Power versus speed. Long ball versus small ball. Skillful skippering versus face-palming folly. Baltimore Orioles versus Kansas City Royals.
There are so many wonderful things going on at the heart of this year’s American League Championship Series showdown, one almost hesitates to talk too much about them, lest the inherent magic of this matchup be somehow neutralized by over-analysis. Neither the Orioles nor the Royals have played since Sunday, which seems about a thousand years ago right now, and even their most ardent fans could be forgiven at this point for wondering if their respective ALDS sweeps against the Tigers and Angels were just sweet fever dreams triggered by overindulgence in blue crabs or barbecue.
The very idea of the Orioles and Royals meeting to decide who goes to the World Series is like a dizzy throwback to another era. The O’s haven’t played in an ALCS since 1997, when they lost to the Indians; they also lost to the Yankees in the 1996 ALCS, and then you have to go all the way back to 1983 – when the pornstached likes of Rick Dempsey and John Lowenstein led them to a World Series victory over the Phillies – to find another Baltimore team that lasted this long in the postseason. The Royals, of course, haven’t even tasted the fruits of October since 1985, when George Brett, Willie Wilson and Bret Saberhagen beat the Cardinals four games to three in the “I-70” World Series. Between 1976 and 1985, the Royals made it to the postseason seven times, and the Orioles twice; this is the first time, however, that the two teams have actually faced each other in a playoff series.
Both teams play like throwbacks to their 1970s and ’80s incarnations, as well. The late, great Earl Weaver, the combative manager who guided the O’s to six division titles, four American League pennants and one World Series championship between 1969 and 1982, was fond of saying that “the key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.” There is little doubt that “The Earl of Baltimore” is nodding approvingly in baseball heaven at Buck Showalter’s 2014 squad, which led the majors in home runs this year with 211, while also posting the third-best staff ERA (3.43) in the AL and flashing some of the best leather in the league.
The 2014 Royals no longer play their home games on AstroTurf, but you wouldn’t know it by their aggressive small-ball approach, which harkens directly back to the days when Whitey Herzog and Dick Howser turned Kauffman Stadium into a living pinball machine. This year’s Royals stole more bases (153) than any team in the majors, while knocking the fewest round-trippers in the bigs (95). Their outfield of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Nori Aoki seems to specialize in jaw-dropping catches, manager Ned Yost’s use of pinch-runners like Terrance Gore (a late-season rookie call-up who stole five bases in 11 games, despite making only two appearances at the plate) is reminiscent of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley’s 1970s penchant for “designated runners,” and even Billy Butler’s nickname – “Country Breakfast” – seems to hail from a looser, funkier era of baseball history.
While it’s delightful to watch both of these teams do their thing on the field, the real kick in this series should come from the contrasting managing styles of Showalter and Yost. Showalter is one of the premiere chess-players of the diamond, who has consistently shown an ability to think several innings ahead and a willingness to bend his lineup card or bullpen to the situation, rather than abide by any restrictive rules of thumb. Yost, on the other hand, gives the impression that he’d chisel his lineup card onto a stone tablet if he could – he’s subjected many of his players (such as catcher Salvador Perez, who started an exhausting 143 games behind the plate this season) to an almost Leo Durocher-like level of overuse. He’s proven himself equally inflexible with regards to the Kansas City bullpen, where Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are reserved for use in the seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, with absolutely no deviations allowed.
Yost also loves calling for the bunt like Taylor Swift loves writing songs about relationships, though often with far less of a payoff. If you hear a disembodied cackling sound during the ALCS, it’ll probably be the ghost of Earl Weaver shaking with laughter at how the Royals are once again bunting when they should be swinging away.
This postseason has already made fools out of Bob Melvin, Brad Ausmus, Don Mattingly and Matt Williams, whose teams all paid dearly for their boneheaded managerial decisions. And yet, Yost has thus been spared the wrath of the baseball gods, despite his “What, me worry?” approach to running the game. Will his luck finally run out against Showalter and the Orioles? Or will the seemingly charmed Royals advance to the World Series despite it all?
Like their NL counterparts, the Royals and Orioles should make for a dynamite series – only in this one, we’ll be rooting for both of these teams to win. Alas, in the immortal words of Highlander, there can only be one. Prediction: Orioles 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