The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The Minnesota Twins' victory over the Saint Louis Cardinals should go down in history as the Bill James World Series. "Home-field advantage" and "playing the percentages" were baseball cliches before James was born, but it was James, throughout this decade, who brought "home-road differential" and batting averages against lefties and righties, on grass and on artificial turf, to the fore. He released information that had previously been known only by the savviest of general managers, making it available to the fans and making its importance felt to even the dimmest baseball owner. Now, everyone knows about tailoring a team to its ballpark--where it plays half its games--as far as a player's performance on grass versus artificial turf goes, as far as a player's lefty-righty percentages go, and so on. Baseball, as with all sports, has been tending toward specialization from its origins, but it wasn't until the 1987 World Series that we saw the meeting of two league champions so tailored to their own parks that their very invincibility at home is what made them cripples on the road. James's effect on the game is not to be blamed for this series (unlike the Trib's Bernie Lincicome, I found this series not boring but fascinating) but emphasized: specialization has made managing more important and this game of bottomless depths even deeper.

And of course the hometown fans loved it. Anyone who remembers what Comiskey Park was like in October of 1983 or Wrigley Field the following year should have no trouble identifying with the fans in Minnesota, Saint Louis, and especially (unfortunately) Detroit and San Francisco. This is one of the most enjoyable elements of the end of the baseball season--the way cities and their sports fans go crazy over a simple contest. This year, this element of the game, too, was emphasized more than ever before. Even an old veteran like the Trib's Jerome Holtzman, the dean of baseball writers, wrote that he had never seen anything like the scene in the Minnesota Twins' domed stadium. In the four cities, the behavior of the fans seemed--on television, at least--uniformly avid and involved. Detroit fans have given up the wave and returned to the simple exchange of the cheers "Tastes great" and "Less filling." The Cardinals' fans put on the poorest display, showering the Giants' Jeffrey Leonard with various instruments--including a cowbell--but they were fairly decent while in no way reserved against the Twins. In almost every postseason game, the fans appeared to play some role--sometimes minor, sometimes, as in the case of the Twins, essential--in the outcome. This is one of the intangibles Bill James chooses to overlook, and rightfully so, because it is impossible to measure and James is dealing with what we can know for certain in baseball--what we can hold in our hands--whereas the effect of a crowd is really something only the players and the fans can feel. It's open to speculation. The relationship between players and fans is a complicated one. It has its ups and downs in every city and every sport. I doubt, however, that there is a member of any of the four first-place teams who doesn't grant the fans at least some responsibility for where they wound up the season.

The relationship between football players and their fans is a bit more difficult, now, but we'll get to that later.

From the beginning of the play-offs, the Twins looked unbeatable at home, and in the end they were, winning six straight there. The reasons are easy to explain. Imagine a Wrigley Field where the wind blew out every day. A team that would win there would have to have a lineup of power hitters, and pitchers who know the ballpark--the places where the ball travels well, the spots where it dies--and keep the ball low. The Cubs have problems because when the wind turns around and blows in--as it did much of last (this?) season--they are playing in a park much more similar to Saint Louis's Busch Stadium than to the Twins' so-called Homerdome. When the wind turns, it doesn't matter how loyal or loud the crowd is; a high fly ball is going to be a high fly ball, not a wind-blown home run. The Twins don't have this to worry about. A home run today is a home run tomorrow is a home run next year.

The dome, meanwhile, increases the crowd's effect proportionally. The Tigers, who came into the play-offs with the best record in the majors, having just dismissed the Toronto Blue Jays, were never at ease, ever on the defensive. The fans and the Twins left them screaming "fuck" in the dugout--as was literally the case with Kirk Gibson.

