Good pitching, well-crafted outs, and grit: a Fall Classic outlook
Chicago's White Sox and Houston's Astros, teams that evoke another baseball era, take the field Saturday
WASHINGTON AND HOUSTON
After treating generations of its most long-suffering fans to heartbreak and bad hops, baseball, it seems, is trying to make up for lost time. As if the Boston Red Sox had not done enough to cleanse the sport of angst and woe last year - winning their first World Series since Babe Ruth was on the team - now this.
In bringing together the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros, the World Series is set for a fortnight of Dr. Phil moments. The White Sox have not been baseball champions since 1917, and two years later, eight players conspired to throw the World Series for gambling money. The Sox haven't been back to the Fall Classic since the days of the Ford Edsel; the Astros have never made it in their 44 years.
Yet for all the history, it will be the play on the field that harks back to bygone days. In a year when baseball finally faced its chemically enhanced past, this Series, beginning Saturday, is perhaps the ideal endnote to the steroid-aided Home Run Era: two clubs that try to win not with a stream of titanic clouts, but with guile and grit.
If this World Series goes according to form, it could be seven nights of soccer scores, as two of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues turn opponents' bats into conductor's batons, waving at air. Well-crafted outs will be offensive weapons, with runs wrung from every tool at the disposal of manager and player alike - steals and chicanery, bunts and fly balls.
"It's an interesting matchup," says Rany Jazayerli of the Baseball Prospectus, a yearly guide. "Both teams have very similar strengths and weaknesses."
No matter who wins, it won't take long for baseball's cognoscente to tease from this World Series the new formula for winning. In truth, it's the same one that it has always been: good pitching. But these clubs have pushed the formula to its limits, attempting to win the World Series with all-star pitching staffs and a decidedly blue-collar batting lineup.
Houston's best hitter, Lance Berkman, is lovingly called "Fat Elvis" by fans and teammates. Last season, he was bookended by Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, and Jeff Kent, who combined for 73 home runs and 249 runs batted in. But Beltran and Kent departed, and Bagwell has been injured - leaving the Astros offense in need of an international charity drive.
Even fans thought the Astros had missed their shot of getting to the World Series. "Last year, yes, with Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent," said Joni Peterson, a season-ticket holder celebrating Wednesday night at the B.U.S., a sports bar across the street from Houston's Minute Maid Park. "But not this year."
Astros pitcher Roger Clemens led the major leagues this season by allowing only 1.87 runs every nine innings - yet he finished with a record of 13-8 because of a lack of run support. At one point, the Astros' record was 15-30, making them only the second team this century to make the playoffs after being 15 games below .500.
Yet their starting pitching is by some measures the best in baseball. There is Clemens, whose added heft has only increased the impression that he is a human tank. There is Andy Pettitte, the former Yankee who peers over the edge of his glove as if it were a rampart, bristling for the siege. And there is Roy Oswalt, the anonymous ace with the "aw shucks" expression and the herky-jerky marionette pitching motion.
They were three of the top five pitchers in the major leagues this year, according to an analysis by the Baseball Prospectus. "The Astros' starting pitching is built for the postseason as much as it can be," says Jazayerli. "What you need are three good starters."
The White Sox starters, meanwhile, pitched four consecutive complete-game victories to wipe out the Angels on their way to the World Series - a feat that hadn't been accomplished since 1928. It is a team built in the image of its manager, Ozzie Guillen, the slight-of-frame, big-of-mouth shortstop who dismisses talk of a so-called "Black Sox Curse" with a stream of expletives.
Before the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, the White Sox were one of the powers of the major leagues, winning the title in 1917. Since then, they have only made it to the World Series once, losing in 1959. Guillen has brought them back to that level on a diet of sacrifice bunts and stolen bases. The White Sox led the American League in sacrifice hits and were fourth in the major leagues in stolen bases.
Critics have suggested that Guillen is using the wrong strategy for what is really a power-hitting team. After all, the White Sox hit more home runs than the mighty Red Sox. But the attitude has instilled a sense of team among the White Sox roster of castoffs.
On the South Side of Chicago, where the glitz of the North Side fades into cracked concrete and the glint of rusting rail yards, there is an allure to a team built from spare parts, such as catcher A.J. Pierzynski and outfielder Carl Everett - branded as malcontents by the San Francisco Giants and Red Sox - and pitcher Jose Contreras, who was jettisoned by the New York Yankees.
Both there and in Houston, though, a sigh of relief is let out for just getting this far - and letting fans put the past behind them. "This is history," says Jared Medlock, a native Houstonian and season-ticket holder for years. "The Astros have never been to a World Series, and the National League pennant is enough for me."