Hate this World Series match-up? Your loss
The Red Sox and Cardinals have their detractors, but that can't take away from what could be a great World Series.
At heart, Major League Baseball is a local sport, and as such tribalist passions tend to inform our decisions. That's probably why I've enountered more than a few fans who are swearing off the 2013 World Series before it even begins.
You see, on the one hand you have the Red Sox, who have inspired far-flung legions of followers and, since their 2004 drought-ending triumph, served as a lodestone for bandwagon types. They're an Eastern Seaboard colossus with filled coffers and, to hear those in points west and south tell it, a prominent place in the media's heart of hearts. Red Sox Nation seems bent on global hegemony, and so the Sox, unless you're a Sox partisan, are not to be embraced.
In the other dugout, we have the Cardinals. Has there ever been a fan base who made such a festish out of being reminded daily of its greatness? No doubt, the Cardinals have passionate fans who fill the ballpark to the rafters and know a little something about the game they're watching. But what's really to separate fans of the Cardinals from other old-line line fan bases like those in San Francisco or the North Side of Chicago or the Bronx or ... Boston? And then there's the NLCS sub-dramas, in which the Cardinals assumed from Brian McCann the solemn duties of Exchequer of Baseball Decorum.
Given all that and given the general fatigue surrounding two teams that are familiar with October successes over the last decade or so, the "pox on both their houses" approach to this Fall Classic seems understandable. With that said, you swear off this World Series at your own peril.
Regardless of your feelings toward the Cardinals, they've barged into the World Series on a strength of a roster that can be described as "ruthlessly homegrown." Among their starting position players, you'll find five -- Yadier Molina, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Pete Kozma and Jon Jay -- who were signed and developed by the Cardinals. The still-hobbled Allen Craig, who'll DH in Boston, makes six. Three-fourths of the Cardinals World Series rotation is homegrown. Ace Adam Wainwright was acquired via trade as a minor-leaguer, and the same goes for the third baseman David Freese. The four most important arms in the bullpen -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist -- were signed and developed by the Cards. Ditto for Shane Robinson, Daniel Descalso, Tony Cruz, Kolten Wong -- St. Louis's most vital bench players.
And there's the success of the Cardinal "branding." This, after all, is a team that resides in a metro area that ranks just 21st in the U.S. population and in a city with a badly depressed industrial economy. Despite those structural limitations, the Cardinals spend a lot money and make even more of it. The "Best Fans in Baseball" refrain is surely a tiresome one, but the Cardinals for years have done a masterly job of yoking the team on the field to the fans in the seats.
As for the Red Sox, they're a worst-to-first story in 2013 helmed by a manager who's eminently more likable than his predecessor. But it's really more than "merely" going from last place to a division title. The Sox in 2013 won an AL-best 97 games and posted the top run differential in all of baseball despite playing the fifth-toughest schedule. Taking on an unbalanced slate in the AL East means their excellence was hard-won.
The team was also bouyed offseason moves that looked highly dubious at the time. Mike Napoli and his congenitally bad hips? It turned out to be a wise addition. Shane Victorino coming off his worst season as a big leaguer? He's a core contributor. Stephen Drew and his downward-trending bat? He enjoyed one of his best seasons at the plate. Treat the terminally disappointing John Lackey as a sunk cost or exile him to the bullpen in his first season back from Tommy John surgery? He'll start Game 2.
And never underestimate the appeal of a strong reserve corps. A good bench is the sign of a front office that's taking the entire roster seriously and a manger who knows how to put his players in a position to succeed. On that front, John Farrell played match-ups properly and kept guys at once fresh yet rested. The bench is one of the biggest edges the Sox have over the Cardinals headed into this series, and that Boston bench may right now have on it an unlikely Series hero or three. How about conjuring up a shutdown closer out of a 38-year-old import who didn't pan out as a starter in Baltimore? ALCS MVP Koji Uehara fits those descriptions.
Above all, these are the best two teams from their respective leagues. The Cardinals and Red Sox not only tied for best record in MLB, but they also authored the top two run differentials in all of baseball. It promises to be a collision of excellence.
As our own Danny Knobler has written, these two teams have also dodged each other in interleague play since 2008, which gives this particular series that aura of mystery that's been largely lost to history. On top of all that, you have two old-guard franchises is cities where baseball lords over all it surveys.
Maybe -- like a lot of fans -- you see the 2013 World Series as a story without a hero, without a team worthy of your unleavened support. That's fine, of course. But if that's enough for you to pass on baseball being played at the highest of highest levels and being played for the last time until far-off spring, then do as you will. But think about what you'll be missing.
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