FOR ALL THE MOMENTS of a World Series that was part home-run derby, part All-Star Game and every bit a classic, there was one in particular when the Houston Astros separated themselves from the Los Angeles Dodgers, setting the stage after 55 years to finally be able to call themselves champions.
The moment occurred in the game for which this wonderful World Series will best be remembered, the one everyone will be talking about for its laughable tension and slow-pitch softball final -- the 13-12 Astros win in Game 5. The Astros were down 4-0 against the best pitcher in the game. It was there, in the bottom of the fourth inning, when the Astros transformed the strike zone into a tee. Clayton Kershaw stretched and strained, trying to find extra snap on his curve only to bounce them, the great pitcher surrendering to an irreversible truth: There was no safe place to pitch to the Astros hitters. There was nowhere to go, and nowhere to throw.
Over the first 41 innings of the World Series, the Astros scored 15 runs. Over the final 23, as they made their marathoner's kick to a championship, they scored 19. They made mortal both the front of the Dodgers' fearsome staff (Kershaw, who started that Game 5) and the back (Kenley Jansen, whose blown save in Game 2 began the hope). Houston capped off both another year in a millennium noted for teams ending championship droughts and a baseball season that had, thankfully, something for everyone, regardless of region or payroll.
Roller coasters, then calm
THE 2017 SEASON resembled a 162-quarter basketball game: It was a year of runs. Between July 14 and Sept. 14, the Cleveland Indians, defending their American League pennant, enjoyed winning streaks of nine, six and a record 22 games to turn a middling 47-40 record at midseason to a 102-win season. The Dodgers won 11 games in a row, lost 11 games in a row and on Aug. 25 were, yes, 55 games over .500. Arizona, reaching the playoffs for only the second time in a decade, won 13 straight. The Astros won 11 straight heading into June, beat every team in the AL West at least 12 times and were the only team in the division to emerge with a winning record. Led by manager A.J. Hinch, and a front office that needed Justin Verlander and got him famously seconds before the trade deadline, they were quietly the best, most reliable team all season.
Aaron Judge, the Yankees' behemoth, Home Run Derby champion and presumptive AL Rookie of the Year struck out 208 times and, at one point, a record 37 consecutive games -- the patient zero of an epidemic. Twenty-one players struck out at least 162 times this season, 140 players struck out 100 times. Fifteen years ago, the numbers were four and 73, respectively. In 2002, 81 players hit 20 home runs, compared to 117 this season. If basketball is the sport of the dunk and corner 3-pointer, baseball has become equally all or nothing, home runs or whiffs.
For the past seven years, baseball watched the Derek Jeter Yankees and David Ortiz Red Sox age out while Toronto and Texas, Kansas City and Oakland shared the postseason stage with one or the other, but this year, money and reputation returned to the top of the American League East. Boston and New York finished 1-2 in the standings and both made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 with a new Ortiz-and-Jeterless cast, setting up the future. For fans bored of the old Superpowers era, when it was Red Sox-Yankees and everyone else, a message was sent this summer: Both are here and probably not going anywhere for a while. While the Yankees were the surprise of the season, coming within a game of the World Series, it wasn't lost on anyone that a good Yankee team will cast its usual shadow over the rest of the game. Even before Houston finally eliminated New York, fans and media alike were checking Bryce Harper's contract status. The Force awakened.
The three biggest payrolls all made the playoffs and the Dodgers (No. 1) were one game away from winning it all. The $190.7 million Yankees were baseball's oddest underdogs, but the real underdogs gave fans hope all summer that money had not completely dominated the game again-- just yet. Neither the Minnesota Twins nor the Milwaukee Brewers played manic baseball, distorting their records with two weeks of hot baseball or three weeks of cold. Both played steady, solid baseball with some unknowns who will not be unknown to the rest of baseball for long.
The talk of the year, of course, was Judge, all 6-foot-7, 282 pounds of him. Judge gave the Yankees' bland, effective rebuild the kind of star power the game needs. Judge played the game with massive power and a self-deprecation that made the Yankees -- yes, the Yankees -- a likeable bunch.
