World Series Preview

Image via MLB.com.

Last year, the Kansas City Royals were a surprise dynamo, stocked with contact hitters and great defenders. They lost the World Series to the quasi-dynastic San Francisco Giants, but they’re back this year, and it’s less of a surprise. Lorenzo Cain, their speedy centerfielder, is the exemplary scrappy underdog Royal. He took up baseball late, and only after being cut from his high school basketball team. He went on to play for Tallahassee Community College and became the Brewers’ seventeenth-round draft pick in 2004—not exactly a résumé of great promise. But Cain broke out in his late twenties—a trajectory only possible in baseball, and heartening to late bloomers everywhere—and at 29 he’s one of the best players in the game.

In the decisive Game 6 of the ALCS, against the Toronto Blue Jays, Cain scored from first on an Eric Hosmer single: an electrifying display of speed and daring. Now my Mets and Cain’s Royals, not the Blue Jays, are about to become the first expansion teams to go head to head in the World Series. The Canadians will have to settle for the Weeknd-Drake-Bieber trifecta at the top of the charts and for Justin Trudeau, their new prime minister, who clinched his election victory over Conservative Stephen Harper during Game 3.

Baseball’s expansion beyond the sixteen teams that existed in 1903, when the first World Series was contested, began a long time ago—1961. And yet those original sixteen teams have remained hard to beat—they’ve earned at least one spot in every World Series until this year.

None of the old guard have squandered their inherited privileges like the Chicago Cubs. In 1907 they won the fourth World Series, and in 1908 they won it again. Since then, squadoosh. Cubbie losing has been passed down to each new generation, a baseball heirloom. The closest they’ve come to a championship was in 1945, when they reached the World Series and lost to Detroit in seven. During Game 4, famously, a billy goat called Murphy was booted out of Wrigley Field. Murphy’s owner, Billy Sianis, also owned the Billy Goat Tavern (which, according to a friend of mine, still serves the worst burgers in Chicago). Sianis was apoplectic, and, according to most accounts, said, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost the game and the series, and they haven’t been back since.

Recent attempts to lift the Curse of the Billy Goat seem to cut brazenly against the curse’s wacky logic. In 2007 a goat’s carcass was strung up on the Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley. In 2013, a goat’s head was delivered to the stadium, addressed to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. And just last month, six-time Coney Island hot-dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi helped a group of Chicagoans eat an entire cooked goat in thirteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. One wonders: How could a curse born from a supposed slight to a goat be lifted by outlandish cruelty toward other goats? (I remember once being fed a slice of goat brain in school in Hinsdale, the Chicago suburb where my family used to live, but I don’t think this had anything to do with the curse.) Maybe the Cubs ought to try a more conciliatory tack and rename themselves the Goats. The Chicagoats.

Curses aside, the Cubs are set up well for the future. Their young sluggers Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo will be around for years, and Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, made enough good decisions while with the Red Sox to win two World Series. The Cubs thumped my Mets during the regular season, winning all seven games.

But the Mets have since renovated their roster, and they turned the tables in the NLCS, sweeping the Cubs easily. Daniel Murphy, a journeyman who plays second base and hit only fourteen homers this year, has played the unlikely hero. He’s hit seven home runs in eight playoff games, each more amazing than the last. All of a sudden, Murphy can hit just about anything. Out of nearly thirty-nine thousand major-league home runs hit since 2008, only twenty were hit off pitches as low as the Arrieta curveball Murphy popped over the right-field wall in Game 2.

With the Mets leading three games to none, I watched Game 4 with a special, heightened sense of anxiety. The moment when victory seems certain is the moment when everything falls apart—when the Mets fall apart, and the Cubs go on to fulfill their Back to the Future–dictated destiny of winning the Series in 2015. When the Mets grabbed a six-run lead in the second inning, I felt even worse. I’d watched the Yankees squander a similar advantage in the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox—another team helmed by Theo Epstein, another team bucking a curse. My beer tasted bad. But as the innings went by it became clear that the Cubs were truly defeated, and then in the top of the eighth Daniel Murphy hit yet another home run, this one an improbably towering bomb.

