This year's World Series won't be quite as geographically compact as New York's old ``subway'' rivalries of the 1940s and '50s, but it will come close. For in a showdown that should please such on-the-road types as Charles Kuralt and Willie Nelson, baseball hits the highway, shuttling between Kansas City and St. Louis along the interstate in an all-Missouri ``I-70 Series.'' The best-of-seven confrontation gets underway Saturday and Sunday nights in Kansas City, where the Royals have just returned after staging a dramatic comeback to beat Toronto in a seven-game playoff for the American League pennant. The National League champion Cardinals, who also came from behind to defeat Los Angeles four games to two, host the third and fourth contests, plus a fifth if necessary, before a possible return to K.C.
Until now, ironically, these intra-state foes have never played anything but an occasional exhibition against one another, hardly the stuff of territorial feuds. There are, however, a couple of interesting individual switches.
Outfielder Lonnie Smith, who played a key role for the Cardinals when they won the 1982 World Series, will be wearing a Kansas City uniform in this one. And St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog is the man who built the Royals into a winner, managing them to three division titles in five years before he was fired in 1979.
Ironically, not much was expected of either team this year.
``Coming out of spring training nobody gave us a chance to do anything,'' said Ozzie Smith, St. Louis's acrobatic shortstop who became a hitting star as well against the Dodgers and was voted the NL playoff MVP. And the joke around the K.C. camp was that the Royals would have trouble winning their own intrasquad game after getting swept by Detroit in last year's playoffs.
George Brett, Kansas City's all-star third baseman, believes that both clubs are easily overlooked.
``You don't have the media coverage or the population the East Coast or West Coast does,'' said the veteran slugger who triggered his team's comeback against the Blue Jays and was named the AL playoff MVP. ``I'm not saying it's unfair, but I think we have a lot better team than people realized.''
The Cardinals probably won a larger measure of respect during the regular season by beating out the New York Mets in a nip-and-tuck NL East race. The Royals, on the other hand, only gradually overtook the California Angels in baseball's weakest division.
In the playoffs, however, both teams from the Show Me State clearly showed 'em.
After losing the first two games in L.A., St. Louis stormed back to win the next four, capturing the finale on Jack Clark's three-run, ninth-inning homer.
The stunned Dodger pitcher was Tom Niedenfuer, the same reliever who had given up Ozzie Smith's ninth-inning game-winner in the previous contest.
The Royals also got their share of timely hits, and from players besides the estimable Brett too. In Game 6, 39-year-old designated hitter Hal McRae came through with a pair, and even light-hitting shortstop Buddy Biancalana came up with big double.
That, he felt, should quiet talk show host David Letterman, who begun a Biancalana hitting countdown. ``I'm a lot closer in my pursuit of [Pete] Rose than Letterman is in his pursuit of Johnny Carson,'' he joked.
Seventh game heroics, however, fell to catcher Jim Sundberg, whose three-run triple tolled the end for Blue Jays, who had come so far in their quest to become the first Canadian World Series entrant. Ironically, under the previous best-of-five playoff format, Toronto would have made it if play had followed the same pattern as the just-ended one, which the Jays once led 3-1.
Only four other teams (in the World Series of course) have ever dug themselves out of such a hole, and it was poetic justice that K.C. did so this time. Since first making the playoffs in 1976, the Royals have been consistent winners, yet probably the most frustrated good team in baseball. They made the regular playoffs in 1976, '77, '78, '80, and '84, plus the division playoffs during the strike-shortened 1981 season, but only reached to the World Series in 1980, when they lost to Philadelphia 4-2.
The team's latest success, the first by an AL West club since 1980, has certainly been a relief to even-keeled skipper Dick Howser, whose post-season record as a manager had sunk to 0-11 early in the playoffs.
The Cardinals, by contrast, have an enviable post-season history. They are 2-0 in league playoffs, and have won the World Series nine times in 13 tries, most recently in '82 when they beat Milwaukee in seven games.
The Brewers have since hit the skids, but in a testament to his managing and personnel evaluations, Herzog has kept the fleet-footed Cardinals a contender.
Players have a way of blossoming under his tutelage. Bashful centerfielder Willie McGee won this season's NL batting crown, base-stealing whiz Vince Coleman is a virtual shoo-in as the league's top rookie, and second baseman Tommy Herr has emerged as one of the game's best two-way players. On the mound, John Tudor has turned into a surprise 20-game winner, and the bullpen has collectively picked up the slack caused by the departure of free agent relief ace Bruce Sutter.
The Royals can match St. Louis on the mound with with their young, deep pitching staff. And like the Cardinals, they have players with the defensive and offensive skills to play the high-bounding, fast-skipping turfball.
This, sadly, will be another World Series played out entirely on artificial turf. To purists, it's like playing on green concrete, which may only be appropriate for a series that pays tribute to the I-70 roadway.