Friday, October 21, 2005

The Fall Classic 2005

Output has been somewhat reduced lately here at The Home office. The company line blames it on a project at work and some family responsibilities. The truth is that October is always a slow month here, mainly due to sleep deprivation brought about by baseball playoff games that run until about 11:30 every night. At 88 days until the Big Five-O and counting, I’m too old to stay up that late and bounce right out of bed when the alarm rings at 5:45. Something has to give.

It won’t be the baseball. This year’s playoffs haven’t been as compelling as last year’s. Big surprise. Last year saw America’s version of Sisyphus, the Boston Red Sox, pull off a trifecta of which legends are made: not only the first team ever to come back from a three games to none deficit in a best-four-of-seven series, they did it against the hated Yankees, the Evil Empire, Sparta to the Athens of America. The Sox then ran the table, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Championship since 1918, crushing the Curse of the Bambino, which the Sox had brought upon themselves by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, who at that time were still only Annakin Skywalker compared to the Darth Vader they would become. That’s drama.

This Series has potential. The White Sox are one of only two teams who have waited longer than the Red Sox for a championship. Of course, they earned their curse, throwing the 1919 World Series. (The Cubs are the only team with a longer streak of frustration. They claim their own Curse of the Billy Goat, but they’re playing catch-up. The Cubs aren’t cursed; they just suck. If there is a Cub curse, it’s because the baseball gods can’t bear the thought of their yuppie scum fans wrecking Wrigleyville.) There can’t be more than a handful of people alive who can honestly claim to remember the last time the White Sox won the World Series; most people aren’t old enough to remember their last trip to the big dance in 1959.

No one remembers the last time the Houston Astros won: they never have. Born in 1962, the Astros didn’t win a postseason series of any kind until last year, before losing to the Cardinals in a seven-game thriller eclipsed nationally by the Red Sox-Yankees cataclysm. No matter who wins this year, it will be something new.

The White Sox are favored, having won 99 regular season games. The Astros won 89, sneaking into the playoffs on the last day as the wild card, 11 games behind St. Louis. Of course the Astros have since beaten the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, and people paying attention aren’t surprised. Most mentions of the Astros’ disastrous start this year (15-30) are combined with comparison to the only other team to be 15 games under .500 and still play in the postseason, the 1914 Miracle Braves, lending a mildly disparaging “little engine that could” flavor the accomplishment. Left unmentioned is that the Astros’ record after they got their act together was 74-43, a pace that would have won 102 games over a full season. That’s two more than the Cardinals; three more than the Sox.

A lot has been made of Chicago’s brilliant postseason starting pitching. Deservedly so: four consecutive complete postseason games hasn’t been done since the 1956 Yankees. Good as they are, it’s unlikely they’ll stay that hot. Houston’s top three of Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and Roy Oswalt aren’t bad, either. They’ll start six of a possible seven games, with Oswalt the likely Game 7 starter. Anyone who saw him pitch against St. Louis in Games 2 and 6 has to like Houston’s chances in a potential deciding game, and he wasn’t pitching over his head.

Houston doesn’t score many runs, and the White Sox have good hitters up and down the lineup. A World Series foible augurs in the ‘Stro’s favor. The White Sox will get to use the Designated Hitter in Games 1, 2, 6, and 7; pitchers bat in Games 3, 4, and 5. This means the Sox will be without their usual Number Five hitter Carl Everett and his 23 home runs and 87 RBI when playing in the jet engine-equaling noise of Minute Maid Park. The Astros will use their regular lineup.

It’s in Chicago that the Astros get a break. Future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell has suffered through a serious shoulder injury all year, unable to throw even well enough to play first base. He can still hit, and had a decent year playing almost exclusively as a pinch hitter. He’s a rallying presence for the Houston team, and has been a leader ever since the Killer Bees came into existence over ten years ago. (Houston seems to have an affinity for good hitters whose names begin with B. This year’s team features Biggio, Burke, and Berkman, in addition to Bagwell, plus a pitcher named Backe.)

Both teams can manufacture runs with the best of them. Chicago led the American League in successful squeeze bunts; Houston was second in the NL. Both teams have speed and play good defense. One of them will break a schneid of historic proportions in what should be a series of closely-played games. Probably seven of them, with Houston winning four.

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