This World Series has been terrific, thoroughly enjoyable baseball from two teams I respect a lot, in which I end up rooting for both of them. My poor Giants didn’t make the playoffs this year, for what turned out to be good reasons. The pitching, which in previous years (2010! 2012!) has been the team’s biggest strength, really fell apart this season. But the hitting also stank. Plus they didn’t field well. So they were bad at scoring runs, bad at preventing the other teams from scoring runs, and bad at turning hit balls into outs. This is not a recipe for success.
The St. Louis Cardinals were very good this year, as they’ve been every year of the last ten. Their scouting department is unparalleled. Every season, it seems, they have a new crop of young, superbly talented pitchers and hitters coming up from the minor leagues. (This is also something the Giants are bad at, BTW). Their biggest find this year is a young pitcher named Michael Wacha. The name is pronounced ‘wocka‘, like the thing Fozzie Bear always says to punctuate a joke. Wacha the pitcher is 22 years old. 18 months ago, he was a college kid. But he throws the ball 98 miles an hour, knows what he’s doing on the mound, and has been basically unhittable, except by David Ortiz, the Red Sox best hitter, and a guy who the Cardinals seem completely incapable of getting out.
The Red Sox are a fun team to follow too, though. They’re a storied franchise, a tribute to the enduring power of myth, building a team tragedy on hubris and karma. Myth: In 1918, they had the best player in the history of baseball: Babe Ruth. The Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, though, wanted to produce a Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette. So he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox never could win after that, while the Yankees won championship after championship. Curse Harry Frazee! Curse No, No, Nanette! It doesn’t hurt that lots of great writers live in Boston, and love baseball.
But then, see, then, the Curse of the Bambino was atoned for, you see, by an offering of human blood. In the 2004 playoffs, the Sox best pitcher, Curt Schilling, suffered a serious ankle injury. The sheath supporting his Achilles (more myth!) tendon was torn. A team doctor thought the loss of that sheath could be compensated for with sutures, and Schilling went out to pitch, badly injured, against the Yankees. Of course, against the Yankees. The sutures tore, and blood was visible pouring through his sock. Schilling somehow persevered, pitched brilliantly, won. The Sox went on to win the World Series. Against the Cardinals. Blood atoning for original sin–I’m telling you, this myth has everything.
And it’s all nonsense; well, except that Schilling really did pitch superbly though injured. But he wasn’t atoning for sin; he was just a good pitcher playing hurt. Harry Frazee didn’t invest in No No Nanette in 1918; he produced the musical five years later. And the Red Sox were indeed cursed, and did bring it on themselves; Tom Yawkey, their long-term owner, was a racist who refused to allow the team to sign any black players until many many years after every other team in baseball had. So while all the other teams had managed to sign the Jackie Robinsons and Willie Mays and Hank Aarons of the US, the Sox were always at a scouting/team development disadvantage.
Ballplayers are a superstitious lot, however, leading to this World Series most immediately obvious defining characteristic; the Red Sox players’ awful beards. Left fielder Jonny Gomes, I swear, needs to be cast in the last Hobbit movie; he’s essentially a Middle Earth dwarf. David Ross’ is even uglier. Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli look Amish. There is a reason for it, though.
Last year’s Red Sox really sucked. They hated their manager, the players were unhappy, morale was horrendous, and they underachieved. They traded away some dead wood, brought in guys like Napoli and Gomes (hard-nosed professionals both), and fired the manager. Their new manager, John Farrell, is on of the most respected in all of baseball, and the team responded with a terrific turn-around season. But Napoli and Gomes thought team morale might improve if they had a beard growing contest. So they’re an entertainingly scruffy lot, but they’re good; just a team of guys who throw out tough at bats and play good defense and scrap and hustle.
So there’s a bit of a contrast in styles in these two teams; they’re otherwise perfectly matched. One game turned on a play where an umpire reversed a call, which never happens. Another game ended on a controversial obstruction call, an obscure baseball rule which was, I was delighted to see, applied correctly to the kind of situation that doesn’t often come up. Another game concluded with a rookie Cardinals baserunner, in the game to pinch-run, having a brain freeze and getting picked off first. Never seen a game end that way.
The Red Sox have a relief pitcher, Koji Uehara, a Japanese guy who has not, as it happens, grown a beard–possibly because he can’t–who hasn’t walked a hitter since July. His statistics look like a misprint–no one can possibly pitch that well. But you watch him pitch, and it’s astonishing; he makes Major league hitters look completely foolish. The Sox lead the Series 3-2, and I think will win it in 7, mostly because they have Uehara, and the Cardinals relief staff, though very good, isn’t quite THAT good.
Plus the Sox have Papi. David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was their best hitter when they won the World Series in 2004, their best hitter when they won in 2008, and by far their best hitter so far in this Series. I don’t know of any athlete more beloved in their city than Papi is. I think the Cardinals will hang tough behind Wacha on Wednesday, and the Sox will win it on Thursday. But boy has it been a terrific World Series. Find a chance to watch it some.