Yes, that was the most poorly played World Series I’ve ever seen also. And my memories thereof go back all the way to 1954, which was when the underdog New York Giants swept the highly favored Cleveland Indians, thanks to the hitting of Dusty Rhodes & one great catch in centerfield by Willie Mays. I didn’t really begin rooting for the Giants until they moved to San Francisco, four years later, but they’ve never won the whole shebang in the intervening 52 years.
This year both the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals were routinely the underdogs in each of their playoff series – the Tigers making it the playoffs after a record number of losing seasons, the Cardinals squandering a huge lead in the National League central division, going 12-17 the last month of the season, and becoming the team with the fewest wins ever to play in the World Series, let alone win it – until they finally met one another, when Detroit became the favorites simply on the theory that the American League is by far the better half of baseball these days. So St. Louis winning meant that the underdog won every single round of the playoffs.
I personally expected Detroit to win, using my highly scientific “former Phillies” analysis. Each team had one ex-Phil in a key position, Detroit with second baseman Placido Polanco, whom the Phils dealt once Chase Utley emerged as the best player at that position in all of baseball, the Cardinals with Scott Rolen (who used to live out in our neighborhood when he was a Phillie), the multi-gold glove, multi-time all-star third baseman. Polanco had been the MVP of the American League Championships & is somebody who always gives 110 percent effort on everything, while the much more talented Rolen seems to drift along at around 85 percent much of the time. So I was thinking Polanco gave Detroit an edge. I always thought the Phils should have put Polanco at third & dealt David Bell instead. If the Phils – the team with the best record in baseball after the trading deadline – had gotten to the playoffs, they would have eaten both the Cardinals & Tigers for breakfast. And with Polanco, they wouldn’t have sucked as badly as they did the first half of this season & would have made it. As it was, the Phils simply dumped Bell at this year’s trading deadline. Which, no coincidence, is when they suddenly got good.
Unfortunately, once the Series started, Polanco was trying to give 150 percent effort & trying way too hard, ending up the show without a single hit. Rolen, true to form, finished the Series with a ten-game hitting streak in which only one of his hits really made a difference. Detroit also suffered from having dispatched the Oakland A’s so quickly. The Tigers looked really rusty in the first game in Detroit, which St. Louis won & even tho they tied the series briefly behind the pitching of Ken “Muddy” Rogers the next night, they never found their equilibrium. That momentum thing is not to be underestimated – it’s why so many wild card teams have gone on to win the Series. They’re still struggling and playing hard right up to the last day of the regular season, where the “better” division champions have often been coasting for weeks, only to get eliminated before anyone can find the ignition button once the playoffs arrive.
But the largest single reason St. Louis is celebrating this weekend is Dave Duncan, the one-time major league catcher who has been the team’s pitching coach for the past 11 seasons, after a nine-year stint in the same role for the Oakland A’s, all two decades working alongside manager Tony La Russa. Duncan, who is also the father of Cardinal rightfielder (and defensive butcher) Chris Duncan, is very possibly the best pitching coach in all of baseball and is somebody I would happily recommend to Cooperstown if it ever got smart enough to put coaches into the Baseball Hall of Fame¹.
Detroit clearly had the much better pitching staff this year and, in short series like each round of the playoffs, that usually is what makes the difference. But St. Louis consistently got great starts from journeymen hurlers, including a brilliant game from one-time Tiger Jeff Weaver on Friday. It reminded me of how, in his Oakland days, Duncan took two has-been starters, Bob Welch & Dennis Eckersley, and made the former into a Cy Young award winner & the latter into the best relief pitcher of the era, winning both the Cy Young & MVP awards in 1992 & going on to the Hall of Fame. Duncan also took a young pitcher who had never panned out with any of the teams he had played with previously, Dave Stewart, and helped him to win 20 games four seasons in a row, becoming the MVP of the 1989 World Series & the American League Championship Series MVP in both 1990 and 1993. Stewart ended up going head to head against Roger Clemens eight times in his career and won seven of those outings. That’s the Dave Duncan effect.
¹ Also deserving are Lee Mazzone, the longtime pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves, and the man they call Popeye (and the Gerbil), Don Zimmer, a coach with many teams, and, as a senior advisor to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the last Brooklyn Dodger still active in professional baseball.