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The Evil of Two Lessers

Yeah, I'm not too excited either.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Yeah, I'm not too excited either. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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I'm a person who avidly watches postseason baseball regardless of the participants, and yet the prospect of a Rangers-Cardinals World Series has filled me with a great feeling of meh. I preferred a Brewers-Tigers matchup, for reasons that escape me now that it's no longer possible. Perhaps because it would not have involved Tony LaRussa, a man who believes in his own legend more than anyone this side of Batman.

My own biases aside, I feel this specific matchup is unsatisfying, like the World Series is an award show that only nominates the lesser stars who will bother to show up at the ceremony. The Cardinals wouldn't have made the playoffs in the first place were it not for a total collapse on the Braves' part. Their defeat of the Phillies in the first round was stunning, but their win over the Brewers was more due to Milwaukee's faults than their strengths. The Rangers are going to their second Fall Classic in a row, a feat in and of itself, and yet they seem less a juggernaut or a dynasty than a throwback to the ugly early 2000s, when teams tended to blast their way into a lead and lean on middle relief to stay on top.

A little over a week ago, it looked like we might enjoy one of the better MLB postseasons in recent memory. Before the playoffs even began, we had one of the most memorable last days of the season in the history of the sport, as both wild card races were decided in the most dramatic fashion possible. All of the division series featured some great pitching matchups (Carpenter-Halladay! Sabathia-Verlander!), and all but one of them culminated in a thrilling game five. The LCS's promised more of the same and began with some close contests and extra inning heroics.

Then, everything spiraled out of control. Detroit and Milwaukee were beset respectively by injuries and errors, and both series ended in ugly blowouts. Sunday night's brutal contest in Miller Park is, in all likelihood, the kind of game we will see repeatedly once the World Series starts on Wednesday. I foresee Texas winning in no more than five with very few close games; I've been wrong before, but if I'm not, it'll be another ho-hum World Series in a decade-plus that's produced little else.

Baseball seems to give us unsatisfying championship matchups more than any other sport. One would think the long season and three-round playoff system would cull the wheat from the chaff. In general, it does, and yet somehow it also seems to open the window for teams that barely belong to advance way too far and occasionally win it all (see: 2006 Cardinals). It also seems to frequently result in total mismatches; 2005, 2007, and 2008 were particularly ghastly. (2004 was brutal World Series too, although that at least had the drama of the Red Sox finally winning a title.)

My own budget theory is that the regular season is so grueling it can wear down even the great teams, thus making them vulnerable in a five game series, evening a playing field that doesn't really need such equalizing. There's also the fact that the team with the best record may not necessarily play the team with the worst record in the first round, depending who wins the wild card. MLB's playoffs are not currently structured to make things much harder on the lower-seeded teams or much easier on the better ones.

Take last year's champs, for example. The Giants snuck into the playoffs on the back of a great pitching staff and a Padres team that turned back into a pumpkin in September. A team that has TIm Lincecum and Matt Cain should do pretty well for itself, as long as that team doesn't also have a lineup full of guys like Cody Ross, Aubrey Huff, and Edgar Renteria. And yet, they skipped past a Braves team whose pitching was almost as good as theirs thanks to some sloppy Atlanta play (hi, Brooks Conrad), defeated the Phillies somehow, and rolled over a Rangers team that looked in awe of the whole spectacle despite arguably being better than this year's vintage (what with Cliff Lee and all). When it was all over, the playoffs had the feel of someone doing some drunk online shopping. "I ordered a Giants World Series ring? Man, I was wasted..."

The equivalent of the Giants never wins in the other major sports. The torturously long playoffs in the NBA and NHL allow marginal teams to get into the tournament, but so few advance beyond the first round it's barely worth mentioning. The eighth-seed Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year, and the eighth-seed Knicks reached the NBA finals in the strike year of 1999; in between, a whole lotta nothing. In the NFL, despite a one-and-done playoff structure that would seem destined to result in upsets, we very rarely wind up with a Super Bowl matchup--let alone champ--that defies belief. (The 2008 NY Giants being an exception that proves the rule.)

The finals in all of these sports features the best of the best much more consistently than does MLB. One could argue that what tends to happen in MLB is a good thing--even the teams that don't look like champs on paper have legitimate shot. I don't entirely disagree. I'm as pro-underdog as the next guy; this is one of the basic tenets of Mets fandom. But to me, "underdog" means "team unfavored to win," not "team that slipped in poop and landed in gold." I rooted for the Giants last year out of reflexive pro-NL sympathies, until halfway through the World Series when I realized, "This team willingly employs Juan Uribe and Pat Burrell. Why am I cheering for this to succeed?"

As a fan of baseball, I'd like to see a World Series of evenly matched teams who are the best the game can offer. The 2009 World Series between the Yankees and Phillies was a good example of this, two teams full of some of the best players in the game (even if deep down I was rooting for the meteor). For pure entertainment purposes, I'd take 2009 over the snore-tastic foregone conclusion that was the Phillies-Rays series of the previous year, or the Red Sox-Rockies snoozefest of the year before that. In fact, to find the last lengthy, compelling World Series before 2009, you have to go all the way back to the Rally Monkey-aided Angels-Giants one of 2002. (I refuse to acknowledge consider 2003 for this designation, as it involved the Marlins winning something.)

Thus far, I haven't been a huge fan of Bud Selig's vague threats to expand the playoffs. But I also wonder if an extra wild card slot and a play-in game would prevent some of this. At the very least, it would force the lower-seeded teams to jump through more hoops to advance farther. Or you could realign the leagues in four divisions and hopefully distribute things more evenly than they are now, thus preventing division "winners" who win fewer than 85 games.

Reducing divisions and playoff series down to two might do the same thing, because it would mean that only the absolute best teams would get a shot, but that would never happen (too much money left on the table). Regardless, I don't think the only reason that World Series TV ratings keep plunging is because people like football better. It's because the World Series has become, more often than not, uninteresting to fans of teams who aren't in it, in a way that's virtually unthinkable in other sports.

I concede that I may be allowing my anti-LaRussian prejudices cloud my judgment. But if that were completely the case, I could just root for a blowout sweep of St. Louis, and yet I find that prospect just as dissatisfying as the Cardinals winning. I'd rather see a fair fight between two teams who are at the pinnacle of the sport. Is that too much to ask of something that calls itself the World Series? If the last decade is any indication, the answer is yes.