A World-Class World Series
The World Series begins tonight and it should be a real treat for baseball fans everywhere (except maybe those in LA). The Fall Classic doesn't always produce great match-ups, but this year the playoffs have produced a doozy. The 2009 Series features an outstanding a Yankees team and a good defending champion Philadelphia club - both historic franchises laden with stars. The teams are so compelling that the 2009 World Series might just be one of the greatest World Series matchups in recent memory.
Before we declare that, let's explore what makes a great World Series matchup. Of course, the subject is a matter of opinion, but I think we can identify the six key factors that matter to fans when evaluating a great World Series matchup (defining the matchup as a seperate entity from the outcome and excitement of the actual games themselves).
1. The Quality of the Teams One of the most important factors is the quality of the teams. Fans have to feel that the World Series participants really are the best in their league and that they've earned their trip to the Fall Classic. Nothing takes away from a World Series more than when fans feel that one or both of the teams don't deserve to be there. Case in point, nothing was really wrong with the 1973 Mets or the 2006 Cardinals, but enthusiasm for these series were tempered by the fact the they had won so few games while better teams were sitting at home. Likewise, a series between two truly great teams makes for great theatre.
2. Franchise History The history and mystique of the two franchises, both old and recent, also really affects the fan enjoyment. Teams with deep history such as the Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox can make for great viewing and high fan interest. In contrast, the enthusiasm wasn't high for Tampa Bay's World Series appearance in 2008 or Colorado's appearance in 2007. Compelling recent franchise storylines can also add to the appeal.
3. Fan Fanaticism Many people watch sports for the emotion of it, and it makes for great atmosphere to see stadiums full of rabid fans cheering their teams on at the World Series. While the games are going to be sold out no matter what, some cities' fans are just more enthusiastic about their teams, which makes for great viewing. Getting the sense that the fans and cities are desperate for victory really adds to the experience and atmosphere of the games. Meanwhile, if a team's own fans aren't into it, nobody else will be either.
4. Star Quality of the Players Aside from the question of talent, fans want to see baseball's biggest stars performing on baseball's biggest stage. All else being equal, it's more entertaining to see a team with big stars in the World Series rather than a team of relative nobodies - even if the talent levels of the two clubs are comparable.
5. Fan Fatigue Even when a series has everything else going for it, one thing that can detract is if baseball fans are just plain sick of seeing a team in the playoffs and World Series. Watching the Braves in 1991 was fine, but by the end of the decade, fans were jonesing for some variety.
6. Interaction While the previous five categories can be evaluated separately for each team, the interaction between the teams can be important as well. Sometimes, a World Series is more than the sum of its parts (ex. a Joe Torre return to NY would have been great theatre) and sometimes it is less (while the 1989 Giants and A's were fine as individual World Series teams, nobody really wanted to see an all-San Francisco World Series). It's usually not a huge factor one way or another, but sometimes it can make a difference.
Now that we've identified the criteria, let's put it to work. Going back to the strike of 1981, which series produced the greatest World Series matchup? I've identified six contenders that could be considered the greatest: this year's matchup between the Phillies and Yankees, the 2004 Series between the Red Sox and Cardinals, the 1999 and 1996 Series' between the Yankees and Braves, the 1995 Series between the Indians and Braves, and the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and Mets.
Below, we'll evaluate and rank each series according to the above six criteria. Keep in mind, we're only evaluating the matchup, not the games played in the series itself (so if you're wondering why I didn't mention the '91 Series, that's why).
Talent of the teams:
#1 1999 NYY (.618) vs. ATL (.640)
Both the 1999 and 1995 World Series featured teams that were easily the class of their leagues. In the 1999 Series, the Braves and Yankees were both supremely talented teams and their outstanding records were no fluke - in fact both teams' records were even better in the year before, posting 114 and 106 regular season wins in '98 respectively. For this reason, I'm putting the '99 Series talent over the impressive '95 Series featuring the Braves and Indians. At #3, the 2004 Series featured a dominating 105-win St. Louis team and an outstanding 98-win Boston club. At #4, this season's matchup features one of the best Yankee teams in recent memory vs. a good but not truly great defending champion Phillies team. In 1986, there was no disputing the Mets greatness, but Boston was a surprise success as they did not contend either before or after '86. The 1996 Series, last on a very impressive list, featured two very good clubs, which both got better later in the decade.
