I'm going to be totally honest here: I didn't really like the 2009 baseball season. Mark Buehrle's perfect game and the Twins-Tigers tiebreaker were pretty cool, but that's about it. The regular season (and hence the playoff picture) was dominated by teams I either didn't like or was simply tired of seeing. In the American League you had the Angels (boring old playoff standby), Red Sox (obnoxious) and Yankees (evil). In the National League you had the Cardinals (hate 'em), Phillies (last year's champs) and Dodgers (enough historical success that they don't interest me). Oh sure, you had the Rockies and Twins in there too, but neither one was a serious contender, and they both proved it by folding in the first round.
To top it off, the last team standing was the Yankees, who got there mainly because they'd signed two potential Hall of Famers in their primes during the offseason. Anytime the Yankees win it, their story plays out with all the drama of a trip to the grocery store. Who wants to get emotionally invested in that?
2010 though, was a season of redemption. We saw some great pennant races and ended up with a pretty exciting playoff picture. In the National League you had the Giants (fun core of players in a city without a World Series title), Reds (new blood) and Braves (Bobby Cox's last season). In the American League you had the Rangers (oft-overlooked franchise having a magical year), Twins (overcame key injuries and still looking for their first title under Ron Gardenhire) and Rays (small-payroll team keeping pace with the big dogs).
Like 2009, each league had one certifiable exception to the rule, in this case the Phillies and Yankees. Neither team had any story to speak of. The Yankees were the same old rich bullies they'd been the year before, and the Phillies were shooting for their third pennant in a row. True, the Phillies had brought several ringless veterans into the fold since 2008 (Raul Ibanez, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Placido Polanco, Mike Sweeney), but with many of the same core players in place they could hardly be considered a team with something to prove. Any of those other teams winning the World Series was fine, but the Yankees or Phillies? That would be a waste.
The first round results were bittersweet. On the bitter side, both the Phillies and the Yankees advanced. On the sweet side, the two teams I most wanted to see in the World Series also advanced. This left me with a few possibilities:
1. Both teams I'm rooting for face off in the World Series and I have a matchup I can sit back and enjoy.
2. Only one of the two makes it, meaning I have someone to pull for, as well as the constant stress of knowing that a team I don't like could take the title.
3. Neither one makes it and the 2010 season goes down in history as a sick joke.
Obviously I wanted #1, but the pessimist in me feared it would be #3. Hey, it's a rough life being a sports fan when you feel vicariously represented by every underdog. In spite of my doubts, we got #1, a Texas-San Fran World Series!
The Storylines Abound
If you're a hardcore baseball fan you probably know all the great storylines surrounding these teams. Heck, you can skip these next two paragraphs if you've heard them rehashed enough times already. First, the Giants. They haven't won a World Series since 1954, and never since moving to San Francisco in 1958. They're a collection of castoffs from other teams, including their NLCS MVP, who was picked up on waivers in August. They traded catcher Bengie Molina to make room for top prospect Buster Posey, who responded by making a strong case for Rookie of the Year. Their slogan for the season has been "Torture," due to their habit of winnin' games while cuttin' 'em close.
The Rangers have their own compelling story to tell. They have a potential MVP in Josh Hamilton, who worked his way back to baseball stardom after nearly destroying his life with drugs and alcohol. They advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and beat the Yankees, the team they'd lost to in each of their previous postseason appearances, in the ALCS. Owner Tom Hicks filed for bankruptcy in May and sold the team to a group led by Chuck Greenberg and former Ranger ace Nolan Ryan in August. During Spring Training manager Ron Washington was revealed to have tested positive for cocaine last year, and he's looking for redemption. They've adopted hand signals such as "the claw" and "the antlers" in a show of camaraderie. They've gotten this far with one of the league's lowest payrolls. Oh yeah, they're also the team that picked up Bengie Molina from the Giants.
Who To Root For?
Whichever team wins this thing, it's sure to be one of our more memorable World Series champions. The only question I have is who I should throw my support behind. Let's try to analyze this thing:
Championship drought by franchise:
Giants: 56 years
Rangers: 50 years (since inception)
Championship drought by city:
Giants: 53 years
Rangers: 39 years
Well, it seems to be favoring the Giants so far. Then again, there are other factors that come into play. For instance, how likely is each of these teams to return to the World Series in the near future? Let's look at their situations:
Pros: Decent-sized payroll, play in the weaker league, good core of young pitchers
Cons: Seem to have caught lightning in a bottle with some of these players, GM doesn't always spend wisely
Pros: New ownership, massive new television deal which will allow them to expand payroll and possibly grow their fanbase, front office has a good reputation
Cons: Might lose Cliff Lee this offseason, have to compete with big spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox for the pennant
Hmmmmmmmm. My gut says the Giants are in a better position to return to the World Series next year than the Rangers. Of course, back in 2008 I also thought the Rays were in a better position to return than the Phillies, so what do I know?
The biggest factor of them all though, is the emotional side. The sight of which team hoisting the World Series Trophy would warm my heart more? I have to say...sorry, Giants. You're a fun collection of personalities, but the Rangers have affected me more emotionally. When I see them flashing their signals and tumbling over each other in victory celebrations, I see an esprit de corps that's truly special. Heck, I'll even admit that when Josh Hamilton was named ALCS MVP I teared up a little. Also, the Giants have several guys who have won it already (Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe, Aaron Rowand, Edgar Renteria, Javier Lopez), while the Rangers only have Molina. I'd be totally happy with a Giant victory, but if I had to choose a side I'd pick the Rangers.
All I Really Want
Since one of these teams unfortunately has to lose, my biggest hope for this World Series is that it goes seven games. I would love nothing more than a super-close one that gets remembered alongside 1991. The 1991 World Series isn't best remembered for the Twins winning it, it's remembered for the epic battle with the Braves that came down to the tenth inning of Game 7. When it's that tight, the team that loses almost seems like a co-winner. And hey, the Braves went back to the World Series the next year and became the National League's team of the 1990's, so everybody won in the end.
The worst thing would be a series that goes less than six games, because then the "bigger is better" types* would use it to justify their complaints about two non-marquee teams participating ("See? The Yankees weren't in it and it was completely boring and one-sided!"). We're already hearing some of them say what a "ratings disaster" this series going to be, as if any real baseball fan should care about such things. This matchup may not appeal to casual fans, but for us true baseball fans, this is heaven.
*I recently discovered a blog whose author coined a term I strongly identify with: baseball humanist. This term refers to us fans who love baseball for the human stories it provides. We view the season as a narrative, and the action on the field as a chapter in the story of each team and player. As such, when playoff time rolls around we tend to root for the teams that have something to prove. When a franchise has a championship drought or a great player is searching for his first ring, every game is potentially part of a defining postseason. Few things are more exciting than history in the making.
I asked myself what the flipside to the baseball humanist was, and I came up with the "bigger is better" fan. You know the type. They don't care about stories or people, they just want to see the biggest stars and the most glamorous teams. That outlook seems rather shallow, in my opinion, but to each his own.
Anyway, I don't have a real prediction for you, since my predictions are usually wrong, and it's such a close match that it could go either way. If you care though, my hunch says the Giants are going to win. If it goes seven close games (and the "Torturous" Giants could very well make it happen), I'll be able to look back on the 2010 season with the utmost satisfaction.