When analyzing the 2003 Major League Baseball playoffs, one cannot help but wonder if the baseball gods are smiling down upon us, granting wishes that many fans have desired for nearly a century. Some of baseball's greatest memories are instantly recalled with just the listing of the stadiums of the four remaining teams: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and....Pro Player Stadium.
Okay, even with all the historical coincidences this October, let's not get carried away into mindless hyperbole that will lead to inevitable disappointment when both the Red Sox's and Cubs' World Series droughts continue in about two weeks.
Perhaps the most unlikely team to still be playing is the Florida Marlins. After buying the 1997 World Series, the Marlins did not have another winning season until this year. Last season was a near disaster for the organization, with the team finishing 23 games out of firstplace and--more importantly--selling selling 400,000 tickets less than during the 2001 season. To improve its outlook, the Florida organization decided to show the team's commitment to future successes by hiring the 72-year-old Jack McKeon as manager.
Needless to say, not many bought into this strategy.
But as the off-season acquisitions of outfielder Juan Pierre, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and pitcher Mark Redman were able to mesh with the productive returning pitchers Josh Beckett and Brad Penny along with the unpredictably successful rookie and media-magnet pitcher Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins won 91 games and a wild card birth. Matched up with the National League defending champion San Francisco Giants, the Marlins made clutch play after clutch play en route to a 3-1 upset series win.
The Cubs defied many historical patterns for the right to take on the Marlins in the National League Champion Series, winning their first playoff series since 1908 when they downed the perennial pennant-winner Atlanta Braves. Behind a balanced offensive attack led by the magic stick of Sammy Sosa and the youthful pitching of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs won 21 more games this regular season than in 2002. It is hard to fathom, but either the Marlins or the Cubs will be competing in the 2003 World Series.
In the more historically reasonable matchup in the American League, the Boston Red Sox will be taking on the New York Yankees. The Yankees breezed through their first-round series against the Minnesota Twins as only the Yankees can. The Red Sox, on the other hand, needed to win three straight incredibly competitive games to move past the Oakland Athletics, who have now lost nine consecutive potential series-clinching games.
Even with all the clutch play, the Sox, who have not won a World Series since 1918, still could not win without literally running into each other. For all its excitement, the Red Sox-Athletics first round series was more about which team with a history of choking would screw up more in the clutch.
Expect the Yankees, whose pitchers Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte all seem to be hitting their respective strides at the same time, to win the next two series en route to another World Series title. While the first rounds defied many historical patterns, expect the most historic team to defeat whoever takes the diamond with them. While the Red Sox certainly gave the Yanks trouble during the regular season--and are sure to give New York fans more headaches this week--the 152-million dollar payrole is doing what it is supposed to do right now, and the men in pinstripes have too much talent to lose to the teams remaining.
Many were surprised that the Red Sox, Marlins and the Cubs won their respective first-round series. But in the modern playoff format, is there such thing as first-round upset?
Only eight teams qualify for the first round, making every squad a credible threat. A combination of a low comparative winning percentage of dominant teams (the Yankees had a 62.3 winning percentage this season compared to the NBA's San Antonio's Spurs' 73.1) and a short best-of-five series, any playoff team can advance to the second round.
Mathematically, normalcy is likely to return in the best-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series. And where there is normalcy, there are Yankees wins.
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