Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2021

Then There Were Two

The Giants, Dodgers and Rays, this year’s 100-win teams, are all gone.  Regular season accomplishments – each set or tied a franchise mark for most wins – proved no harbinger of postseason glory.  The Wild Card entrants into MLB’s playoff tournament are done as well.  The only sure prize for being one of the two best regular season also-rans is nine innings of postseason play, and the Cardinals and Yankees didn’t advance beyond that.  Los Angeles, which had the bad luck of having to travel the long Wild Card path to the World Series despite 106 victories, and Boston, a decisive winner over New York in the AL Wild Card Game, both made it to the League Championship round.  But first in Houston, then in Atlanta, the 2021 campaigns of those two clubs ended.  So too for the seasons of the White Sox and Brewers, Central Division champions in their respective league but vanquished in the Division Series round, which seems more than just barely two weeks ago.

Now only two remain, and on Tuesday evening the climax of the longest season gets underway.  World Series Game 1, at Minute Maid Park in Houston, between the Astros and Atlanta.  By many measures, it is a matchup of contrasts.  For Houston, this will be the third World Series appearance in five years.  The Astros were victorious in 2017 against the Dodgers but fell to the Nationals in 2019.  Even in the two years the team did not make the World Series, the Astros played their way as far as the ALCS.  The last team with five straight trips to its LCS was Atlanta from 1995-1999.  No AL franchise has accomplished the feat since the mid-70’s glory days of the Oakland A’s.  Not surprisingly, Houston won its division in each full, 162-game season during this span, averaging more than 100 wins while doing so.  This year’s 95-67 mark is actually the team’s worst record of the four full seasons.  Still, it was the second highest win total in the American League behind only Tampa Bay, and more than enough to hold off wildly overperforming Seattle, which somehow tallied 90 victories despite having the solidly negative run differential one would expect from a sub-.500 club.

All that recent success makes Houston one of MLB’s elite franchises, a team that from the February day when pitchers and catchers report is tagged as a title contender.  Atlanta is, at best, in the next tier of franchises.  This year marks the fourth straight season the club has claimed the NL East crown, but the consensus across the Great Game is that Atlanta’s division is weak.  Indeed, the 88 wins that were sufficient to finish 6 ½ games ahead of the Phillies were the fewest victories of any division champion, and less than any of the four Wild Card teams, a polite way of pointing out that Atlanta had the poorest record of the ten clubs that won the right to play on into October. 

The conventional wisdom about Atlanta is fortified by its playoff record.  Until last year’s strange, truncated campaign, the team had not made it past its first playoff series since 2001, tallying eight Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game defeat.  And when the club made it to the NLCS in 2020, it promptly coughed up a three-games-to-one lead over Los Angeles, and slunk home to Georgia.  One must go all the way back to 1999, the final year of that remarkable run of five straight NLCS appearances – and eight in nine years if one looks back a bit farther – to find a World Series in which Atlanta represented the National League.

Those contrasts, both current and historical, combined no doubt with the 22-1 by which the Astros outscored the Red Sox over the final 26 innings of the ALCS, have made Houston the heavy favorite for this year’s Series, according to the oddsmakers.  But for many fans, excepting of course the understandably elated faithful of the two franchises, the question is not which team is going to win, but why should we care?  As this year’s World Series commences, there is considerable antipathy toward both clubs.

For Atlanta, the ill will has nothing to do with the players, who like everyone who dons a major league uniform are committed to try their hardest.  But there’s no escaping that Atlanta’s uniform bears a name and symbol that caricatures a race.  The casual racism with which the Atlanta franchise is comfortable is further enflamed by the crude chant which the team promoted for years, and now quite willingly tolerates.

Then there is Houston.  Ah, the Astros.  Success at the highest level of any sport demands a huge amount of confidence and self-belief, so it will always be a mystery why a group of extremely talented athletes so doubted themselves that they needed to cheat, as the Astros did on their way to that tainted 2017 title.  But the greater damage was done by MLB’s failure to punish even a single active player once Houston’s sign-stealing scheme was uncovered, and by the decidedly limited degree of remorse expressed by the players who avoided any sanction beyond the lasting enmity of millions of fans.

There will be no joy in this quarter when thousands of Atlanta fans engage in racial parody, or when thousands of Houston fans cheer cheaters who barely even acknowledged their sins.  But in sports, as in life, every moment involves multiple storylines, and this World Series has a couple for which one can cheer.

First, there is Dusty Baker.  Brought out of a reluctant retirement to manage the Astros after the sign-stealing scandal, Baker has led five franchises over almost three decades as a field general.  He ranks twelfth on the all-time wins list with 1,987, and when Houston claimed the AL West crown, he became the first manager to guide five different teams to division titles.  He’s now one of only nine men to manage teams to pennants in both leagues.  But for all his success, and despite his candor and humor in the interview room, he’s never been the manager of a World Series winner. 

In the other dugout, there is Freddie Freeman.  One of the most likable players in the majors, Freeman has been a mainstay in Atlanta since debuting with the club in 2010.  He’s a five-time All-Star who was the league MVP in 2020, and has a Gold Glove Award on his resume for his play at first base.  Freeman’s famous for chatting up and boosting up opposing players who arrive at his defensive spot, and is also selfless, ceding his role as the face of the franchise to Ronald Acuna Jr. when the budding superstar arrived in 2018.  Now Freeman, who is about to become a free agent, is set to play in his first World Series, his team’s first in more than two decades.   

Reflecting the society in which it is played, the Great Game has always included our worst elements.  But for the same reason, it has also always included our best.  So, root for Dusty, or root for Freddie.  Root for a good World Series, and for games that end before midnight.

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