While the game sells itself with data and launch angles, there were players worth watching on their own. Giancarlo Stanton nearly hit 60 home runs, ultimately settling for 59. Colorado hadn't made the playoffs since 2009. Arizona had done slightly better, but the playoffs for both brought a little more light to players who more of baseball needs to see. Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado is a joy to watch at third. The great Francisco Lindor in Cleveland embodies the energy and hope of the long summer campaign. Baseball has heard it for years and should listen: The game may be regional, but its players are all-world. Promote them.
The (ex-)champs and a cold business
A MOMENT SHOULD BE TAKEN to Fly the W. At the All-Star break, the Cubs, curse breakers, defending champs, were a mediocre 43-45 in the standings, five-and-a-half behind the Brewers. They'd scored 399 runs and given up 399. The Cubs were hung over but dangerous, capable of rediscovering themselves at any moment, which they did in the second half, taking over first place July 25 and never losing it. The high point arrived Sept. 21, up 3½ games with a four-game showdown in Milwaukee. The first three games went 10 innings, the Cubs winning the first two thrillingly that put an end to the Brewers' season.
The Cubs won 15 of 20 to end the season and defended their title against Washington, a team that won 97 games, had home-field advantage but never seemed all that complimentary toward winning the summer. The Nationals treated their manager, Dusty Baker, with a "win or else " edict that hovered over the team for each of his two seasons, an attitude befitting George Steinbrenner with two major exceptions: (1) the Nationals have never spent like the Yankees and (2) they aren't the Yankees.
A franchise that has never reached the World Series and the National League Championship Series only once -- way, waaaaay back in the split-season, strike year of 1981 -- has adopted the arrogance that they are the 1927 Yankees is a bad look.
Nevertheless, the Cubs and Nationals played a wild classic, the Cubs winning their division series in five games. Both Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were brilliant. The Nationals had home-field advantage and a 3-0 (4-1 or three-run) lead in Game 5 at home but couldn't cross the finish line. They thanked Baker for the most successful two years in franchise history by firing him.
The postseason highlighted the grandness of the game, but also its undertones of dysfunction. All season long the Red Sox were a bit off. The end of the Ortiz era left a leadership vacuum that was highlighted both by a silly feud between David Price and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and a more serious one with bad blood between the Orioles and Red Sox. Neither was handled well. Price looked childish, and Dustin Pedroia, the ultimate teammate and eternal grinder, appeared not to support his dugout when one of his pitchers went rogue and threw at Manny Machado early in the season.
It all culminated when the Astros destroyed the exhausted, 300-strikeout man, Chris Sale 8-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS and Price (either sticking to the team's plan or comfortable) did not take the ball to start Game 2. Drew Pomeranz stood between the Red Sox and an 0-2 hole. The Red Sox got creamed, 8-2. Price looked even worse by pitching well out of the bullpen.
Meanwhile, the Yankees stunned Cleveland, which for the second straight year needed one game to advance (in the case of 2016 to win the whole thing) but lost three straight games. The Yankees took the Astros, the superior team, to Game 7 and lost, ending a season of fun for the fans and rising expectations for the organization. They played with house money all season, even when it appeared Joe Girardi was losing his bullpen (both Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman endured inexplicable, dismal stretches), but by the end of the year, finally vanquished by Houston, the Yankees gave the baseball world a glimpse of the threat they now should be.
And yet, the end result of it all was three playoff teams -- Washington, New York and Boston -- firing their managers. Baseball now belongs to the front office. The culture war has been won by the Ivy Leaguers and the non-players. The analytics departments across the league can pop the champagne, but they should buy the cheap stuff, for the victory is a Pyrrhic one. Teams now want it both ways. They want to call the postseason a "crap shoot," yet tie the fate of the manager to winning in the playoffs.
In the case of Washington, the Nationals expressed an abundance of arrogance. In Boston, president Dave Dombrowski said this was not the case, that "no outcome" would have saved John Farrell's job. Perhaps a more mature Price could have. In New York, Brian Cashman did not say the same, but it is true after Girardi's 10 years -- the fifth-longest managerial tenure in Yankees history behind the legends, Huggins, McCarthy, Stengel and Torre -- a young team seems to need a new voice.
