Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2003

The World Series: America's Greatest Championship Event

Is it possible that a championship event for a sport as maligned as baseball ranks as the greatest in sports? After all, the Super Bowl gets better ratings, the Final Four has a more in-demand ticket and the NHL carries around that beautiful, distinctive trophy. But it says here that no championship event combines elements that make sports great as much as the World Series.

For these reasons, we say it is still a true Fall Classic:

World Series moments are not just part of baseball history; they are part of American history. Even if one only considers home runs, the events come to mind quicker than we can write them down: Maz's clincher, Fisk's game-ender, Reggie's shot into the black, Gibson's miracle. We know exactly where the balls landed, how the batter rounded the bases, sometimes the announcer's call. Those four came at home, igniting spontaneous mini-earthquakes. Ever seen a still shot of Ray Knight scoring the winning run in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? It doesn't exist. The entire stadium shook. That's a scene the Super Bowl or Final Four could never duplicate, because crowd allegiance is split, while the NBA and NHL play to smaller live audiences.

In this World Series retrospective, we remember 10 great World Series moments in a special photo essay, and we could have come up with 10 or 20 more before you could find someone on the street who can identify which two players were involved in a play often mentioned as an all-time great Super Bowl moment, the touchdown-saving tackle that ended Super Bowl XXXIV. (Answer: Tennessee receiver Kevin Dyson and St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones). Other great game-ending Super Bowl moments: Scott Norwood's miss and Adam Vinatieri's make. Field-goal attempts, people. We're talking field-goal attempts.

No championship event matches the nonstop intensity of Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series, played on consecutive midweek nights. While the NHL and NBA Finals take nights off between games, Major League Baseball sends 'em back out there 20 hours after the previous night's game ends. In a span of around 52 hours, starting Oct. 30, 2001, the New York Yankees went from trailing Arizona two games to none in the World Series to leading 3-2. All that happened during that time was a 2-1 win by Roger Clemens in Game 3 and walkoff victories in Games 4 and 5 that were sent to extra innings by two-out home runs in the ninth. In recent years, teams down 0-2 have turned the tide on three straight nights in 1987, 1991 and 1996.

Astonishingly, the last 13 NBA Finals MVPs have been awarded to only four players. Four! Michael Jordan (6), Shaquille O'Neal (3), Hakeem Olajuwon (2) and Tim Duncan (2). Why bother suiting up the other players? NBA Finals 2004: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Jason Kidd! In the World Series, all the starters get a shot at glory. So the MVP could be future Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson (1966), Johnny Bench (1976) or Mike Schmidt (1980) or guys who struck lightning one great week in October, like Lew Burdette (1957), Darrell Porter (1982) or Scott Brosius (1998).

Only a few World Series have ended with the home team winning in walkoff fashion. The rest have ended with the victors in the field, and everyone knows what to do after the third out: charge the mound. Hell, in the old days even the fans charged the mound. (Now they would get a faceful of nightstick.) The first player to reach the pitcher gets to be in the poster shot. Soscia hoisting Hershier, Girardi lifting Wetteland, both riding high before the rush from the dugout collapsed them into a pile, with the outfielders adding the toppings. Best celebration of all: Jesse Orosco tossing his mitt to the moon after closing out the 1986 Series with a strikeout of Boston's Marty Barrett. Football and basketball players don't know where to run when the clock stikes zero. To midfield? To the last guy who touched the ball? To the bench? No one has a clue.

In other team sports' championship events, you're pretty much assured of seeing the same players start and the rest of the roster get relatively the same amount of playing time. Exceptions come into play, of course, when an NBA star gets into foul trouble — sometimes a guy will see major minutes in one game of the Finals, then disappear in the next. In the World Series, the most important rep from both teams changes each game. So you're beating up Drysdale in Game 2? Koufax awaits in Game 4. Who doesn't look ahead in any series Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez pitches in? Game 5 isn't just the day after Game 4. It's an entirely different experience, with new starters and relievers whose availability and effectiveness are directly related to their work in previous games and managers' decisions to save them for later games.

Going into last season, you would never have thought of Anaheim Angels fans as the wild, stick-thundering crowd that they were in October of 2002. In fact, they were probably bemoaning how the same teams always make the playoffs. But baseball's so-called problems sure seem to vanish when your team's winning. By Game 7 of the Angels' classic series against the Giants, normally laid-back Californians were no less frenzied than the normally laid-back people in Arizona were the year before. And this year, next year and in the decades to come, the World Series will still hold more tense moments, more twists of fate, more tips of the cap to years past than any other crowning sporting event, attended by tens of thousands a game who, when asked what's wrong with baseball will say, "What? I can't hear you over all this noise."

And now, in a preemptive strike against hate mail in our feedback form — insult-free ones will be read, otherwise don't waste your time — I'll share my overall positions on other championship sporting events, all worth watching, but none as great as the World Series.

NHL Finals: Tops all in sportsmanship, from the end-of-series handshake to the lack of fighting (call me crazy, but if fighting is not smart play during the Finals, shouldn't it be equally disadvantageous to a team during the regular season?). In the end, though, it's still hockey, and it still plays to what is essentially a rabid but niche audience. Best overtime in sports? Maybe. The puck flies from one end to the other quickly, looking to bounce off someone's stick or skate or face. Is that any more exciting than extra innings in the World Series or an overtime period in the Super Bowl?

NBA Finals: Seems almost predetermined. If a series looks like the favorite will win in five games, that's what happens. Looking back at a list of NBA Finals history, we've had one seven-game series in 15 years. The rest went according to plan, aside from when Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets dusted Shaq and the Magic, 4-0. The NBA Finals can be great again, but you need two A-list teams in there, and it seems we've been anticipating the Western Conference finals more than the championship series for years.

World Cup: Not enough Americans care. I don't know why people try to bring this up when talking about great sporting events. So what if the rest of the world cares about it? They also think David Hasselhoff is a great singer. Love the color, love the goooaaaallll thing, but you could cut up a World Cup final into two-minute bits, mix 'em all up, glue 'em together out of order, and nobody would know the difference. The game doesn't develop; it just happens.

Final Four: The entire NCAA men's basketball tournament is great, but we're limiting this discussion to the championship event, the Final Four. To me, it's a little corporate. How great can an event be if to get the best wild-fan camera shot, you have to have a TV hookup in a campus bar 2,000 miles away? A relative few number of real students and alumni are actually there. The rest are people rich enough to book hotels and flights a year in advance without even knowing who's playing. Also, I'm not sure you always get the feeling that the best team won the title.

Super Bowl: Hard to knock it, since it's such an American institution. Major, major points for being a true party day. And I don't even buy the whole "it's always a blowout" thing. The NFC teams of the '80s and early '90s were just that good, so it's not a fault of the game itself. I do think, though, that the World Series trumps it in terms of the current game's relationship to the sport's past. The Super Bowl lives for the day, and the sport evolves so quickly that comparisons to even 5-10 years ago are apples to oranges. Baseball has a smoother lineage and every World Series fights for its place in history. The Roman numerals add some confusion, too. For example, 1927 means the New York Yankees, 1955 is the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1984 is the Detroit Tigers. But XIX? Does that immediately bring to mind the 18-1 (3-0 in postseason) 1984-85 San Francisco 49ers?