The World Series is upon us. As the playoffs have already roared to life, anticipation in the sports world builds for the October Classic, which begins this year on the 22nd. Every season has its ups and downs, its surprise contenders, and its disappointing busts. But the culmination of the season lends itself to high drama, from late game heroics to extra innings to the perils of weather; some series even feature all three. It’s a big task to try to decide which World Series was the greatest. Submitted for your certainly endless debate, here are the five series that most likely meet the criteria. Play ball!
5. Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 2004
The first historic moment associated with this, the 100th World Series, actually happened in the preceding League Championship Series. The Sox had been down 3-0 to the Yankees, a deficit that no team had ever overcome. Improbably, in a twist so significant that it would become a plot element on Lost, the Sox came from behind and took the series 4-3. The Red Sox were staring down the barrel of a World Series drought that stretched all the way back to 1918.
Game one was the closest contest in the Series. A back-and-forth game saw the Cardinals tie things up at 9-9 in the 8th inning; however, the Sox scored twice in the bottom of the 8th and held out to take it 11-9. The remaining three games were not as close. The Series, which some sportswriters had predicted to last six or seven games, was over in a four-game Red Sox sweep. Part of the greatness here is the sheer improbability of it all; the Red Sox escaped elimination by their greatest rivals, the Yankees, and then took the whole thing.
In what is perhaps the wildest coincidence in an already charmed season, two Sox fans, the writers Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King (yeah, THE Stephen King) had decided to write a book on the 2004 campaign. King and O’Nan followed the team from opening day until the end of the series; their book, Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, was released in 2005.
4. Florida Marlins vs. Cleveland Indians, 1997
A tale of two cities: Cleveland, experiencing years of frustration in the series, and Miami, the home of the Marlins, a team that was only in its fifth year of existence. The Indians hadn’t taken a World Series since 1948, but it was their second time back in three seasons. The Marlins, being a fairly new team, had never been. The Indians overcame the Yankees and Orioles to get there, whereas the Marlins had to get past the San Francisco Giants and ’90s powerhouses the Atlanta Braves. The unlikely match-up resulted in a seven-game slugfest.
Florida and Cleveland each took a game before the real banger of the Series, Game three. A combined 25 runs were scored with Florida putting together a seven-run 9th inning; the Marlins ultimately took it 14-11. Going in to Game seven in Miami, it was do or die for both teams. Of course, the game went into extra innings. In the 11th inning, Édgar Rentería drove in the winning run for the Marlins. The Commissioner’s Trophy was awarded on the field for the first time ever; typically, it had been awarded to the team in the locker room. This time, however, the world got to see the new, underdog team get the prize on their home field.
3. New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947
This one is significant for a laundry list of reasons. It was the first World Series to be televised. It marked the first Series to feature an African-American player, the already barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson. Robinson had started on opening day, becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball. His presence on the roster made the Dodgers the first racially integrated team to play for the title.
In terms of gameplay, you had cross-town rivals coming off of big seasons. Eight future Hall of Famers were on the roster between the two squads, including Robinson, his teammates Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Arky Vaughan, whereas the Yankees featured manager Bucky Harris, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and the immortal Joe DiMaggio. The hotly contested series went to a Game Seven at Yankee Stadium, and turned on a brilliant performance by Yankees middle reliever Joe Page, who struck out 13 consecutive batters. Strangely enough, this was the last time that the Yankees have won a Game Seven on their home field.
2. New York Mets vs. Boston Red Sox, 1986
No matter what we say, any distillation of this Series will always come down to one thing: The Buckner. And that’s not really fair. Bill Buckner had a long and solid 21-year career. During his tenure with the Chicago Cubs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Buckner won a batting title (1980) and led the league in doubles on more than one occasion. The Cubs dealt him to Boston in 1984, and he became the starting first baseman the following year. Buckner shined at his position, breaking his own record for put-out assists with 184; he also started every single one of the 162 games played that season. The next year, he struggled with injuries.
The flashpoint came in Game Six of the World Series. With the Sox leading the Series 3-2, Game Six went into extra innings. In the 10th, Mookie Wilson of the Mets faced reliever Bob Stanley. Wilson held on for nine grueling pitches, staying alive with foul balls. On the tenth pitch, Wilson hit a ball up the first base line. As Buckner moved to get it, it rolled between his legs and into the outfield. The Mets tied the Series.
The Sox didn’t give up, but it was hard to even get the last game started. Game Seven was postponed a day for rain. In the interim, Sox manager John McNamara decided to break the rotation and have Ron Darling pitch instead of Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. When Boyd found out he wasn’t starting, he went back to the locker room and got drunk; pitching coach Bill Fischer locked the unusable pitcher in the visiting manager’s office. Eventually, the Mets outscored the Sox 8-5, putting their Series dreams off for another 18 years.
1. Chicago Cubs vs. Cleveland Indians, 2016
Two houses, both alike in indignities. The Indians hadn’t been to the big dance since 1948. The Cubs hadn’t been to a Series since 1945 and hadn’t taken one since 1908. Cleveland’s frustrations were put on display in the popular Major League film series, but the Cubs had become the target of stand-up comedians, casual observers, and Cardinals fans for more than a century; Saturday Night Live writer/featured performer A. Whitney Brown once did a routine suggesting that the Cubs even winning the National League pennant would be a sign of the apocalypse. Nevertheless, the Cubs boasted one of the most enduring fanbases in all of sports.
The Cubs tore down the house in the regular season, finishing the year with the best record in all of baseball, a sparkling 103-58. In the post-season, they dispatched the San Francisco Giants and a very strong L.A. Dodgers team; Cleveland, for their part, overcame the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. The collision of two long-suffering teams drew a great deal of media attention, but everyone knew what the inevitable conclusion was; one team would break their curse, and the other would continue with theirs.
The teams battled furiously for six games (maybe less furiously in Game Three, which featured exactly one run scored), but, almost as if it were scripted that way, they went to Game Seven. At the end of nine innings, the teams were locked in a 6-6 tie after the Cubs had blown a three-run lead. Then, it began to rain. For 17 excruciating minutes, play was stopped. Seizing the moment, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward pulled his teammates into a weight room behind the dugout and rallied them with an impromptu speech. He said, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”
The Cubs went out and scored two in the tenth. In the bottom of the inning, the Indians put another one on the board. Cubs manager Joe Maddon put in Mike Montgomery, a pitcher with exactly zero saves on his record. Batter Michael Martinez hit a grounder to the Cubs second-year third baseman and budding star, Kris Bryant. Bryant fielded the ball and threw it to his teammate, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had beaten limited state classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, for the out. As dearly departed announcer Harry Caray would have put it, “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!”
Home runs and heartbreak. Last-minute heroics and unforgettable errors. The Boys of Summer at the onset of Fall. That’s the World Series. And though interest varies from year to year, the great American constant, as Field of Dreams taught us, remains baseball. We may not agree on the particulars of what makes a great World Series, but it’s safe to say that the World Series will always be great.
Featured image: Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com.
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