Oh no, not these guys again.
The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants – each of whom went into their respective Division Series this year as significant underdogs – clinched spots in the NL Championship Series last night with 3-2 victories that were as different as their scores were similar. The Cardinals once again found a way to make Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw look like a bum, and the Giants once again found a way to nick the Nationals to death. And once again, they've both found themselves in the NLCS.
Though their fans will vehemently deny it, these two teams are rapidly becoming the National League equivalents of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. There has been a Cardinals or Giants team in the NLCS every year since 2010 – including 2012, when the Giants came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cards in seven games. Cardinal red has become as ubiquitous in mid-October as slasher-film gore, while the proliferation of reported Great Pumpkin sightings in recent years probably has something to do with the omnipresence of Giants skipper Bruce Bochy's plus-sized, black-and-orange-clad head.
Like the Yankees, the Cardinals lead their league in World Series championships (11) and self-righteousness. They wear a uniform whose classic design elements date back to the days of Prohibition. They claim to play and comport themselves with a heightened degree of class (Yadier Molina's recent umpire push notwithstanding) and have a fanbase that revels in their team's reflected glory as if it was their birthright.
But unlike the post-2009 Yankees, the Cardinals actually consistently make it to (and win in) October; this will be the fourth straight NLCS that they've played in. And also unlike the Yankees, they've gotten by in largely without the help of superstars; since Albert Pujols walked at the end of 2011, the team's main men have been the relatively low-wattage likes of Molina, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright. Matt Carpenter, who batted .375 with three home runs and 7 RBIs against the Dodgers in this year's NLDS, may be a two-time All Star who led the NL in hits and runs scored last year, but most non-Cards fans would be hard-pressed to recognize him on the street.
It's easy to respect a team that knows how to win as a team, and who plays relentlessly tough and smart baseball, as the Cardinals unquestionably do; but it's equally difficult to love a team that exudes so little in the way of fun or funk while doing so. It's also hard to not be put off by certain segments of their fanbase.
Last November, Cards Nation hemmed and hawed about their precious team signing a suspended cheater like shortstop Jhonny Peralta, because relying on PEDs isn't "the Cardinal way" – never mind what Mark McGwire was doing under the not-so-watchful eye of Tony La Russa. Yet some of these same "best fans in baseball" saw nothing wrong with trying to shout down a small group of Ferguson protestors the other night, and lecture them on how "we gave you your freedoms." In some parts of St. Louis, "classy" is apparently still spelled with a capital "KKK."
All of which means that we should root for the Giants instead, right? Well, no. Sure, they're fun to watch; they've got plenty of genuine characters on their team, like two-time Cy Young-winner Tim "Dazed and Confused" Lincecum, third baseman Pablo "Kung-Fu Panda" Sandoval – who has led this postseason in both improbable fielding plays and truly repulsive facial close-ups (Dude, please close your mouth when you chew!) – and right fielder Hunter Pence, whose curls, beard and ridiculously rolled-up pants make him look like he came straight to the ballpark from a grape-stomp at the local medieval faire. They have a rookie second baseman with the impossibly punk-rock name of Joe Panik (though the elimination of the Tigers by the Orioles sadly negated any possibility of a "Panik In Detroit" headline during the World Series), and his keystone partner Brandon Crawford looks like a refugee from a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band.
But the funk-factor of the aforementioned Giants is completely overruled by the presence of catcher Buster Posey, who not only looks and carries himself like that know-it-all kid you hated in your Political Science 101 class, but whose inability to properly set up for a play at home plate in 2011 led pretty much directly to this year's MLB plate collision rule – a regulation so asinine and byzantine that even Joe Torre has admitted that he doesn't think anyone fully understands it.
And no postseason coverage of Crawford (this piece included) is exempt from mentioning the photo of him as a 5-year-old moppet begging Giants ownership to pwease keep his favowite team in San Fwancisco, a pic of American boyhood so cloyingly, nauseatingly adorable, only a back-pocket slingshot and a faithful pup with a black spot over one eye could launch it deeper into Norman Rockwell territory.
Not helping matters is the Giants' fanbase, which – like their Red Sox brethren – was a cool and likeable bunch before their team actually won a couple of World Series. Their unflagging devotion to the Giants through the lean "Croix de Candlestick" years and seemingly endless postseason disappointments marked them as soulful and sympathetic, even when they were cheering for the risible likes of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. But as many of the team's old-school fans will attest, their current ballpark (now on its third corporate name in 15 years) is filled with fair-weather fans wearing annoying costumes and crowing about how the Giants are going to win it all again in 2014 because (wait for it) IT'S AN EVEN YEAR. Giants fans also love to self-righteously criticize the rival Dodgers for being some kind of big-budget Evil Empire, despite the fact that the Giants had the third-highest payroll in the majors this year. (Sound familiar, Red Sox Nation?)
But if the most galling thing about the Cardinals is their quasi-robotic success, the Giants' consistent ability to win despite their glaring flaws is somehow equally craw-sticking. You'd be lucky to make second place in the NL West managing their 2010 or 2012 teams in Strat-O-Matic replays, and their 2014 squad is more of the same: a team that looks as shaky and spindly as Pence's legs until they get to the postseason. Bochy certainly deserves significant credit for their success, but the players also deserve props for whatever looseness and self-belief has propelled them this far, despite posting largely middle-of-the-pack offensive and pitching stats during the regular season.
Enjoy the series, Giants and Cards fans – it should be a wild one. These are two teams that know how to go deep in postseason; they'll be coming in well-rested when the NLCS starts on Saturday; and the Game 1 pitching match-up will most likely be between Adam Wainwright (if his elbow holds up) and Madison Bumgarner, two brilliant pitchers who will both be highly motivated. Us non-Cards/Giants fans will be watching, too, because there's nothing better than damned good baseball in October, and this matchup all but guarantees we'll be seeing plenty of that. But just know that we'll all be wishing there was some way that both of your teams could lose. Prediction: Cardinals in 7
Dan Epstein's latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. He's on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras