Baseball was something of a caste system during the Cardboard God era. Here are the winners of the division races during those baseball-obsessed years of my childhood:
|Year||AL East||AL West||NL East||NL West|
There’s a bit of variation, with four one-time division winners among the 24 possible division crowns, but for the most part the teams heading to the playoffs each year had been there before recently and/or would be there again soon. The years that were my most formative baseball years, 1976 through 1978, highlighted the overall static nature of the era, with only one team, the peaking dynastic Reds in 1976, marring the stranglehold on the divisions of the Phillies, Yankees, Royals, and Dodgers.
Those were the years, for me, that seemed to go on and on. Now the years go by like nothing. It seems to me now that back then each year was an immense expanse, and that the division winners had been the division winners forever and always would be. Because of my hatred for the Yankees this was wrenching to me in terms of the AL East. And judging by my enthusiastic embrace of upstart teams in the NL West (Astros) and NL East (Expos) in the latter stages of this era, I must have found the Phillies and Dodgers dominance stultifying. But I think there was on some level a kind of comfort in having the same teams win every year. I allowed myself to celebrate this comfort in my feelings for the Royals. The Royals could be counted on to kick ass and look cool doing it.
For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn’t like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn’t at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.
In the most static years of the era, the playoffs reinforced the caste system feel, the Royals and Phillies always getting bounced. Finally, in 1980, the Royals and Phillies signaled the teetering of the caste system that would crumble in the coming decade by finally beating their respective torturers, the Yankees and Dodgers. But by then, Al Cowens had moved on from the Royals. I was somewhat stunned to find out just now that Cowens played more years in the majors away from the Royals than he had played with the Royals. To me he’ll always be a Royal, just as, strange as it may seem now, after years of franchise irrelevance, the Royals will always be for me a team of stylish, fleet, Cowensesque ass-kickers. The news that Cowens had drifted around for years and years for the Tigers, Angels, and Mariners was almost as jarring to me as the news that this symbol of one of the more stable aspects of my childhood passed away back in 2002. He was only 51.
The years are going by too fast.