Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another Championship Goes to Waste

The Texas Rangers were perfectly poised to win their first World Series title: They were the better team, they were the more likable team and their fans deserved it more. Everything lined up. This being reality instead of Hollywood though, they lost, and in heartbreaking fashion, no less.

By now we all know that if Nelson Cruz had played just a few steps back, the Rangers would've won the title yesterday. The Cardinals, as luck would have it, got the perfect location on David Freese's drive, and mounted a comeback for the ages. The game made for good drama, but the end result was something baseball could've done without. The last day of the regular season was a thrilling affair, the top two teams (who'd recently won titles) were upset in the first round, the World Series saw some close, exciting games, and what was it all for? A team winning its 11th World Series title. It's hard to get more anti-climactic than that.

I must say, the last three odd-numbered years have not been good. This postseason joins the ranks of 2007 in my book: enough hope dangled to make the crushing conclusion sting with especial poignancy. 2009 was also pretty bad, but the playoff picture itself offered few appealing options, so it was more a case of "little to cheer for in the first place."

For the sixth year in a row, the team I was rooting for in the World Series has lost. I didn't have a huge problem with the Phillies or Giants winning, but I preferred their opponents in those particular years. I guess this is the price I must pay for finally seeing my White Sox win it: six straight years of frustration (and counting). I still remember sitting in my dorm room gazing at that small black-and-white TV when Juan Uribe threw out Orlando Palmeiro by half a step. Had I only known that never again in my 20's would I enjoy a final out like that one...well, perhaps it's for the best that I didn't. The odds say that I should enjoy a similar elation again before my 30's run out, but our emotions tend to be driven by the present, and right now I'm one sad baseball fan.

Cardinal fans didn't need this. Not one bit. They had their year just a half-decade earlier, and Ranger fans have now seen their wait reach the quadruple-decade mark. My only hope is that this isn't this Ranger team's last chance. Yes, they have a great organization, and yes, they look like potential playoff contenders for years to come, but as many great teams that have fallen short can attest, you never know when the opportunity you're presented with might be your last. Hopefully the Rangers can take inspiration from the last team to lose two World Series in a row: the 1991-92 Atlanta Braves. They got their ring three years later, and while those Braves' legacy is viewed as somewhat disappointing, that 1995 flag flies forever. I sincerely hope these Rangers get their year in the near future.

Just so I don't sound like a complete wet bag, I'll say that I'm happy for a few members of the Cardinals:

42-year-old Arthur Rhodes has carved out a solid 20-year career, mostly as a lefty relief specialist, and now, with little likely left in the tank, he finally has a championship. I'm glad that he got to experience something like this before it was all said and done.

Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday are two classy veteran sluggers winning their first titles. Neither is a Hall of Fame lock, but both have the potential to make it some day, depending on how much longer they can play at their current levels. Either way, they've gotten their turn at the summit, and even if they end up as mere Hall-of-Very-Gooders, they can always boast that they were once World Champions.

What the heck, I'm even happy for Corey Patterson, who was left off the playoff roster. I guess I have a soft spot for the Cubs' former top prospect, even if he's turned into nothing more than a journeyman who occasionally shows flashes of usefulness while remaining severely flawed in other facets of the game. He's a popular whipping boy, but he's now a popular whipping boy with a World Series ring.

Thus ends the 2011 season chapter of Major League Baseball. The 2011-12 offseason chapter now begins, and I can have my life back. Hopefully the 2012 season chapter gives us a conclusion worth cheering about.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Cardinal Narrative and the Ranger Imperative

Oh, those St. Louis Cardinals. MLB's crown jewel in the Midwest. The National League's most storied team from the World Series era. Baseball's classiest organization, with a fanbase that appreciates and loves the game like none other. This is the franchise of Branch Rickey's transcendent organizational acumen, Stan Musial's gentlemanly grace, Ozzie Smith's joyful flair and today, Albert Pujols' all-around dominance and class-actiness. What miscreant would dare speak ill of such a glorious institution as the Redbirds?

That was how I'd perceived the public sentiment toward the Cardinals up until a few years ago. Perhaps the sample on which I based my judgment wasn't as comprehensive as it might've been, but my perceptions shaped my belief that I was a relative minority in hating them. Now granted, I'm a Cub fan, so I was in a position where I was expected to hate the Cardinals. There was more to it than that for me though; there was something deeper involved.

I've always been a fan of the game first and my teams second, so few things warm my heart more than a franchise winning its first-ever championship. Being a true fan of any team is an emotional investment that's often more wearying than it is exhilarating, and I vicariously experience that especial thrill of victory whenever I see those rooters soaking in the triumphant moment for the first time in their lives. The flipside to this brand of empathy though, is that it pains me to see a team with a significant history of championship success win. Sure, their fans love the team and all that, but I know that deep down it doesn't mean nearly as much to them as it would to the fans of those teams with less past glory to comfort them.

