Sure, it doesn't have an august nickname like the Fall Classic. Nor does it conjure up nostalgic images of fathers and sons huddled around the TV on a cold October evening, wrapping America's favorite pastime in a warm embrace. But while the World Series receives most of baseball's post-season adoration, it's often the sport's semi-finals the League Championship Series (LCS) that deliver the most heart-pounding drama.
This year's National League Championship Series (NLCS) starts Thursday night, with the Los Angeles Dodgers visiting the Philadelphia Phillies. The American League Championship Series (ALCS), featuring the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, begins on Friday. The first championship series was in 1969, the year baseball added four new franchises: the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Pilots (who moved to Milwaukee the following year and became the Brewers) giving both leagues twelve teams each. Prior to that year, the regular season champs from each league went straight to the World Series. So when cellar-dwellers like the New York Mets and the Houston Astros got stuck in ninth or tenth place early in the season, their pennant hopes were crushed by the middle of May.
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, concerned about the economic health of these struggling clubs, split each league into two six-team divisions; that way, more teams could contend until later in the season, boosting attendance and local TV ratings. The winner of each division would then have to play a best-of-five series to take the league title. Kuhn could also sell these extra games to national TV broadcasters, filling baseball's coffers.
The LCS came to provide its own set of memorable moments:
In the decisive fifth game of the 1976 ALCS, with the Yankees and Royals tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss belted a game-winning home run, sparking bedlam in the Bronx. Thousands of delirious fans rushed the field, mobbing Chambliss as he ran the bases. Chambliss fled to safety before stepping on home plate, and, after police had finally cleared the diamond, emerged from the dugout to touch home only to find a fan had stolen it. "Where home plate had been imbedded, there was an empty bottle of Hiram Walker peach-flavored brandy," wrote The New York Times. "There was a bottle of blackberry brandy on second, a bottle of Dewar's on third."
In a year of scintillating sports theater, the California Angels stood one strike away from clinching the pennant in game five of the 1986 ALCS, now lengthened to a best-of-seven series. But Boston's Dave Henderson hit a stunning two-run home run off Angels reliever Donnie Moore to give Boston a 6-5 lead. The Red Sox won that game, and the next two, to take the pennant. Tragically, Moore never got over that one pitch to Henderson. He committed suicide in 1989. "That home run killed him," said his agent.
That same year, Game 6 between the Mets and Astros stopped rush hour cold in New York City. People crowded around Walkmen and windows to catch the conclusion of the 16-inning marathon, which the New York finally won, 7-6. (Unlike the World Series, which have all been played at night since 1987, the Championship Series still offers a taste of post-season baseball during the day although this year there will be only two late afternoon starts for the ALCS, and one for the NLCS.) While traveling back to New York, the Mets commemorated their National League title by getting wasted, starting a massive food fight and completely trashing the plane.
The deathless Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has been a hallmark of recent LCS history. Aaron Boone broke Boston's heart once again with a Game 7 walk-off home run to give the Yankees the '03 series. But the following year, the Red Sox enjoyed sweet redemption, becoming the only baseball team in history to return from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven set against the Yanks.
Entering into this season, the Rays and the Texas Rangers were the only franchises in baseball who never qualified for an LCS. Call Texas the Lone Rangers the Rays have now purged themselves from that list. If we're lucky, maybe Tampa Bay or Boston, or Philly, or L.A. will write the next chapter of LCS lore. And deliver another fall classic, before the Fall Classic sees its first pitch.