It was all set up. When the smoke of the regular baseball season cleared at the start of October there was a path for two of the most historic, resonant and mighty teams to meet this week in the World Series: the New York Yankees v the Los Angeles Dodgers. TV gold, even for neutrals. Everyone hates the Yankees, except those who love them.
And now the great day is about to dawn . Except that, um, the Series pits the Houston Astros against the Washington Nationals. The Yankees and Dodgers have appeared in 60 previous World Series between them; the actual contenders two. This, however, does not look like an anti-climax. These teams will parade a matchless array of starting pitchers. In a sense, that’s measurable: only seven pitchers have ever signed contracts worth $175m plus; four of them will be on display this week, two on each side – plus the Astros’ Gerrit Cole who is expected to join that list when he goes out of contract this winter.
Baseball this century has not been too kind to the old dynasties like the Yankees and Dodgers. Perennial losers like the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs have shrugged off folkloric curses and turned into winners. And now there’s Houston.
What an ill-starred franchise this was. The team started in 1962 calling themselves the Colt 45s (charming). They spent years playing in the Astrodome, a wretched venue. When they finally got a new stadium it was immediately christened Enron Field, after their ill-chosen sponsors.
The team was usually indifferent and, early in the 2010s, atrocious. The last bit was part of the masterplan. One person spotted it: Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story proclaiming the Astros as the 2017 winners – in June 2014. And he was spot on.
The Astros’ formula did not seem especially original: a mixture of metrics and scouting reports emphasising potential and character. But they were more willing than most to embrace short-term failure for youngsters and deferred glory. And their decisions were pretty damn shrewd.
They have now won more than 100 regular season games, out of 162, three years running, which is very rare. This year 60 of those were in their own stadium (now, less embarrassingly, called Minute Maid Park), last achieved by the 1998 Yankees. Home advantage is normally marginal, but the noise under the Astros’ retractable roof is intimidating. Facing the Yankees for the American League pennant last week, their fans hardly seemed to sit down or shut up. Texans are not famous for their inhibition.
It all reached a peak on Saturday night when the Astros’ brilliant Venezuelan second baseman José Altuve – at 5ft 6in, the smallest man in the major leagues – squared up to Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees’ fire-breathing dragon of a closing pitcher. Altuve hit a home-run that somehow combined an unbaseball-like elegance as well as power and sent the Astros to the Series again.
At least Houston have some recent success. The World Series has not been won by Washington since Calvin Coolidge was president, a mere 95 years ago. The team then was the Senators, whose main contribution after 1924 was to add to the national sentiment that everyone in the nation’s capital was useless. They finally decamped in 1972 leaving the city without baseball until 2005.
Since then, the Nationals have often threatened without delivering. But early this season the team was struggling: their star Bryce Harper had left for Philadelphia; no one was firing – though there were hints that someone might soon get fired, specifically the manager, Dave Martinez.
Then it turned round and they qualified for the post-season as wild‑cards. But their late momentum has carried them all the way to the National League title, culminating in a four game-sweep of the St Louis Cardinals. They have been galvanised by a cheeky imp called Juan Soto, not 21 until Friday, who irritates the hell out of opposing pitchers even before he annihilates them.
The Nats’ easy win over the Cards has given them a week off while, in the rival American League, the Astros were battling through against the Yankees – on the face of it a big plus. But baseball players (starting pitchers excepted) are used to performing every day. They have been at it since spring training began in February; their blank days usually involve air travel; duvet days are almost unknown.
The stats, in this stattiest of sports, suggest that lazy weeks can disrupt players’ rhythm. Day in, day out, the key to success is having the best players. At this point it is more about willpower and adrenalin. This series is best of seven, and the best team does not necessarily win – the toughest does.