If the '99 World Series isn't one of the best ever, it will be one of baseball's biggest wasted opportunities. Seldom has a stage been better set.
For starters, this battle has the best pitching matchups in Series history.
Period. No arguments allowed. This isn't a close call. No Series has ever had two teams with four starters apiece who were as excellent as those of New York and Atlanta.
The Yankees' Orlando Hernandez, David Cone, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens--in that order--facing Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz is the classiest set of Series confrontations the game has ever had.
Six of the eight have won 20 games. Five have won the Cy Young Award--a total of 12 times among them. A seventh, Hernandez (17-9), is the greatest pitcher in Cuban history--a far higher distinction than just winning 20. The eighth man in the group may--at the moment--be the best. Millwood has gone 17-8 and 18-7 in his first full seasons and was the hardest pitcher to hit this season, holding batters to a .202 average. Yes, that beat Pedro Martinez (.205). All these guys are in, or still near, their prime.
Or view the picture in reverse. The worst of this group is Pettitte who, at 27, has an 81-46 record and a stellar postseason history. If he has 10 more years like his first five, he might go to Cooperstown. Some weak link.
What we've got here is a Series with eight staff aces facing off. Nothing like that has ever happened.
In most Series, each team has two pitchers whose names still ring decades later. Christy Mathewson and Iron Man McGinnity against Chief Bender and Eddie Plank ('05) would be typical. But the quality falls off quickly after that. A few Series (very few indeed, actually) have featured three superior starters on each team. Such as Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman against Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack in '73.
And on just a couple of occasions, both teams have actually had four starters with memorable career records and real stature in the game. My favorite, perhaps just for the euphony of the names, would be Whitey Ford, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi against Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, Billy Loes and Johnny Podres. But those eight are no match for '99. It's possible the best previous sets of Series starters came in '96 when these same teams met. But both rotations have been upgraded since then.
The appeal of this Series goes far deeper than the pitching matchups, though that's a heck of a starting point. The winner will certainly be declared Team of the Decade. Maybe that's a bizarre, arbitrary distinction. After all, where were the Yanks for the first half of the decade? Still, that's how it's going to play out. If the Braves win, they'll have five pennants and two world titles. If the Yankees win, they'll have three pennants and three World Series rings.
Because both teams have been so good for so long, and because they led their respective leagues in wins this season, this will be a Classic with no underdog. That's a hardship for many fans. We're a nation of overdog-haters, perhaps because America is the world's overdog and we like to be on the other side for a change.
Even if the Yanks are slight betting favorites, it's a ridiculous concept. The Braves won 103 games. They may have the best rotation in history. If not, it's close. They have the home-field advantage, which has predicted 17 of the last 20 Series winners. And Atlanta's bullpen is not only deeper but includes three left-handers who can prey on the Yanks' lefty hitters. You can make a profitable life's work out of betting on underdogs like that.
Unfortunately for this pro wrestling world of ours, this Series also contains no villains. Baseball has no more pleasant people, harder workers and more decent examples. If you take Joe Torre, Don Zimmer, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill, then I get Leo Mazzone, Don Baylor, Brian Jordan, and Eddie Perez. If it weren't for John (Punk) Rocker and Jim Leyritz, this series might be called on account of too much good behavior.
Please, don't drag up the owners as counter-examples. Be nice to George and Ted. They've mellowed with the years. Neither has made a fool of himself in quite some time. Put an asterisk beside "Steinbrenner" on your roster. Mark him: Potential Villain.
For those who savor nuance, this Series has plenty of tidbits. The Braves have hit both Clemens and Hernandez hard in the past. Clemens also has a postseason record so spotty that you can't discount the possibility that he's wired too tight for October.
On the other hand, Cone, with his long history of arm problems, is often spectacular on extra rest. Case in point: his perfect game this year. Right now, he's ultra-rested. Also, Pettitte has been first-rate against Texas and Boston--both vastly better-hitting teams against lefties than Atlanta.
For the Braves, the key pitcher may be Maddux. He's lost something. The Yanks might pound him. Yet the best way to hit Maddux is to attack the first strike. Never let him set you up and play with your head. The Yankees foul more pitches and go deeper in counts than any team. This is a cobra-and-mongoose scenario. How they adjust to each other could tilt two games.
Everybody knows the Yankees' clearest strength: their big-name, big-money bench, including Darryl Strawberry and switch-hitting Chili Davis. Few realize the Braves' strength: a deep bullpen that may match up well with the gaudy Yankees bench in late and close situations.
The Yankees have one reliever who's hard to touch: Mariano Rivera, who holds hitters to a minuscule .176 average. But the Braves have three: Rocker (.180), Russ Springer (.186) and Mike Remlinger (.215), who went 10-1. The Yankees' other relievers, while adequate, aren't scary. The league hit .284, .245, .289 and .254 off Ramiro Mendoza, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Allen Watson. That's not impressive, especially for a postseason series that may hinge on a couple of marathon games.
If ever a Series deserves to go seven games, it's this one. Have the Mets exhausted the Braves too much to allow a truly great Series? Let's vote against it.
Prediction: This Series will not end until November as Game 7 goes extra innings and past midnight into Nov. 1. Who wins? Heads, Yanks. Tails, Braves. My nickel just came down heads. Let's hope it's actually that long and that close.