The MLB playoffs started today the other day.
I’m not sure I care.
Baseball is still, at heart, as provincial a sport as there is. If your team isn’t in the playoffs, you may well be totally disenchanted at this point; if your team never thought it would miss John Schuerholz this much, you may well have stopped following everything but Chipper Jones and Jair Jurrjens. (Guilty.)
But one of the magical things about baseball is that the thing that makes it such great white noise for the rest of the sporting calendar makes it that much more potent in October. Though I wasn’t alive in a time when daytime World Series games meant radios on in schools and feverish pedaling down country lanes after the bell, I know the World Series less as sporting event and more as event.
There’s something special about the World Series and about the use of baseball as a metaphor for everything in American life. It’s been usurped as a sport by football, and perhaps basketball, but the way baseball rose as a pastime when America was coming into its own sparked a romance between the sport and this society that gets a renaissance every October for at least four to seven games.
A great World Series is a masterpiece more akin to art than battle, a cerebral, slow-motion performance that lends itself to the lyricism of myth and the power of lasting images. Baseball’s not as fast as football, and it doesn’t soar like basketball. It plods, paces, and plugs.
And in October, it ends on a beautiful autumn day, the last chapter of another book inked in by the victor as champagne rains and fans exult.
As a sports fan, in my lifetime, despite watching my Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl, despite my Florida Gators winning two titles in both football and basketball, despite seeing Boise State upend Oklahoma, countless buzzer-beaters, fantastic playoff hockey games, immortal World Cup games, remarkable Olympic moments, and so much more, the most vivid sports memories I have came from the month of October.
I remember the 1996 and 1998 World Series, the Atlanta Braves’ first title and greatest disappointment, respectively, the 1997 World Series, the surge of the Florida Marlins, the 2004 World Series, the culmination of a century of pain for the Boston Red Sox, and, of course, the marvelous 2001 World Series, the magical seven-game back-and-forth with the specter of September 11th shadowing the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks.
There’s nothing like the World Series to make you love baseball. And, yeah, I suppose I do care about at least that.
So, the possible World Series matchups, in order of interest to me:
16. White Sox vs. Brewers
Finally, the world could see a duel between CC Sabathia and Bobby Jenks to see who could pop more buttons on a jersey. It’s either that or something about Ken Griffey Jr. getting his World Series ring while playing against a team determined to prove its exile from the AL Central was unjust.
15. Angels vs. Brewers
Milwaukee’s going to get no respect here for a bit, but that’s the peril of being a small-market team utterly devoid of any character worth talking about. The managerial battle between Dale Sveum and Mike Scioscia will at least give some copy editors some work.
14. Red Sox vs. Brewers
Sorry, I’ve seen the story of “scrappy NL team full of young talent with interesting wrinkle from manager against the Red Sox” before, and it was called “Rocktober.” Also, it was as boring as sandpapering the Sphinx.
13. White Sox vs. Dodgers
For two teams in major metropolitan areas, could these squads be any less impressive? Los Angeles has Derek Lowe, half of the Japanese national team, the corpses of Brad Penny and Jeff Kent, and Manny Ramirez; Chicago’s got, uh, Jermaine Dye, Mark Buerhle, and Jim Thome? Heck, these aren’t even the best teams in their cities in the postseason this year. Maybe Griffey and Andruw Jones can compare paunches.
12. White Sox vs. Phillies
It would be cool to see Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels twirl gems against each other, but that’s maybe two games of a seven-game series. For the rest of the, we’d have to deal with erratic pitching against good offenses, and that’s a recipe for a lopsided World Series.
11. Angels vs. Phillies
Good things: there would be more red on the field than Clara Barton could handle; we would get the tortured history of the Phillies against the semi-tortured history of the Angels (who did, yes, win a World Series this decade); it would give Bill Plaschke and Stephen A. Smith a reason to fight to the death.
Bad things: zzzzzz. How can a 100-win team be so boring? How can a power-packed lineup not really inspire a lot of comparisons to mashers past?
10. Rays vs. Dodgers
I suppose there would be worse things than Joe Torre and Joe Maddon matching wits and Manny Ramirez returning to Tropicana Field, but I can’t get excited about this Dodgers team. They lucked into Manny and struggled all year in a terrible division; getting hot now doesn’t make them compelling.
9. Rays vs. Phillies
No matter who the Rays play if they make it, their rise can be the overarching theme of the postseason, but the Phillies bring a little pathos of their own. Getting to the World Series only to be denied by the interloper and the potential of the Phillies’ lineup facing Tampa Bay’s live arms both give this a bit more oomph than the choice above.
8. Angels vs. Cubs
The Cubs making the World Series might actually stop the world for a while, and the prospect of a team named the Angels becoming the foe of All That Is Right And Good for a fortnight is amusing. But the intrigue lies in a team that dispatched its demons in the last ten years standing at the end of a century-long challenge for the other one. No Series including the Cubs would be bad from where I stand.
