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Fourth of July represents new benchmark this year

The corn should be as high as an elephant's eye. The lighting of not only barbecues but fireworks is encouraged. Americans are gathering at ballparks, national parks and neighborhood parks to celebrate a birthday.

Those are historic givens. But what does the Fourth of July mean in relation to the baseball season these days?

Of course, it means a Major League ballgame or 15 under the sun or in the twilight, this year as part of a midweek day of celebration. Of course, it means America's pastime on America's birthday -- the game and the country it calls home, at play.

Still, consider this: Whatever the Fourth might mean in terms of telling what's to come in the baseball season, it's different than it used to be.

Especially way back before divisions were part of the playoff picture, July 4 was a day contenders were generally separated from the rest. Then came divisional play, expanding the races. Then came the Wild Card Era, expanding them further. Now comes Wild Card Era II.

Halfway through the first year featuring five available playoff spots in each league, you can count on one hand (and maybe another finger or three) the number of teams that are shaping into spoilers down the stretch. All the rest are in the hunt if not for a division title then one of two Wild Card spots available in each league.

Because there's still so much to be told, perhaps the Fourth isn't such a telling date as it once was. Still, America's birthday stands as a pivotal milepost for America's pastime -- especially in 2012 with the holiday also marking the halfway point of the 162-game season for most clubs.

Reds manager Dusty Baker, an admitted daily devotee of standings and stats, says it's still a date that always catches his eye. It's still a good day to be in first place, even if you're sharing it.

"You don't want to just be in first place July 4, but you want to be in first place at the All-Star break and stay in first place as you get closer to the finish line and add some ground to it," said Baker, whose Reds are now sharing the midpoint lead in the NL Central with the Pirates at 44-36, stalked by the defending World Series champion Cardinals and defending division champion Brewers.

This July 4, the holiday slate begins early with a matchup of divisional leaders with Giants-Nationals, being played at 11:05 a.m. ET because the nation's capital tends to celebrate the Fourth with some vigor -- and only about 12 hours after the end of Friday's game.

There's also a battle of division leaders with the two-time defending American League champion Rangers, the winningest team in baseball, visiting the White Sox of the AL Central, and an AL East matchup that will show where the hot-starting Yankees stand at the halfway point as they visit the always dangerous Rays, where New York has lost its last nine games. Angels-Indians and Reds-Dodgers are among the other matchups of current contenders hitting the fields while we're celebrating the Fourth.

This remains a universal truth: Being in solid shape on July 4 should lead to good things, and that's definitely been evident in recent years. That said, there's still time to make something special happen if you're not quite on track yet, as we've seen recently as well.

The Cardinals were tied for first place with the Brewers when they woke up July 4, 2011. But, just the year before, the Giants were 6 1/2 games out of first in the NL West -- a high number for July 4 indeed, higher than what their famous 1951 Giants brethren had to surmount. The Yankees were second by two games in 2009, the Phillies held a 2 1/2-game lead in 2008, and the Red Sox were off to a 10 1/2-game lead by the Fourth in 2007.

More to the point, and using the new reality, earning one of the five playoff spots in each league is the first goal. Entering play for July 4 this year, 23 teams are within seven games of one of those golden tickets to October -- using the recent example of the 2007 Rockies' seven games out on the Fourth en route to a World Series appearance as a high-water mark.

Now that there are five spots to be had, a lot more teams will stay in the hunt as the summer rolls toward September.

"It's not just one or two teams that are going to be involved in that. There's going to be a few teams involved in that Wild Card," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

The Fourth might mean less when it comes to determining what's going to happen in October. But, in this case, less means more, because more teams are in position to take their hopes deeper into the season.

Looking at the last five years, the only thing lost at the Fourth is any sense of certainty about who might be there in October. On this date in 2011, there were 24 teams within seven games of one of the five spots that exist now, with 19 in 2010, 23 in 2009, 24 in 2008 and 18 in 2007.

For Baker, the Fourth represents as good time as any to start rooting for teams other than his own to help make his team's good fortunes in midsummer culminate with a big finale that lights up the Cincinnati sky in October.

"Two days ago, I was rooting for the Pirates over the Cardinals," Baker said last weekend as his team's pursuers played each other. "Today, I wanted the Cardinals to win and the Pirates to lose, and we win. Then tomorrow, they lose and we win again.

"I'll root for whoever's the furthest away from us. It doesn't do any good, but you do it anyway."

Even as a new era of playoff possibilities begins, July 4 remains a good time to start thinking those thoughts, if you haven't already.