When the World Series opens in Fenway Park tonight, everything about the St. Louis Cardinals will be a known and predictable certainty while every aspect of the Boston Red Sox' mental and physical condition will be a complete mystery.
With St. Louis, you know what you'll get. A clean-cut, immaculately tailored, 105-win team in those classy Cardinals uniforms that will take the field with a modern murderer's row of sluggers, enough speed to manufacture runs, a superb defense, a smart manager, a deep bullpen and no weakness whatsoever, except the biggest potential weakness of all -- a mediocre starting rotation.
With Boston, you get a team of inspired idiots with injuries and insomnia. They may be so fired up that they'll thump the Cardinals as an afterthought. After all, they just beat a team with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in the outfield, an infield of Lou Gehrig, Billy Martin, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez with Yogi Berra catching and Reggie Jackson at DH. Wow, how tough can Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis look after you've whipped the ghost of Thurman Munson? Or, of course, the Red Sox may be so pooped they'll plop. Imagine Terry Francona's pre-World Series team meeting: "Okay, who wants to pitch? Just raise your hand. Okay, so none of you can raise your arms. No problem. Can anybody throw submarine?"
The Cardinals have their rotation set, their lineup set and their fans are set, too -- a matched set. You're not allowed in Busch Stadium even if you have a Series ticket unless you prove you're wearing at least four outer garments that are entirely red.
There are no fashion issues in St. Louis.
"Honey, what goes with red?"
"More red, dear."
For the Red Sox, on the other hand, everything is completely upset, topsy-turvy. As usual. You've heard of players who are held together with bailing wire? Curt Schilling actually is. The Red Sox aren't worried about his arm. They just hope he doesn't rust.
The Boston rotation entering the World Series is typical of life in Red Sox land. In the ALCS, Derek Lowe was demoted to the bullpen so Bronson Arroyo could start against the Yankees until Arroyo got knocked out early and Tim Wakefield volunteered to pitch long relief, which forced Lowe to get a start that worked out so well that Wakefield stayed in the bullpen along with Arroyo and now, because Schilling limps, Pedro Martinez needs more rest and Lowe just won the pennant, Wakefield will start Game 1 of the Series. See how easy it is to run the Red Sox? One day this winter, Theo Epstein is going to wake up and look 90.
Yes, St. Louis and Boston are a contrast all right. The Cards are perfect. If the Red Sox had a perfect player, they'd stone him. With the Red Sox, you get beards, beads, blond cornrows and blood seeping out through uniforms. The clubhouse doesn't just show "Animal House" on its TV, it is "Animal House."
And there's Manny Ramirez in the corner working on his hairstyle. Manny, how do you get that look? "It's not hard. I just twist the hair into knots," he says. Whatever.
Every stellar Cardinal has a precise, well-crafted identity. Nobody would ever mistake Albert Pujols for Jim Edmonds for Scott Rolen for Larry Walker. When the Cardinals are at bat, nobody has to ask, "Who's up?" You could tell them apart even without uniform numbers. When Manager Tony La Russa takes off his spectacles, he always puts them in their special case.
With Boston, sometimes you can't tell the guys apart even with uniform numbers, because they may switch them in batting practice as a practical joke. The Red Sox deliberately change their hairstyles, mustaches and beards several times a season so nobody can figure out exactly who is who. Put Kevin Millar, Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek in a lineup and not one fan in a hundred outside New England could identify all five of these everyday players correctly. It's their little joke.
Once the Midwest Icons and the New England Idiots actually settle down to play baseball, we could have some real fun because this looks like one of the closest battles you could imagine -- at least on paper. However, if Schilling and Martinez are physically able to pitch close to their normal ability, then the Red Sox may win this World Series far more decisively than most believe.
It's commonplace but dependable baseball wisdom that "great pitching stops great hitting." What isn't mentioned so often, but is equally true, is that merely good pitching seldom stops truly great hitting. And that's the core of this series.
Both teams led their leagues in runs scored. Both lineups are truly frightening -- especially to pitchers with modest stuff. To hold down either attack, you need pitchers who, as they say in the dugout, can "miss the bat."
The Red Sox have such pitchers. The Cardinals simply don't. In every game, the Red Sox will face a Cards starter that they have every reason to think they can hit. On the other hand, in six of seven games, the Cardinals will face a Red Sox starter who has earned a living by making even great hitters look foolish.
It's likely that, as this Series progresses, the Red Sox will become more comfortable facing the Cards' humble starters, who gave up 14 homers in seven games to Houston. But the longer the World Series goes, the more St. Louis hitters will discover that their timing is being progressively eroded (as was the case with the Yanks) by a Boston staff that may have baseball's best raw stuff.
Reduce it to this. The Cards' four starters in this series struck out 510 men in 871 innings. And that includes all the NL pitchers they struck out. Martinez and Schilling alone struck out 430 men in 4432/3 innings while facing designated hitters. The Boston pair was ranked second and third in the AL in strikeouts and third and fourth in lowest opponents batting average. No St. Louis starter was among the NL leaders in either category. The Red Sox aren't even starting Arroyo, the ninth-hardest AL pitcher to hit.
Besides Martinez and Schilling, Boston may have lucked into a secret weapon. Wakefield, like most knuckleballers, is streaky. Either he is at war with his mechanics or suddenly discovers "it." Wakefield's "A" knuckleball reappeared in Game 5 of the ALCS with four "Ks" in three innings. His pitches were so hard to catch that Varitek had three passed balls in one inning. In last year's ALCS, Wakefield hit a similar groove and beat the Yankees' fearsome lineup twice, allowing seven hits in 13 innings.
Which Wakefield will show up? The man who was in a six-week slump? Or the extra-innings winner of Game 5?
In a statistical oddity, the core of the Cardinals' lineup has amazing success against left-handed pitching. Pujols, Rolen and Edgar Renteria rank first, second and third in batting average against southpaws in the NL; Edmonds is seventh. Well, that's great. Except that all of Boston's starters, as well as their most important relievers, are all right-handed. Oops.
The Red Sox may have one other edge. The Cards had a fifth starter, Chris Carpenter, all season. He's injured now. As a result, they're stuck with keeping Jason Marquis in their rotation. He was excellent all year (15-7) but was a mechanical mess against Houston. The Cards have no option but to run him out there. Meantime, Boston's worst late-season pitcher, Lowe, suddenly finds himself a full-fledged hero after winning Game 7 in Yankee Stadium on two days' rest.
Though the Cardinals' starting pitching may have its hiccups in this World Series, the total St. Louis product will be quality. The Cards were the most consistently excellent team in baseball all season and they've played like it in October.
The mystery team is the Red Sox. They finished their September run ablaze. Then they torched the Yankees with the best comeback in postseason history. Are they still on fire or just burned out? Are Schilling, 37, and Martinez, an old 32, physically able to finish the team's 86-year-old unfinished job?
Finally, the AL won home-field advantage at the All-Star Game. In a World Series so close that may be the crucial swing vote.
Pick: Red Sox in seven games.