The 109th World Series, which begins Wednesday night, will be a test between the best team in the National League and the best team in the American League.
Well, duh, that’s sort of the premise, right?
Not any more. Thanks to playoffs expanded with wild cards, the World Series hasn’t showcased the top regular-season winners from the NL and the AL since 1999.
Just another subplot in a St. Louis-Boston World Series that’s packed with on-field story angles (can the young and gifted Cardinals’ pitchers silence the booming bats of the Red Sox?), off-field story angles (who ranks as the sentimental choice: St. Louis’ “Best Fans in Baseball” or Boston’s “Red Sox Nation”?) and historic story angles.
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This is the fourth time these tradition-rich teams have collided in October. Their 1946 and 1967 encounters were, literally, Fall Classics. The 2004 Series, on the other hand, was an anticlimactic yawner that followed the Red Sox’s unprecedented comeback from an 0-3 deficit against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
“This World Series is going to be totally different than 2004,” Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver said during a conference call Monday. “I don’t think anybody in baseball would have beaten the Boston Red Sox once they came back after being down 0-3. I mean, there were Red Sox players congratulating the Yankees, wishing them good luck in the World Series,
before Game 4. That’s how down Boston was.”
Suddenly it was the Cardinals who had no chance. Victims of a Red Sox sweep, they scored two runs in four games.
A year after World Series television ratings dropped to an all-time low, Fox is hoping the 2013 rematch will be more reminiscent of the 1946 and 1967 classics, both won by the Cardinals in seven games.
The ’46 Series came down to the eighth inning of the finale at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter scored the decisive run from first base. Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” – he ran through the third-base coach’s stop sign – beat Johnny Pesky’s throw from second.
That Series also featured two of baseball’s all-time greatest players, St. Louis’ Stan Musial and Boston’s Ted Williams, in their incomparable prime. Neither would compete on a postseason stage again.
McCarver, who’ll be in the World Series broadcasting booth for the 24th and final time – he’s planning to retire from a baseball career that included 21 seasons as a big-league player and 34 as a TV analyst – had a bird’s-eye view of the 1967 Series, when he served as battery mate for Bob Gibson.
The glowering right-hander was no fun to face during the most favorable conditions for a hitter. But during day games at Boston’s Fenway Park, Gibson’s high fastball was unfair.
“To try to hit or catch Bob Gibson in a day game was almost impossible,” recalled McCarver. “There was no batters’ eye in center field. The Red Sox allowed people to sit there, and many of them wore white shirts.”
After Gibson struck out 10 in the Cards’ Game 1 victory, one Boston batter decided he needed some work. A few days removed from winning the AL Triple Crown, Carl Yastrzemski went to the batting cage behind the center-field wall.
“Our team was waiting for the bus to take us back to the hotel when we saw ‘Yaz’ hit,” said McCarver. “After 163 games, he was taking extra hitting. That impressed us all. And it must have worked, because the next day, he went 3-for-4 with two home runs and four RBI. They beat us badly.”
The seesaw trend of the ’67 Series continued through Game 6, setting up a winner-take-all duel between Gibson and Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg. Even though Lonborg was pitching on two-days’ rest, adrenaline can be an amazing performance-enhancer.
At least, that’s how the Boston Herald saw it. On Oct. 12, 1967, in giddy anticipation of the Red Sox’s first world championship since 1918, the newspaper’s front page blared the headline “Lonborg and Champagne.”
“It made us mad,” said McCarver. “To a man, we were very upset at the way the Boston press played it. That did not work in the Red Sox favor.”
His tank down to fumes, Lonborg gave up two runs in the top of the third and the Cardinals never looked back. Gibson, meanwhile, was typically splendid. His World Series totals: three complete games, 26 strikeouts, three runs allowed … and a solo homer off Lonborg in Game 7.
Odds are long that any current St. Louis pitcher approaches the level of Gibson’s dominant work against the 1967 Red Sox. But if the Cardinals hang around, it will be because of Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright (a 6-foot-7 tower of power with uncanny control of one of one best curveballs in the business), Game 2 starter Michael Wacha (a rookie who beat the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the presumptive Cy Young Award winner, twice in the NL Championship Series) and a bullpen full of kids with no fear.
Still, there’s a reason the Red Sox are slight favorites. Their lineup is more potent and their bench is deeper, and though their top-of-the-rotation – anchored by Bellarmine Prep graduate Jon Lester, who starts Wednesday – is not as imposing as their St. Louis counterparts, they’ll have a 4-3 home-field advantage if the Series goes seven.
Which it will (I hope), with the Red Sox winning (I think).
This much I know for sure: The St. Louis Cardinals will not wake up on the morning of Oct. 31, before Game 7, and see “Lester and Champagne” on the front page of the Boston Herald.
That headline must be reserved for a more appropriate date, like Nov. 1.