Where the business is its coldest is the byplay between the lines -- the telephone line from the manager's office to upstairs. It is no secret that a result of the moneyball era is GMs essentially making out the lineup and mapping out strategy for the manager while he takes the fall for a reliever failing.
Baseball's biggest problem is its desire to transform sport into science, an unintended consequence of the game's love of stats and fidelity to its history through numbers. The game has morphed into science, while competition is still its heartbeat. Girardi lifted Sabathia after 77 pitches in Game 2 against Cleveland. Curious managerial decisions were made across the league, from Baker removing Scherzer to Strasburg's "Will he, won't he, is mold a factor?" drama before Game 4 of the NLDS to Dave Roberts lifting Rich Hill twice during the World Series, sticking to an apparent plan to not let Hill face Houston's lineup three times. These decisions are being made by those insulated in the front office, who take no responsibility for their formulation -- and the end result is a managerial chair more vulnerable than ever.
Increasingly, the chair of Weaver and Stengel and Durocher is becoming a bad, dead-end job.
STILL, THE WORLD SERIES was an absolute gem, though marred by a lingering imperfection.
For the second year in a row, the commissioner, Rob Manfred, was caught between the platitude that his sport has no room for racism in the game and the reality that it condones and profits from it. Last year, it was the ubiquity of Chief Wahoo at the World Series, racism trademarked and sold by Major League Baseball. This year it was Yuri Gurriel, the Houston first baseman, using his fingers to make a slant-eyed gesture at Yu Darvish after homering off of him in a Game 3 win. Gurriel feigned innocence but baseball both did something and nothing, suspending him not for the World Series but for five games next season. It was a halving of the issue we've seen before. During the playoffs last year, Manfred said he would "revisit" the Chief Wahoo issue only to do nothing. This year, Gurriel's suspension will have zero impact. Baseball keeps running from this, but it cannot forever.
For their 104 wins, the Dodgers were first in the National League in ERA, second in saves. Their starters were deep in a game defined by bullpens. Fairly, unfairly, relentlessly the postseason asterisk continues to attach itself to Kershaw in the same way it attached itself to Don Newcombe and Roger Clemens and now clings to David Price. Yet over seven games and many runs and comebacks over a series where no Dodgers starter -- other than Kershaw going seven in Game 1 -- completed six innings, Los Angeles still had every chance to win the World Series. The Dodgers were an inning from a 2-0 lead. They had the best pitcher in baseball on the mound in the pivotal Game 5 with a four-run lead and then a three-run lead and he could not get to the fifth inning. The magic of Chris Taylor and Justin Turner and the revival of Yasiel Puig have a fan base energized. Even with disaster, the Dodgers still had Games 6 and 7 at home, and down early in the finale, the Dodgers had at least two runners on base in each of the first three innings. The winter will be a long one, but they had what they wanted.
Like last year's Cubs, the Astros played the tougher, championship-level baseball in order to wear a well-deserved crown. George Springer, the World Series MVP, stalked the plate in the Series hogging both sides. Jose Altuve, the likely AL MVP, hit but .194 but drove in six runs in seven games. None of them -- not Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, or Carlos Correa -- looked as if making an out was possible as a title neared. The Astros hit 15 home runs in seven games. Maybe baseball into November has exhausted its pitchers, a real and good theory that should chill the sport. Or maybe Houston and Los Angeles were that good, but being surprised that a player makes an out is not something baseball wants to make a habit of.
Without such memorable flair, they lose this series, probably in five uneventful games, for it should also be noted that while Kershaw is tailed by a postseason asterisk, Justin Verlander has appeared in three World Series and has yet to win a game. He has been a better pitcher than Kershaw in the postseason, absolutely, but when the champagne is pouring over you, none of it matters, anyway. There are no asterisks when the corks are popping. For the team with the space-aged name and the funny uniforms, the future finally and deservedly became now.