My hatred for the Cardinals is rooted mainly in the fact that historically, they're the National League's answer to the Yankees. True, they don't exude quite as much arrogance as those louts in the Bronx, but all the same, their fans are hardly starving for moments they can take pride in.

My own personal feelings aside though, I think the attitude toward the Cards has changed in the last few years, or at least it has within my range of vision. While I knew several people perceived Tony LaRussa as a bit full of himself, he'd always struck me as one of the most respected men in the game. These days, I more frequently hear criticisms of his overmanaging and complaining to the officials (not to mention that whole DUI incident). Mark McGwire, who at one time exemplified St. Louis' grand tradition of exceptional performance and ideal decorum, fell from grace after his evasive testimony before Congress on the steroid issue. Chris Carpenter, whose name at one time was synonymous with Cy Young's, has become better-known as one of the game's biggest jerks. Even opposing players are openly expressing their loathing for the boys in the Gateway to the West. With the internet increasing in significance every year, the less-well-mannered elements of the fanbase have emerged from the woodwork, and Redbird Nation's once-sterling reputation has gradually evaporated. Before we realized what was happening, the Cardinals had gone from a well-regarded symbol of splendor to a reluctantly-respected outcast.

Despite the Cardinals' losing some luster, there seemed to be a sentiment in the baseball world during this past NLCS that rooting for them was every fan's moral duty. Why, you ask? Because their opponent was the Milwaukee Brewers, who acted more like an NFL team than an MLB aggregation. Nyjer Morgan's smack-talking on Twitter, "Beast Mode" hand signals, crazy home run celebrations...yeah, it just turned people off. Never mind that the good citizens of Milwaukee hadn't seen a World Series title since 1957 and that the Cardinals were hardly a likable bunch. The Brewers deserved to lose for committing the unpardonable sin of appearing to think a little too highly of themselves.

I never bought into this anti-Brewer sentiment for a minute. While I'm far from a fan of cocky behavior, I most certainly love a jubilant team spirit, which the Brew Crew has in spades. What one man calls boorish antics another man calls a passion for the game that enhances the experience. Many old-school fans complain that baseball has gotten too boring and slow-paced for the younger generation to take an interest, but these same people will denigrate teams like Milwaukee who try to infuse some excitement into the proceedings. I guess when you're a small-market club without history on your side, you don't get the benefit of the doubt.

Going into the postseason, the Brewers were my #1 choice to win the World Series. Knowing it was almost certainly Prince Fielder's last stand, they decided to go for broke instead of dealing him for prospects last offseason. How could a guy like me root against a team without a World Series title, especially when they might not get another such opportunity for a long time? It was only natural. In the end though, the Brewers' run preventive abilities proved sorely lacking, and the kids with the packed trophy case got to flaunt another one in front of the desperate kids who'd have to dream about their turn for another year. Baseball's made to break your heart, they say, and just when you're tempted to forget, it pops its head up and reminds you.

All is not yet lost, however. Fans of my ilk still have one hope remaining, and it lies in the American League's representative. For the second straight year that would be the Texas Rangers, another title-less franchise. The 2010 World Series, as you recall, matched up the Rangers with the San Francisco Giants, who had yet to win a World Series after over a half-century in the City by the Bay. Needless to say, an oppressive burden was going to be lifted off the shoulders of the winning fanbase. The Giants ultimately prevailed, and after falling short of the postseason in an injury-plagued 2011, perhaps it's for the best that they did. Had they lost, they'd be left with all kinds of uncertainty about how wide their current window of opportunity is open.

In a way, it works out well that the Brewers lost. It's sad for them and their fans, most assuredly, but rooting for the Rangers to lose their second straight World Series wouldn't have been particularly pleasurable for me. As it now stands, the Rangers have a chance to compensate for last year's loss, and the only thing standing in their way is a team no one has to feel bad for if they lose. It's almost too perfect.

If the Cardinals do end up winning this World Series, my immediate reaction will be that we were cheated out of a great story, and that another World Series title went to waste. Still, if you'd told me before the 2010 season that the Rangers would win the next two pennants, I probably would've been shocked. This was a franchise that had never previously made it past the ALDS, as well as a league-mate of baseball's two richest teams. What they've done these two years is undoubtedly impressive, and it's something I'll always cherish as a fan of the game. While the media's narrow focus will probably remain on Boston and New York, it's nice to see their hype trumped by a team that's quietly gone about its business of building a well-balanced winner. As I said about those windows of opportunity though, they can close sooner than you think. The Rangers would be well-advised to capitalize now.

The state of Texas has yet to see a championship in Major League Baseball. At this point, the optimum outcome of this season would be for the Lone Star State to expand its place in baseball lore past the Astrodome and the phrase "Texas Leaguer." For the good of the game, for the preservation of a sense of justice, this needs to be the Rangers' year.