 2011 Yankees season at home.
At least, those will be the obvious narrative spines for people looking for a quick hook to the 2011 postseason.
But that's ridiculous. Both of the players have regrettable, miserable contracts, but their choker labels are completely undeserved. The Jackson/Berra notes up there are just to remind you how silly it is to make too much of small samples. Both were rightfully lauded as postseason heroes later in their careers. A-Rod and Howard have both enjoyed great postseason moments with their current teams.
The real lesson with the Phillies and Yankees getting bounced from the playoff in the first round is that it's really, really, really freaking hard to win a World Series. This isn't like the 1950s and '60s, when the Yankees just needed to build the best team for the regular season in order to reach the World Series. Three rounds of playoffs -- including a best-of-five series -- is a gauntlet that will eject even the best teams. Too many strange things can happen. Don Kelly hit a home run to help eliminate the Yankees. I'm pretty sure that was Kelly's first extra-base hit of his career.
Every time the Yankees are eliminated from the playoffs, fans should think about how amazing the 1998-2000 threepeat was. How marching through nine straight short playoff series was an amazing, unlikely accomplishment that isn't going to be repeated by any team soon.
Every time the Phillies -- or any team with a pitching staff that impressive -- are eliminated, fans should remark how nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. The Phillies won a World Series with Joe Blanton, Brett Myers, and Jamie Moyer behind Cole Hamels. They couldn't make it out of the first round with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt in front of Hamels.
The lesson is that every year, only one out of 30 teams can combine the right mix of talent and timing need to win a championship. Not getting there doesn't have to be a failure that needs to be assigned to a specific player.
The lesson that seems easier to learn, though, is that Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez are walking metaphors, whose (real or imagined) inability to produce in the clutch will follow them around for the life of the 493-year contracts both are under. And next year, when the Phillies and Yankees don't win the World Series again -- hey, them's just the odds -- the same story line will probably come up again. It's a shame. Kind of.