(On the whole, NBC's play-off coverage was more immediate and more involving than ABC's World Series coverage, perhaps because NBC was more willing to stick cameras in the players' faces and accept the occasional crude or rude consequences. NBC was also blessed in that its better team covered the series with the eventual championship team. All year, I've thought--while watching the Cubs' NBC broadcasts on Saturday afternoons--that Bob Costas and Tony Kubek were the best network team doing baseball, whether they were getting the prime assignments or not. The Cardinals-Giants series, which needed no explanation, got too much in the team of Vince Scully and Joe Garagiola, who screwed up the very first game by calling an obvious ground-rule double--which had been correctly called by the umpires--an unpunished case of fan interference. They played the tape over and over again, and each time it became more apparent that Scully was completely missing the play. He apologized the next day and admitted the error, but the error only made obvious the main problem with this team: Scully and Garagiola try to whittle an entire game down to a single point, whether that point is a misinterpreted fan-interference call or the swirling winds at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. They were annoying and simpleminded throughout the National League play-offs. Tony Kubek, meanwhile, was discussing as many different facets of the game as he could. The American League games grew richer with his explanations. Of course, unlike Scully and Garagiola, he's a stiff when the camera focuses on him, but Costas covers him on these occasions with his irreverent wit and keeps things fresh. ABC's team of Al Michaels, Tim McCarver, and Jim Palmer, meanwhile, was steady but unspectacular, as was the camera coverage. The best idea anyone had was to show a decibel meter during game six of the World Series: the Minnesota fans broke it.)

In the end, the Twins stomped the Detroit Tigers for a very simple reason: in a one-on-one series, they had the better team. Their two starters--Viola and Blyleven and, oh Lord, look to heaven--tied up the Tigers' big swingers. The Tigers, meanwhile, had no speed to get them through their slump, and their bull pen was atrocious. Over the season, for certain, they were the better team, but in a series they were beaten and beaten badly. The Cardinals, meanwhile, whined through both their series, but in the end they took their beating with more dignity than they had two years ago. First, manager Whitey Herzog whined about the days of rest between games two and three and games five and six, ignoring that these days of rest are traditional and an important part of World Series baseball, allowing, as they do, teams with two or three good starters (like the Twins) to dominate perhaps better long-term teams. This is nothing new. In the second World Series, in 1905, Christy Mathewson pitched three of the five games and won all by shutout. That was a different era, but today there is nothing wrong with Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven pitching every fourth day. Herzog's complaints about the home-field advantage, meanwhile, are unfounded, as the Cardinals wouldn't have made it to the series if they hadn't had that same advantage over the Giants, who led 3-2 before going the final 18 innings scoreless in spacious Busch Stadium.

The Twins won without winning on the road, so what? They were the better team. Admittedly, had the Cardinals' Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton been available, a great deal of their power would have been restored and they would not have been as weak as they were in the Homerdome. That, however, was not the case. The Twins had the initiative, in that they knew they would play four times at home if the series went seven games, and they defended that advantage. They had good starting pitching, a good bull pen, good power hitting, and excellent fielding. They deserved it, and I don't imagine there was a fan in the Metrodome Sunday night who didn't feel he or she had helped them along.

The fans. It's an oddly monolithic title for such an amalgamation of different people, who come to sports for different reasons and with different aims. Still, if we talk "the fans" we have to say that the fans let the pro football players down. Long-term effects of the strike--and of the upcoming antitrust suit, which the owners are sure to lose--are difficult to gauge right now. Yet what strikes me most about the strike is the feeling of betrayal I think the players have toward the fans. The battles of this strike were staged in the stadia and in the living rooms of the fans, and the players were routed. The players believed they had the fans' allegiance; their sin is a sin, perhaps, of pride, of feeling that they actually meant something to the fans who are always telling them--at least in the case of Chicago and the Bears--how great they are. The end result, however, was that the players overestimated the fans and the owners did not. The owners believed they could pass off any group of low-life, semipro scabs as the NFL, and they were right. They believed the average fan--Joe Six-pack--wouldn't care, and in fact he did not. About half the football fans used their tickets for the scab games, while the television ratings--where the real money is--suffered considerably slighter runoff. Without the support of the fans, the players had no footing and no power. What strikes me is that the fans who went to see the scabs seemed to be the ones who most hold it against the players when they lose and "let us down." In the strike between the players and the owners, the fans let the players down more than any athlete ever could.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories