If we want to get a sense of just how big the Houston Astros-Boston Red Sox series is, we ought to ask someone with a real sense of occasion.
Here’s former Toronto Blue Jays and former Red Sox manager and current TV analyst John Farrell: “These are two very good teams,” Farrell said the other night on ESPN. “They’re the best teams in the American League, maybe the best teams in baseball.”
Six years after conspiring to fire himself from the Jays, Farrell maintains two key baseball skills – basic addition and the ability to say nothing with great purpose.
As it turns out, his mistake in Toronto was not quitting the team for Boston. It was being a few years ahead of his time.
But even Farrell can’t do a proper job of making this series sound tedious. It’s arguable no two teams of this ability, yet so evenly matched, have played each other in baseball’s postseason.
There is no “maybe” about these being the best two teams in baseball. They are demonstrably the best.
Boston is the irresistible force, having led the majors in runs. Houston is the immovable object, having allowed the fewest. They combined for the most total wins. Both teams are young, sprinkled with stars and do just about everything well. If not identical, they are each other through a glass brightly.
(However, if we are to continue the back-in-the-day Toronto theme, the Red Sox also have David Price. Which should worry them.)
Beyond ability, this is a meeting between old money and the nouveau riche.
The Astros may be the most perfectly constructed team in history, in the sense that the process began from scorched earth, was run like a fantasy draft and worked out precisely to plan.
I remember Houston in the bad old days. I remember in particular a scorching August road trip in 2013. The Astros were awful. The Jays were nearly as bad. The crowd was non-existent. The people who were there didn’t care about the game. They’d come for cut-rate air conditioning.
Afterward, as a few colleagues and I mused about walking back to the hotel in the relative cool of evening, a concerned Houston reporter ran over to say she couldn’t allow that. She was afraid we’d be robbed and/or killed on the way.
The Astros lost 111 games that year. Their inability to play baseball at the high-school level had bled out into the surrounding city, making the whole place seem forlorn.
But that roster contained a kernel of the team that would one day be World Series champions. Jose Altuve was already good. Dallas Keuchel was about to turn a corner. After years of misery, the Astros' minor-league system was bursting with possibilities, a preposterously lucky number of which turned out.
Although the Astros have a Yankees-in-the-90s-glory-days feel, they could not have been built in New York. It took too long (nine years) and required too many losses in that span (834 – meaning their average season over that generational span was 69-93).
Houston was able to become Houston because the team has little history, and had beaten the fan base into total apathy. From a managerial perspective, it must have been very freeing.
Of course, now that the Astros are amazing, very few people outside Houston care.
Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, recently made mention of the fact that baseball is his “passion.”
Sensing an opportunity, Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, invited Lopez Obrador to a playoff game. You could see the thinking – “If we can’t be America’s team, why not be Mexico’s? Mexico is closer anyway.”
Using the same, “That’s so nice, but you wouldn’t believe how busy I am” excuse the rest of us use, Lopez Obrador declined.
Would he have said the same thing to the Red Sox? Probably. There aren’t many votes for Lopez Obrador to win among the hooligans in South Boston, but I bet he’d have thought about it a bit longer.
If Houston is an avatar for baseball’s 21st-century arithmetical revolution, Boston is the most potent remnant of the game’s nostalgic appeal.
The Red Sox have a young core collected, like Houston’s, through the draft. The Red Sox are numerically literate. But the Boston foundation is still built on money and the allure of history.
Three years ago, the Red Sox made a terrible mistake by giving Pablo Sandoval US$90-million. Sandoval thanked them by eating himself out of a job.
It was a mistake that would have crippled other teams. They’d spend years fretting over the money, pushing Sandoval out there to fail and rehashing their mistake. The Red Sox made Sandoval the highest-paid minor-leaguer in history and, eventually, ate his contract.
Then they went out and bought a couple more Sandovals (but fitter).
Houston wouldn’t have done that. Houston still can’t do that. It needs to get everything right and will eventually face a few excruciating choices about who on its roster to make country-home rich and who to make small-Pacific-island rich.
Boston doesn’t need to make those decisions because Boston must win. Money is not a good enough excuse. As yet imaginary talent in the farm system is not a good enough excuse. The Yankees are most definitely not an excuse.
It shows the value of expectation. You don’t have to have one to succeed, but it probably helps more than anything else.
Two approaches, both successful, neither of which could have worked in the other city. Life really is a banquet of possibilities.
This is all no guarantee that the Red Sox-Astros will be any good. Few clashes of the titans turn out that way.
But, like John Farrell and all the other schlubs who are watching October baseball rather than participating in October baseball, we live in hope.