What if a baseball season were covered like a presidential primary season?

CHRIS MATTHEWS:

Welcome to Philadelphia, my hometown, for MSNBC's continuing coverage of "Pennant Race '09." We're here at Phillies headquarters inside Chickie's & Pete's, just a few blocks away from where they'll meet the Mets in Game 1 of the 2009 season.

I've got a distinguished panel with me and as soon as I've finished with my caffeine-fueled mega-monologue, I'll begin interrupting their answers.

But first, as most of you know, while a season is 162 games long, this afternoon's will, in all likelihood, determine the NL East champion.

A victory in this pivotal Pennsylvania contest will infuse the winner with incalculable momentum heading into those crucial May series with the Marlins and Braves. A loss and it's "sayonara, season."

That's why these ball clubs and their representatives have been camped out in this city for the last six months, running their mouths, fielding questions, catching heat.

Our latest MSNBC polling data strongly suggest this will be a two-horse race between the Phillies and Mets. In fact, no one would be shocked if, after today's game, at least two rivals withdraw, probably the underfunded Marlins and the Nationals, who just haven't been able to gain any traction or hit with runners in scoring position.

Interestingly, those same numbers show the Mets poll best among Hispanics, Catholics and illiterates. The Phillies, on the other hand, display significant strength among $1 hot dog aficionados, college professors and young white men who like to paint their chests.

Anybody familiar with the 24-hour news cycle knows pennant races are gloves-off affairs. Rest assured that both teams are playing hardball. I've been in both locker rooms and, believe me, there's plenty of dirty laundry. Talk about a Pew poll!

In March, you'll recall, a YouTube video surfaced in which controversial mascot Mr. Met delivered a hate-filled anti-Phillies harangue. He was quickly dismissed. But not long afterward, a New York tabloid reported that manager Willie Randolph's perpetual blank stare was the result of cosmetic surgery.

And the Phillies have had their embarrassments, too. Last week, during a debate on the RFD network, manager Charlie Manuel uttered a grammatically correct sentence. He apologized immediately.

Today's game won't end until about 6 p.m. But already we're getting exit-poll data.

Mets fans, as expected, are outdrinking their Philly counterparts by a 2-1 margin, which, Pat Buchanan, is quite surprising.

BUCHANAN:

Well, Chris, New York . . .

MATTHEWS:

But what about Phillies fans? So far, our polling shows a remarkable unanimity. When asked, "Does Dallas suck?", 9 of 10 respondents answered affirmatively.

Karl Rove, when you look at the early polling, what does it say about this pennant race?

ROVE:

Before I answer that Chris, where's your flag pin? And did you know Joe Wilson's wife was CIA? But actually . . .

MATTHEWS:

This is truly remarkable. If these numbers are at all accurate, we could have a winner by the sixth inning.

People, will we see a Mets concession tonight? Realistically, they lose and there's little incentive to fight on. Not with that payroll. Keith Olbermann, are we witnessing an end-game?

OLBERMANN:

Bush bad. Bush bad. Bush . . .

MATTHEWS:

For our viewers, this program note: When we're through here, Dan Abrams will examine the ongoing search for Ryan Howard's bat. And on tomorrow's

Morning Joe,

Joe Scarborough will attempt to answer the question, "Who's the bigger hot dog, Jose Reyes or the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile?"

NASCAR note of the week.

Adidas has teamed up with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a new line of clothing. I called up the Jr. Nation Gear Web site and, not surprisingly, the only items displayed were T-shirts.

What, no beer-stained ball caps?

Fore-score lifespan?

A study by Sweden's Karolinska Institute has revealed that golf can add extra years to your life.

The researchers obviously never contacted my playing partners.

The lowest death rates, the study showed, corresponded with the lowest handicaps.

By that measure, I should have succumbed at 19.

Two related news items.

1. The Major Indoor Soccer League folded this week.

2. A tree fell in the woods.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.