7. Rays vs. Brewers
Two teams from arguably the worst possible small-market circumstances putting the best young talent baseball has to offer together would be grand, and though the TV ratings will be down, this is the only matchup that ensures a team that has never won a World Series will be hoisting that weird gold thing with all the flags at the end of the month. That’s worth something
6. Red Sox vs. Phillies
Like it wasn’t enough for the Eagles to reach the Super Bowl, finally, then have fate and Tom Brady cruelly yank away that elusive title, now the city with the most pent-up sports angst would have a chance to meet and defeat the team from the city on one of the all-time great rolls in sports history.
And there’s little storylines everywhere: Tom Gordon gets some press here; so does Terry Francona; so does J.D. Drew. If I had to give these series stars or some other rating, this would be about where I started doling out four or five. (Plus, there’s every possibility of AJ Daulerio and Bill Simmons issuing twin fatwas on each other. That’s a blog war I would love to see.)
5. Angels vs. Dodgers
It’s a Subway Series without subways; call it the Freeway Faceoff. West Coast World Series are always fun because of the timing, too: seeing actual sunlight during October baseball is a good thing. And there’s the undercard of the Rally Monkey against Manny, which, if it actually happened, would be awesome beyond words. The downside, though, is that Los Angeles would have to pretend to care about something, and Simmons would be writing sonnets to Manny and asking him to knock off the team that beat the Sox.
4. White Sox vs. Cubs
There’s no precedent for this, but I would like to predict that if this happens, kielbasa will be flying off the shelves in the Chicago area, thousands of Chicagoans will become better acquainted with each other, hospitals in Illinois will have all sorts of fun cases on their hands, and Barack Obama might just be able to enjoy some baseball in the middle of his campaign.
That is, unless the Cubs lose a heartbreaker in seven and Chicago parties like it’s 1968; then Obama will just have to give a speech and save the world while Sarah Palin wonders aloud what baseball is.
3. Rays vs. Cubs
No history vs. The Curse. Carefree vs. more baggage than Britney. Joe Maddon vs. Lou Piniella. Ten years of pathetic vs. a century of misery. Tropicana vs. Wrigley. The ghost of Victor Zambrano vs. the fire of Carlos Zambrano. More reasons for baseball writers to talk about the history of the game and how it changes.
Really, it’s a compelling matchup without considering the history involved, from the young Rays pitchers matching up with the excellent Cubs staff and the incandescent Evan Longoria leading a battery of baby-faced sluggers against the Cubbies’ high-priced stars.
And there’s no way this wouldn’t be one of the best contrasts in a final series in baseball history. It’s a fantastic possibility.
2. Red Sox vs. Dodgers
There’s no way that this series wouldn’t tell us more than we’ve ever wanted to know about Manny Ramirez. There would be camera crews following him on every 4 AM run to In-N-Out Burger, reporters talking to who does his dreads, his family appearing on a very special episode of “Hole In the Wall.”
And you know what? I’m fine with that, because it means Bill Simmons might not sleep for two weeks and finally get into that drunken brawl with Rick Reilly everyone’s been waiting for with bated breath and/or write some great pieces for a change.
Also, because it’s a East Coast/West Coast showdown of prestige team; because Joe Torre gets to try to beat the Sawx once more, with feeling; because it’s going to put Tommy Lasorda in the spotlight at least once; because there’s the potential for Japan to explode with super happy fun excitement should Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda start a game that is then handed off to Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito; because you’ve got two of the best young pitchers in baseball involved, Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw; because you’re putting Celtics-Lakers on the diamond.
There’s a lot of stuff there.
1. Red Sox vs. Cubs
Do I even need to tell you why?
Forget the storylines, the players, the histories, the failures, the frustrations, the hype. Ask yourself where you would want to play a World Series game if you could be the starting shortstop for the home team. Ask yourself where you would want to watch a World Series game in person. Ask yourself where would you want to be when a team wins a World Series at home.
If your answer isn’t Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, with the Bleacher Bums or atop the Green Monster, on Waveland Avenue or on Yawkey Way, well, you and I, we are not the same. (If your answer is Yankee Stadium, you’re probably fellating Derek Jeter in your mind. Please stop.)
ESPN would destroy this series, somehow, with hype overwhelming history by three hours after the pitch to seal the second pennant hits a mitt. But what a dream it would be.
And, of course, before I wrote this list, I made some sure-to-be-wrong predictions that will screw up those 1,500 words. Oops.
Red Sox over Angels in 5
Rays over White Sox in 3
Red Sox over Rays in 7
Cubs over Dodgers in 4
Phillies over Brewers in 4
Cubs over Phillies in 6
Cubs over Red Sox in 7
That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.