History of the Franchises:
#1 2004 BOS-STL
In terms of franchise history, it's hard to beat the '04 Series' long-suffering historic Boston team and the history-laden Cardinals club. This year's series is #2. Few clubs can match the Yankees cachet and the Phillies, while historically losers, have had a great recent run that makes for a compelling storyline. The '86 Series was also strong in the history department with the long suffering Sox and the more recent, but still high-profile, Mets franchise. After that, there is a drop-off in history. The '96 and '99 Series featured the historic Yankees and a city which had little baseball cred until the early 90's. Meanwhile, the 1995 Series ranks last, featuring the modern Atlanta franchise and the long-suffering, but low-profile Cleveland Indians.
#1 2004 BOS-STL
In terms of fan fanaticism, you can't get any hungrier than Boston fans in 2004. They were pretty hungry in 1986 as well. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Mets both had great fans to match their enthusiasm. While the 2009 Series may not match that intensity, New York and Philly fans have quite a reputation of their own, ranking this series third. The list drops off after that. While the Indians fans were rabid in '95, the Braves fans had begun to get progressively more bored with winning. By 1999, the novelty had worn off nearly completely for Atlanta, while Yankees fans had gotten used to winning as well, detracting from an otherwise great matchup.
Star Quality of Players:
#1 2004 BOS-STL: Manny, Ortiz, Schilling, Pedro, Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds
In terms of star-quality, all six World Series had them in spades, and I could be persuaded to rank the top 3 in any order. Feel free to disagree, but I ranked the '04 Series as #1, with juicy Pujols/Schilling and Pujols/Pedro matchups irresistible. This year is a close second however, with both clubs having loads of marquee players. And, if you like pitching, the Atlanta's trio of starters was a joy to watch, particularly against the 1999 Yankee team. Last in a tough category, the 1986 Series featured some great players, but fewer first-ballot HOF players than the other series.
#1 1986 BOS-NYM
The 2004 and 1986 Series both featured teams which had not been on the national stage in quite some time, and I ranked them #1-2 in least amount of fan fatigue. While this year features the defending champs vs. the Yankees, the Phillies haven't yet worn out their welcome and the Yankees haven't been in the World Series for a while. Casual baseball fans were starting to get bored of the Braves by 1995, ranking that series #4 on the list. 1996 saw fans get further annoyed by the Braves' World Series presence, and by 1999, fans all over the country were saying "Yankees and Braves again?!"
Interaction Between Franchises:
#1 1986 BOS-NYM
A Boston/NY rivalry is awfully tough to beat, but as this year proves, a Philly/NY rivalry comes pretty close. The 2004 Series ranks third with a little history going back to 1946 as well as an appealing East Coast/Midwest matchup. Ranking fourth, the 1996 Series featured a decent matchup between the legendary old-school Yankees vs. a smaller-market, newer, Atlanta franchise. Dropping off considerably, the 1995 Series saw two small-market, underdog-type franchises with the Braves and Indians - not an ideal combo. Last by a wide margin, the 1999 World Series was marred by the fact that the same two teams had just played in 1996, adding to the already palpable fan fatigue.
The following chart shows a summary of the rankings for all-six World Series.
How to summarize this chart into choosing the greatest World Series matchup of the last 27 years? It really depends on your personal preferences. Taking everything into account, it seems clear to me that the 2004 Boston/St. Louis World Series was the greatest World Series matchup, given the high talent levels of the two clubs, plus a wealth of history and great fans. After that, it's a very tough call.
This year's series is similar to the 1986 Series, featuring one great team and one very good team with two very dedicated fanbases and historic franchises. Likewise, the 1999 and 1995 Series were similar in the respect that the quality of the teams was superb, but the fan interest and franchise history wasn't as high. If you prefer great baseball and care less for the history or atmosphere, then the 1999 or 1995 Series would probably be preferred. Otherwise, the upcoming 2009 Series or the 1986 classic would probably round out the top of your list. For me personally, I tend to prefer the latter.
Overall, there is a very good case for saying that the 2009 World Series may be the second most exciting matchup since the 1981 strike. It almost certainly is in the top 5. However, not all great matchups make for great series. Of the World Series mentioned, the 1986 Series turned out to be a classic, the '95 and '96 Series were enjoyable, while the '99 and '04 Series were busts. In 2009, one can only hope that the Yankees and Phillies deliver some great games to match the hype.