On TV, TBS showed Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes wearing his champagne goggles in the dugout before the game ended, as if trying to induce a jinx. But the gods didn’t notice, and the Cubs’ Dexter Fowler struck out looking to end the game. As the champagne began to flow, a TV camera captured the sign I’d been looking for: a goat with the face of Daniel Murphy and the words MURPHY THE GOAT. Not a bearded ruminant, but a bearded acronym: the Greatest of All Time, at least this week.

The Mets and the Royals are both likable squads—both, as I’ve mentioned, upstarts by baseball standards (the Mets have only been around since 1962, the Royals since ’69), and both unspoiled by success. Neither has won a championship since the mid-’80s, when they won back-to-back, and each has only one man wearing its cap on a plaque in Cooperstown: the Mets’ Tom Seaver and the Royals’ George Brett.

Beyond that, this World Series is all about contrast. The Royals’ relief pitching is their strong suit, led by the superb Wade Davis, who had a sub-1.00 ERA in the regular season and has allowed zero runs in the playoffs. The Mets, meanwhile, don’t go to the bullpen much, except for their closer, Jeurys Familia, and converted starter Bartolo Colon, an ancient monument (he’s 42) made mostly of jowls and chub and sullen unflappability. I remember looking at baseball cards with my neighbor Willie (I was then called Willy too) during the summer of 1998. We were examining Colon’s; he was wearing an Indians cap in those days. Willie told me that Colon was the next great pitcher coming up, and he was right, but no one could have predicted he’d still be around now. I thought of that when Colon earned the win for the Mets in the clinching Game 4 of the NLCS.

The Royals’ starting pitching, on the other hand, isn’t as good. Their would-be ace and Game 2 starter, Johnny Cueto, has struggled since joining the Royals midseason. Edinson Volquez, their Game 1 starter, might get demoted to the pen if he were on the Mets. The Mets’ young starters—Harvey, DeGrom, Syndergaard, Matz—throw unmatched heat; Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer quipped yesterday that “to be a Mets pitcher, you have to have long hair and throw a hundred miles per hour.” But the Royals are better at hitting fastballs than anyone. They’re also known for their gloves, while the Mets, despite some highlight-reel plays in the first two rounds this postseason, aren’t. That could be a problem: the Royals hit the ball hard.

Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals have played since 1973, was built for baseball. It’s one of the few parks from the ’60s and ’70s that has stood the test of time, and it underwent an excellent renovation in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It feels solid, is full of pleasingly sharp angles, and is a great place to watch a game.

On the other hand the Mets’ longtime home, Shea Stadium, was demolished in favor of Citi Field in 2009. Nelson Doubleday, Fred Wilpon’s partner as owner of the Mets until 2002, had campaigned in the media to have Shea renovated instead of torn down. Wilpon won that war, and the Wilpons and their partners have since teamed up with the city to remove the auto shops from the shadows of the stadium, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes, to make way for new development. (The redevelopment of Willets Point has been stalled since the planned mall was deemed illegal over the summer.)

In any case, Shea wouldn’t have been as good a candidate for renovation as Kauffman Stadium was. Kauffman was built to play baseball in; Shea was built to serve as a flimsy colossus. In The Power Broker, his grand biography of Robert Moses, Robert A. Caro wrote, “The roads of Rome stood for two thousand years and more; who would predict less for the roads of Moses? Who would predict less for his Shea Stadium, a structure consciously shaped to resemble Rome’s Colosseum because he was afraid that his convention center–office tower ‘Coliseum’ didn’t make the comparison clear enough?” Well, Caro was more than nineteen hundred years off. Friday, after two games in Kansas City, Citi Field will host its first World Series game.

I’ve learned from Caro’s mistake, and so I won’t make any predictions here. I’ll only note that the Mets have already beaten two teams with classic stadiums so far—and that their pitching is stupendous.

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