As the fifth and final game of the 1972 National League playoffs came to a dramatic end, Bob Prince, the great Pittsburgh baseball announcer, understandably was distraught. Prince had just seen his defending World Champion Pirates blow a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and lose to the almost-ready-for-prime time Big Red Machine on a home run by Johnny Bench and a wild pitch by Bob Moose.
Struggling to keep his composure, and momentarily forgetting that he was speaking to a national audience on a network radio broadcast, Prince bewailed the fact that the Pirates, after all, did have a better record than Cincinnati during the regular season, and really deserved to be the NL champions headed to Oakland to face Charlie Finley’s A’s.
I don’t know if Bob’s comments brought him censure from NBC and the Commissioner’s Office for his indirect slam at the new playoff structure, but I’m sure many fans of that era shared his viewpoint, reflecting a consensus that the league championship rounds first played in 1969 were superfluous at best and, at worst, might result in an unworthy also-ran becoming World Champion - the dreaded “Cheese Champ.”
After all, in those first few years of league playoffs, almost everyone could remember a time when baseball pennants were fairly won over an exhausting 154 or 162-game season that guaranteed each World Series opponent held the best won-loss record in an eight or 10-team league, and had played each league opponent an equal number of times, home and away.
Back then, winning a league pennant and getting to the World Series seemed almost as good as winning the Series itself. But now, playoffs? We don’t need no stinkin’ playoffs was the cry of hardcore baseball fans. Even as they were unsettled by the relatively minor changes of 40 years ago, Prince and the baseball-viewing public could hardly have foreseen today’s postseason casino ball and its multi-level playoffs that now decide who gets to be called a champion. It’s a system designed to insure at least some wild cards and weak division winners will get into the World Series to compete with baseball’s elites, all made necessary to keep baseball solvent in an age of free agency, expansion, and enormous network television contracts.
Of course, in the decades since the ‘72 NLCS, baseball has seen several Cheese Champs get into the World Series, and occasionally win the whole thing. Perhaps the most wretched example of this came in the immediate wake of Bob Prince’s remarks, when an 82-79 Mets team defeated the far-superior Reds in the 1973 NLCS, before barely losing to the defending champion A’s in a seven-game World Series. More recently, the 2006 Cardinals gave off the odor of ripe munster as they wafted their way to a WS championship that even MLB and Fox might want to forget.
But although the purists among us may cringe at the memory of these Mets and Cardinals “champions,” as Cubs fans, we can’t deny ourselves the pleasure of imagining Q’s Crew sneaking into the playoffs at the top of the Central with a .500 or - even better - a sub-.500 record. If H & Q’s innovative “College of Pitchers” can just keep things together before Wells and Cashner return after the All-Star break, we should be ready to run the table. Then, after our Series win, we can all sit back and enjoy some fine Camembert to go with our victory beverage of choice, as we laugh away the insults of the baseball world beyond Cubdom. Eight years after our gut-wrenching loss to the Cheeseburgers in Paradise, we deserve no less.