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Friday, October 22, 2004

The World Series

This year's Fall Classic promises to be a great one. With the Boston Red Sox, you have the disciples of Moneyball. They won't bunt, hit and run or steal that much, but they'll be patient at the plate (in stark contrast to the Yankees, who were too eager to swat at the first pitch in Game 7) and wait for the three-run home run and the one big inning, a la Earl Weaver. And, of course, they are brimming with confidence from their miraculous comeback against the Yankees. This is a team that will flat out pound you on offense and tantalize you with their pitching. Their bullpen rose to the occasion, and two starters who struggled all year -- Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe -- found new life in the post-season.

With the St. Louis Cardinals, you have the GM who worked wonders in Oakland before Billy Beane got there (Walt Jocketty) and worked his Moneyball magic. You have the manager, too, in Tony LaRussa, who is back to the World Series for the first time in 14 years. This team not only bunts, it suicide squeezes. It not only fields, it makes plays that summon up images of Willie Mays in '54, where he robbed Vic Wertz of extra bases. And, this team hits. And hits. And hits. The Cardinals are built like an AL team on offense, and they have a bunch of good pitchers in the rotation. Their bullpen, though, is a little bit iffy. And, remember, that in a 7-game series, a team's strengths are magnified, but so are its weaknesses.

Ironically, it was the Red Sox who modified their Moneyball approach at mid-season, when they realized that they couldn't win with a pure Moneyball approach that threw caution to the wind and had glove-challenged players at the corners and even at SS, when an injured Nomar Garciaparra wasn't drawing comparisons to Ozzie Smith or, well, even Johnny Pesky. At mid-season they traded for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, to fine-fielding players, and their fortunes changed. They stopped allowing unearned runs, and they kicked their games into gear. Part Moneyball, part old-time baseball. Turned out it was the recipe for pure gold.

So who will win this rematch of 1946 and 1967? Will the BoSox run into a mad-dashing Enos Slaughter, who scored from first on an outfield single while Pesky, the beloved Johnny Pesky, allegedly held the ball while Slaughter ran around the bases? Will Scott Rolen play that role for the Cards this year, playing Slaughter to Cabrera's Pesky? Will Matt Morris or Woody Williams play the Gibson role? The former is more possible than the latter, although it's doubtful that a player could score from first on a single in this series or that pitchers like Morris, Williams or Jeff Suppan ever will mentioned in a sentence with Bob Gibson unless it's a string citation about who pitched for the Cardinals over the years. Hall of Famers they are not.

And Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Famer, and Curt Schilling might as well be. Will they make the difference? Or will the bats of a modern-day Murderers' Row of Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds prove to be too tough? Then again, will the Cards' bullpen hold up, especially in the late innings, when the BoSox are wont to strike. Will Jason Isringhausen prove to be up to the task, or, under the magnifying glass that is the post-season, will the Red Sox find a way to get to him often? And those bats are potent and clutch, too, lest anyone think that the Cards' lumber eclipses them. Johnny Damon caught fire at the right time, David Ortiz is one of the most clutch players in post-season history, and Manny Ramirez is due to knock in at least one more run in the World Series than the ALCS (where he knocked in none). While the offensive edge might go to the Cardinals, the 2004 Red Sox aren't the 1906 White Sox (known as the Hitless Wonders).

So I ask the question again? Who will win? You have two teams with fortunes in Games 7 of their World Series experiences that are polar opposites. The Cards have won all of their Games 7, the Red Sox have lost all of theirs. Both have great traditions. St. Louis is the best baseball town in America, and Boston is one of the most passionate. Two fabled franchises with rich histories of their own -- and together.

Will BoSox manager Terry Francona be up to the task, or will he have a Grady Little moment in the World Series (the way his critics argue he did in Game 7 of the ALCS, when he relieved Lowe to insert Martinez, whom the critics argue brought the Yankees and their fans back to life)? And it only takes one Grady Little moment in Boston to forever tarnish your reputation or to have the fate of Grady Little, a public guillotining if there ever was one. Will the Cards literally steal game one by running wild on Tim Wakefield's slow and unpredictable knuckleball? Or are the Red Sox on such a roll that they'll make the Series an anti-climax?

It says here that the Red Sox have come too far to lose now. It says here that the combination of great pitchers and a knuckleballer could tie the Cards up in knots. It says here that if the Sox get to game 6 up 3-2 and have Curt Schilling on the mound, they should bet their rent money on their horse, the guy they signed to take the heat in this precise moment and excel. Because if they get to the deciding game and Curt Schilling is on the hill, they will not lose.

Boston Red Sox in 6.

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