Much like Libya in Bart Simpson’s Model U.N. report, the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies are a land of contrasts.
The conventional wisdom suggests that identifying a rooting interest in this series should be easy—you have an Astros team that has appeared in the last six ALCS series and will now be appearing in its fourth World Series since 2017. Along the way, the Astros were riddled with scandals—they treated domestic violence as a mere market inefficiency when they acquired closer Roberto Osuna from the Toronto Blue Jays and then assistant general manager Brandon Taubman had the nerve to taunt a group of female reporters about it during a post-ALCS celebration in 2019, and of course a few months later came the news that the Astros had orchestrated an elaborate (if pretty dumb-sounding) sign-stealing scandal which led the team to dismissing most of its front office and its manager and was the biggest story in baseball by far until, you know, a viral pandemic shut the sports down for four and a half months. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies haven’t participated in the postseason in 2011, and aside from 2016 Chicago Cub Kyle Schwarber, are loaded to the brim with guys chasing their first title.
But for as much as the Astros feel like the inevitable, dynastic choice in the round, nearly the entire roster has turned over since their 2017 title—it may feel like Framber Valdez, Ryan Pressly, Michael Brantley, and Kyle Tucker must have rings, but they do not. Of course, particularly for those who harbor an intense animosity towards the Astros over sign-stealing, the presence of Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, and (for some reason) especially Jose Altuve is the point for resentment.
Admittedly, I am long past the point of caring about the sign stealing. Not that I am to the point of outright condoning it, but convicting the organization that spent half a decade avoiding high payrolls and became the poster child for the McKinsey-inspired Efficiency Over Ethics ethos of their Jeff Luhnow-led rebuild is more akin, for me, to busting Al Capone for tax evasion or O.J. Simpson for robbing some creeps in a Las Vegas hotel room who were selling his old merchandise. But I’m also not here to judge those who do hold the sign stealing against them; after all, it’s not like Justin Verlander is going to prison over this. Booing the Astros is no different than booing the New England Patriots: frankly, it can be pretty cathartic, and as long as your animosity doesn’t venture into criminality, there’s nothing wrong with that.
There are two distinct subsections of St. Louis Cardinals fans for whom the presence of the Philadelphia Phillies is the be-all-end-all: those who hold a grudge against the team that eliminated the Cardinals; and those who want said team to win it all because it helps to validate the Cardinals’ loss. I am closer to the latter than the former, I guess, but neither is really where I stand on the whole. Am I supposed to be mad at Phillies players for succeeding? Am I supposed to believe that somehow the Cardinals, who finished the season with a worse record while playing in a tougher division than the Atlanta Braves or Houston Astros, somehow can lay credible claim to second place after winning a whopping zero (0) games against the Phillies?
In a bygone era, one in which the New York Yankees were extraordinarily successful and ESPN embraced debate every bit as much as they do today, that the Philadelphia Phillies, who qualify as the larger-market team (though Houston has the larger city proper), have invested substantially in free agents (Bryce Harper, Nicolas Castellanos, Zack Wheeler) would be portrayed as a great evil, though the modern era of baseball media has largely adopted a more favorable attitude towards big spending—why should fans and media members, most of whom are worth a fraction of what an MLB owner is, care about an owner spending “too much” money? When one fantasizes about owning a professional sports team, do they fantasize about profits or do they fantasize about offering a briefcase full of money to the best available free agents every off-season?
That said, I actually believe that the more instructive team-building model to behold from a Cardinals perspective comes from the team that the Phillies defeated in the NLCS, the San Diego Padres. It shouldn’t be surprising that a team located in a market as large as Philadelphia has a larger payroll than the Cardinals; when a team located in a slightly smaller media market than St. Louis has a payroll that is $67.5 million higher than the Cardinals, this can and should invite follow-up questions. Because of the presence of Juan Soto on the Padres, he is often cited as a differentiating factor, but for what it’s worth, the Padres did give up a ton of premium prospects–whether you believe that to be a good idea is a different matter, but it wasn’t primarily financial might that netted the star right fielder. The Padres gave out large free agent contracts to Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado and they inked Fernando Tatis Jr. to a fair but certainly not cheap long-term contract. Why does one bottom-half market that doesn’t have an NBA team and lost an NFL team in the last decade get to bolster its roster to become the defining emblem of its city while the other one still hasn’t signed a shiny new free agent for nine figures despite having the higher attendance between the two?
