Ah, San Francisco. Herb Caen's storied "City on Golden Hills," where a live-and-let-live attitude famously prevails and Giants fans dress for ballgames at AT&T Park like they took a wrong turn on the way to a Flaming Lips concert – because, as one diehard fan proudly told me, "We don't take ourselves seriously."
Unless Lorde's "Royals" is being played on the radio, in which case all bets are off.
As the first-ever San Francisco-Kansas City World Series approaches, local SF radio stations are being besieged by listeners demanding that Lorde's big hit be banned from the airwaves – not because it's still being played to death over a year after its initial release, but because the song was apparently inspired by a 1976 National Geographic photo of Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett. So when Ella Yelich-O'Connor sings "We'll never be Royals," she is, on some level, invoking the team the Giants are playing in the Fall Classic, and that's apparently just too damn much for the tender ears of otherwise open-minded San Franciscans to take.
Welcome to the Weird Series, an oddball matchup between two Wild Card teams that seems to be growing even odder by the day, despite the fact that the first pitch hasn't yet been thrown. ESPN's David Schoenfield has already proclaimed this "the worst World Series ever," because both teams had the temerity to get this far without actually winning at least 90 games or their respective division titles; meanwhile, Raw Story's Tony Ortega has staked out the other end of the opinion spectrum by calling it "the best World Series ever" – again, before any of the games have been played.
Accusations of major-market media bias against this SF vs. KC matchup have been flying right and left (since, you know, the Dodgers couldn't make it further than the NLDS, and the Yankees and Red Sox didn't even get to the playoffs this year), while breast-beating lamentations about the inevitably shitty TV ratings it will receive abound, as do hysterical sky-is-falling commentaries on WHAT IT ALL MEANS that two offensively-challenged teams with less-than-lights-out starting pitching are the last ones standing in 2014. All of which serve to obscure the fact that this has the potential to be one of the most exciting World Series matchups in years.
It's true that there won't be any high-wattage superstars participating in this World Series, unless you count Giants catcher (and former Rookie of the Year/MVP) Buster Posey – who has batted .302 this postseason, but has yet to knock an extra-base hit – or two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who has yet to actually see any action this October. Few players on either team have put up impressive offensive numbers this year; Posey (.311/.364/.490) was the only Giant to have batted over .300 or put up a plus-.850 OPS in full-time play this season, while Alex Gordon (.266/.351/.432 with 19 homers and 74 RBIs) was the closest thing to a big bopper that the Royals lineup boasted all year. And with the exception of San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 219 Ks in 217.1 innings), none of the starting pitchers involved posted brilliant statistics this season.
But if you base your appreciation for the game on stats alone, or simply can't get past the fact that the multi-tiered MLB postseason tournament rarely results in the "best" teams facing each other in the World Series, you'll be missing out on some great baseball this week, and possibly next. These are two underdog teams that should have never made it this far, but fought their way through an exciting and suspenseful postseason with the kind of pluck and grit that should be deeply appreciated by any member of the "play the game right" brigade, while exhibiting the sort of flash and flair that has resulted in one delicious highlight clip after another.
Do I want to see Pablo "Kung-Fu Panda" Sandoval make one ridiculous belly-flop play after another on the field? Do I want to watch the fabulously doughy Billy "Country Breakfast" Butler huff and puff his way around the bases? Do I want to see how Posey and his pitchers handle the aggressive Kansas City running game? Do I want to see how the Royals' acrobatic outfield act plays in the quirky confines of AT&T Park? Do I want to see how the looming specter of both teams' mighty bullpens impacts the early innings of the contests? Do I want to witness the managerial matchup of the brilliant Bruce Bochy and Ned "What, Me Worry?" Yost? Do I want to experience the thrills of a team that hasn't even been to a World Series in 29 years trying to extend their improbable postseason winning streak against a team that won World Series rings in 2010 and 2012? Do I want to see Hunter Pence being, well, Hunter Pence?
I'm offering an emphatic "Hell Yes" to all of the above; and if you can't muster up a similar degree of enthusiasm for at least some of these menu items, you probably don't deserve to attend the feast.
Yes, these are both Wild Card teams, neither of whom broke the 90-wins mark this year. Yes, both teams boasted merely the fourth-best records in their respective leagues; yes, the Royals ranked only eighth on ESPN's Relative Power Index for 2014, while the Giants were a middling 14th. And yes, the World Series was indeed once the way we determined whether the National or American League champions were truly "the best" in the land. But that concept effectively went out the window in 1969, with the introduction of a playoff system, while the current unbalanced schedule (and MLB's insistence upon interleague play) makes it more difficult than ever to determine the best teams by won-loss record alone.
Not that a matchup between teams with the top NL and AL W-L records ever guarantees a compelling World Series, either; such pairings have produced both gems (the seven-game duels between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles in 1971 and 1979) and duds (the 1976 Cincinnati Reds' sweep of the New York Yankees, or the 1999 Yankees' sweep of the Atlanta Braves) alike. A World Series between the two "best" teams of 2014 would have meant a matchup of the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – and personally, I'm pouring out a bottle of rum to Jobu in thanks for not having to sit through the endless Mike Trout-versus-Bryce Harper comparisons that would have ensued.
In case you were wondering, the last "Wild Card World Series" before this was played in 2002 between the Giants and Angels, and that turned out to be one of the most exciting Series showdowns of the decade. Maybe this one will follow suit; maybe this one will be a stinker. But we won't know for sure until we – to quote The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training – let them play. Prediction: Royals in 6
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