Just one day after the pairing of the Cardinals and Dodgers gave vivid definition to the National League Championship Series, the American League pairing may now provide an equally fascinating matchup of contrasts in the battle that starts Saturday night in Fenway Park between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.
Pro sports leagues wish they could work from scripts, not reality, but sometimes they coincide. The Motor City and the Hub haven’t faced off in the postseason since . . . ever. Never happened. So it’s just dawning on us that they are perfect foils, yet have never met.
Boston, despite 40 winning years in the past 47, thinks it has suffered. Detroit, with no title since 1984 and an economy the size of a Bosox marketing budget, may define the term.
The Tigers are the Red Sox without the sobbing poetry. Detroit means Elmore Leonard figuring out how his character can rob a liquor store and still get you to like him. Boston means being sold an official chartreuse Red Sox hat and a $200 seat atop a wall 400 feet from the plate because that’s what you’ve been told you should want to do since birth.
In Detroit, if you can build a car with your own hands, you can’t get a job. In Boston, if you can deconstruct an Ezra Pound canto that nobody cares about, you get tenure. Boston is James Taylor whining about a broken heart. Detroit is Rodriguez singing to his ex: “Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that’s said, forget it.”
In Boston you scull on the Charles. In the Motor City, your skull bobs to the top of the Detroit River if the knot slips on the cinder block tied to your ankle.
Unless you’re from New England, it’s not tough to figure out whom to root for in this one. The Red Sox and their fans still want to be adorable underdogs. (Look, we lost 93 in 2012, but now we have beards and have become a band of brothers!) But it’s actually Detroit that hasn’t won a Series in nearly three decades and has been to the postseason only half as often as the Sawx since World War II. The Tigers deserve the empathy that Boston usually bogarts.
Yet Detroit doesn’t complain. Now that the Tigers are finally eminent again, losing the Series and the ALCS the past two seasons, they just emulate Manager Jim Leyland, suck back another coffin nail and tough it out. Let Boston have its affluence, its beauty, its recent champions in all four pro sports and its PhDs. Detroit still has . . . well . . . the Tigers.
This ALCS is only part of a larger postseason theme. If the playoffs so far give you a hard-to-finger sense that something special and unusual is happening, perhaps this is the common thread: Nine of the 10 teams — and all of the final four — were big league franchises in 1901. And seven had their current nicknames by World War I.
And none of ’em are Yankees.
How does it get better than that, especially when the four teams left are almost identical in talent and have all been familiar franchises since great-great grandma’s time: Cardinals (founded 1882), Dodgers (1884), Red Sox (1901) and Tigers (1901). In all those eons, only the Dodgers changed towns. Of the already knocked-out teams, the Braves (1876), Pirates (1882), Reds (1882), Indians (1901) and A’s (1901), only two changed cities.
Antiquity isn’t virtue. But it’s calming to look at four teams in uniforms, insignias and caps in cities where fans would revolt and mayors would get voted out of office if anyone dared to change the “Old English D” or tamper with an ornate “B.” In contrast, that 10th playoff team (Tampa Bay) was last in baseball in attendance; the Rays could wear pajamas with no logo at all next season and how many would notice?
Perhaps it’s not optimal that baseball affections take so long to adhere, but once they do, they’re indestructible. In recent times, chimpanzees owned the Dodgers; yet at the first wisp of hope this season, the Bums again led Major League Baseball in attendance.
These final four are adored teams with huge fan bases that all finished in the top six in MLB in percentage of capacity. In fact, those four teams alone drew 13 million fans, compared with only 17 million for the entire 32-team NFL in 2012. Pro football seldom mentions its attendance steadily descended from 2007 to 2011.
In baseball, in part because more than half of all current franchises have spent at least a century at brand-building, fans still go to watch the games. Or in the case of this taut October, to feel like somebody slipped something in their drink. In pro football, where less than 20 minutes of actual game action is padded to fill three-and-a-half hours, the sport increasingly exists as a pretext for TV ads, gambling platforms or tailgate drinking.
This postseason, with venues such as Fenway and Dodger Stadium by the San Gabriel Mountains and the skyline-drenched jewel in Pittsburgh, illustrates a class chasm in sports at this intersection of the MLB and NFL seasons; the gap is between those who still have some left, regardless of income, and those who are running low, even if they are NFL owners.
While the NFL spends this October defending itself against charges of a two-decade big-tobacco cover-up of brain damage caused by football and asks the public, “Please don’t look at that $765 million settlement with our players because we admit nothing,” baseball gets to run around its pretty little bases and see whether the crack of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, David Ortiz, Matt Holliday, Hanley Ramirez or Yasiel Puig’s bat is loudest.
Since the league championship series began in 1969, this is only the sixth time the four remaining teams are all continuous franchises that predate the first World Series in 1903. Some of those six occasions, including last year, were storybook quartets. But baseball has never had four more closely matched, tradition-steeped showcase teams in four visually distinctive parks, one on the Atlantic, one by the Pacific, one by the Mississippi and one by the Great Lakes. And, with due respect, no fun-sucking New York specter in sight. Will the performance be great, too? The stage is certainly set.
As for prophecy, the Red Sox should get an early foothold in the ALCS, but Justin Verlander will line up for a Game 7 start in Fenway, the Tigers will go to the Series “and that’s a concrete cold fact.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.