Would the lesson that teams take from a Philadelphia Phillies World Series title be “just acquire a bunch of good players”? Their offense has been fueled in large part this postseason by high-dollar free agent signing Bryce Harper with enormous NLCS contributions from another free agent, Kyle Schwarber, while fellow free-agent acquisition Zack Wheeler has been broadly excellent on the mound. Although the Phillies do have a handful of strong homegrown players, Rhys Hoskins and Aaron Nola being notable examples, their player development has not been especially robust, and yet they were largely able to spend their way to a World Series appearance. But a team could also just as easily argue that the Phillies won 87 games, finished in third place in their own division and finished outside the playoff format of previous seasons, and that a previously average-ish team getting red hot for a few weeks, no matter their payroll, is evidence that simply trying to get into the postseason with disregard for becoming a truly great team is the proper strategy–there is no reason to believe, despite what my Twitter timeline has been hollering since October 8, that the Cardinals are not every bit as capable as the Phillies of going on an abbreviated heater.
There are two inherent problems for me, a sign-stealing apathetic who understands that most of the people who fueled their most insidious Luhnow-era behavior are gone, about rooting for the Houston Astros. One is that their stadium is stupid and I’m so sick of looking at Minute Maid Park, but that’s not really one I can explain any further. Two is that, unlike the Phillies, who have a bunch of guys who have never won a ring and deserve one (I don’t even enjoy Bryce Harper on an aesthetic level, but I can’t deny that he deserves one), the veteran stars of the Astros largely have rings. By career FanGraphs WAR, the top Astros players without a ring are Yordan Alvarez, who is excellent but at 25 is hardly a long-suffering veteran, and Martin Maldonado, a veteran catcher that people seem to like but who has never even been a very good player. But there is, however, Dusty Baker.
To be clear, Dusty Baker does own a World Series ring–as a player, for the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. But as a manager, the ninth-winningest manager in MLB history has yet to win a title–all eight managers ahead of him have a ring and are in the Hall of Fame. Dusty Baker has been an object of derision at various points in his career for a perceived lack of analytical sophistication, criticisms which were at least partially fair at one point or another but which have largely subsided in recent years as he has developed a reasonably modern approach to bullpen usage, for instance. But two things have been true throughout his career–his players seem to openly love him, and every time he has left a team (only one of the four times was it by his own choice), the team got worse. Now, I wouldn’t say, for instance, the Cincinnati Reds got worse after 2013 because Baker was let go–I would say their continuous mortgaging of their future to kick the can further down the road played a larger role–but I would absolutely say he deserved better treatment from them. And when the Astros cleaned house after their sign-stealing scandal and there was an aggressive belief that the team needed a cultural change–a sage veteran who could handle a situation undeniably loaded with talent but potentially rife with conflict–few disagreed that Dusty Baker could be topped as a candidate for the job. And he has been a critical part of the Astros’ mix.
For me, Dusty Baker–an old rival of the Cardinals from his days as manager of the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds–is the single best argument in favor of rooting for any particular team in this series. But I still can’t say I broadly like the Astros–it’s more of a low-grade annoyance than a straight-up hatred (I did root for them last year but that’s because their opponents regularly do the Tomahawk Chop, a thing that for some reason Philadelphia Phillies fans felt like they could or should do “ironically” a couple series ago which they absolutely should not do LIKE I SAID IT’S A SERIES OF CONTRASTS). But mostly, I just want to see a fun series and a welcome delay to Nolan Arenado opt-out discourse.