Different kind of history beckons

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The truest truism in baseball is that pitching wins championships, and this year’s World Series, pitting the Houston Astros against the Chicago White Sox, is likely to reaffirm, in rather convincing fashion, that particular kernel of wisdom.

What promises to be one long, enthralling pitching duel gets under way on Saturday at US Cellular Field in Chicago, with Houston’s ageless, peerless Roger Clemens trading fastballs with Chicago’s José Contreras, who has been brilliant since mid-August. It is hard to see where the edge lies in this pitching match-up; for that matter, it is hard to see where the edge lies in the series generally.

It is one featuring two teams from flyover country – Middle America, that is – which in
itself gives the series enormous appeal for many fans. In recent years, baseball has been dominated by one storyline: the Boston Red Sox versus the New
York Yankees (two storylines
actually, if you include widespread allegations of steroid
use, but that is a subject for
the off-season).

For many baseball diehards loyal to clubs other than the Yankees or Red Sox, there was
a feeling that other teams,
and other rivalries, were being ignored by the major media (which is to say the east
coast media).

The oft-cited example is the St. Louis Cardinals, who had the best record in baseball in each of the past two years and hardly received so much as a tip of the hat from the national press.

(Of course, many baseball aficionados would now say the
inattention was justified. The Cardinals reached last year’s World Series, promptly turned into lambs, lost in four straight games to Boston and were upended by the Astros in this year’s semi-finals.)

But this year’s Series has a compelling storyline of its own. Chicago are a team looking to erase history as much as to make it. Indeed, it might even be said that the White Sox are this year’s version of the Red Sox.

Last year, as any sentient sports fan surely knows, the Red Sox finally ended an 86-year drought and won the World Series. Amid all the euphoria over Boston’s exorcism, it was forgotten that the White Sox had gone 87 years without a title – make that 88 now. And whereas Boston at least reached the World Series four times between 1918 and 2005, until this year Chicago had only played in the finals twice since 1917, the last time back in 1959.

There is another, darker shadow from which the White Sox are looking escape. Two years after winning the title in 1917, they reached the World Series again and were heavily favoured to defeat the Cincinnati Reds. Instead, they lost five games to three (the Series was then best-of-nine, rather than best-of-seven).

Allegations soon surfaced that eight Chicago players had taken money from a well-known gambling syndicate in exchange for under-performing, to put it gently. The so-called Black Sox affair is still regarded as the worst scandal in American sports history, and the White Sox would like nothing better than to erase the stain slightly.

They very nearly deprived themselves of that opportunity. On August 1, they held a seemingly insurmountable 15-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the American League’s Central Division. But they then
went 28-28 over the final two months of the regular seasons, and only managed to stay atop the division because they won
their last five games, including three straight over the Indians, who inexplicably lost six of
their final seven.

Chicago’s late rally has now blossomed into a full-scale resurgence. They met the Red Sox in the first round of the play-offs, and in what could reasonably
be interpreted as a symbolic passing of the formerly poisoned chalice, they steamrollered the defending champions in three straight games.

In the semi-finals, they met the Anaheim Angels, not-so-fresh off a brutal five-game series with the New York Yankees. The Angels managed to take the first game of the series, in Chicago, but then dropped the next four under a relentless barrage of fastballs, sinkers and sliders.

Each of the Chicago pitchers in those four games – Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle
and Jon Garland – went the
distance, a remarkable foot-
note that underscores just how potent the White Sox are on the mound (and this is a team that also boasts what is arguably
baseball’s strongest cadre of relief pitchers).

The White Sox find themselves in unfamiliar territory for another reason. They have always been Chicago’s “other team”, the poor relation to the beloved Chicago Cubs.

Like the White Sox, the Cubs have been, for most of their existence, a study in hopelessness. They last won the World Series in 1908 (between the two teams, that adds up to 185 years of futility), but despite being even bigger losers, the Cubs have long commanded the loyalty of most Chicago fans.

However, with the White Sox now in a position to bring Chicago its first title since Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House, even the most stalwart Cubs supporters – including, apparently, Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois – have suddenly, and rather conveniently, transferred their loyalties to the south side of town.

The Astros do not carry nearly as much baggage as their opponents. Yet this is Houston’s first trip to the World Series after
several near misses, and the
club also came uncomfortably close to squandering its chances as well.

Up three games to one on the St. Louis Cardinals last Monday, the Astros took the field for
the ninth inning needing just three outs to book their place in the Series. They got to within one out and one strike before Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols crushed a three-run home run, forcing a sixth game on Wednesday in St. Louis.

The Astros won the sixth game handily, but it was the sound of relief as much as joy that echoed across the Houston locker room in the aftermath.

As is true of the White Sox, Houston’s fortunes will be dictated not at the plate but on the mound. The Astros field a potent one-two punch in the 43-year-old Clemens and 33-year-old Andy Pettitte, both former Yankees who fled to Texas two years ago to finish their careers.

Both have had stellar seasons – Clemens going 13-8, Pettitte
17-9 – and though they have not been quite as indomitable in
the play-offs as their counterparts from Chicago, they have vastly more World Series
experience.

Clemens and Pettitte have 17 World Series starts between them, and in a match-up with precious few obvious advantages, that experience could prove
decisive. But don’t necessarily bet on it.

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