There is tradition, with two of the game's most storied franchises in Boston and St. Louis. Interesting history, with three previous classic fall meetings. Intriguing storylines, with the graying beards of the Red Sox vs. the fresh faces of the Cardinals among the more popular. And at least the potential for good baseball, with the rarer-than-you'd-think matchup of the two winningest teams. Here is a look at the World Series, which starts Wednesday night in Boston:
Given what has happened before, there's good reason to expect something memorable with the intersection of Red Sox Nation and the Cardinals Way. Two devout fan bases, two distinct traditions and styles of play, and three past World Series clashes of note.
In 1946, what started as a marquee matchup between returning-from-war stars Stan Musial and Ted Williams instead became known for the now famous "mad dash" by Enos Slaughter, who scored from first in the eighth inning of Game 7 to lead the Cardinals to victory.
In 1967, the remarkable effort of St. Louis' Bob Gibson — three complete-game victories, with three runs allowed and 26 strikeouts — ruined the "Impossible Dream" season of the Red Sox and Carl Yastrzemski.
In 2004, Curt Schilling and his bloody sock became an engaging subplot to what already was a dramatic story, as the Red Sox reversed the curse and won their first championship since 1918.
So what now?
Expect something different, since each team has only one active player from the '04 meeting — Boston's David Ortiz and St. Louis' Yadier Molina (who was the backup to Mike Matheny, now the Cardinals manager).
And some claims of dominance, as the Red Sox are going for their third championship in 10 years and eighth overall. The Cardinals are seeking their second in three years and third since 2006, and their 12th overall.
Not that you wouldn't notice, but many of the Red Sox players have long, scraggly beards and are quite proud of them, flaunting them and tugging on them in celebration. The beards have names (Jonny Gomes' is The Ironsides, Mike Napoli The Siesta, David Ross The Wolf), are featured on posters and T-shirts and are now mini-figurines (operators are standing by). The Cardinals have some interesting characters as well — check out C Yadier Molina's tats — but the narrative flows better to refer to their fresh faces, as they've used 19 rookies this season and carried 10 on their playoff rosters, including star starter Michael Wacha, closer Trevor Rosenthal and SS Pete Kozma.
The DH factor
Baseball, once again, will conduct its championship series with two sets of rules: There is a DH for Games 1-2 and 6-7 in Boston, but no DH for Games 3-4-5 in St. Louis. That's the standard interleague setup, and it typically works against the AL team, which has to drop a key hitter from its lineup and have a pitcher bat when it matters most, and in favor of the NL team, which simply gets to add a bat.
But it's an even bigger deal this year because of how integral DH David Ortiz is to the Boston lineup. Sox manager John Farrell said Ortiz will play some first base — though not necessarily all three games — but that means the Sox instead will be without Mike Napoli, another key hitter. Plus, the Cards are expected to DH Allen Craig, who has only been the game's top hitter with runners in scoring position the past two years (.427 average, 189 RBIs), as he returns from a seven-week absence due to a sprained foot, a much easier return than pushing him to play in the field.
Often, and especially since the wild-card expansion of the playoffs, a team gets to the World Series by playing the best at the right time. But this year, the Series features the two best teams in the game. "Without a doubt," Fox analyst Tim McCarver said. Both the Cardinals and Red Sox were 97-65, marking the first time the teams with the best record in each league made it to the Series since the Braves and Yankees in 1999. (And just the second time since the three-division format debuted in 1994.) Counting the playoffs, the Sox are 104-68, the Cards 104-69 . Further proof: The Red Sox led the majors with a run differential of plus-197; the Cardinals were second at plus-187.
Something has to give
It's not quite an irresistible force vs. an immovable object, but close. Much of the Red Sox's offensive success is based on stealing bases — a remarkable (and AL record) 86.6 percent rate during the season (123, fourth most, of 142 attempts) and another 11 (as the Rays well know) in 10 playoff games. And the Cardinals — specifically C Yadier Molina — are the best in baseball at shutting down the running game, allowing a major-league-low 39 steals all season, with teams making only 65 attempts.
Former Rays: Red Sox OF Jonny Gomes, Cardinals LHP Randy Choate.
Tampa Bay ties: Cardinals OF Shane Robinson, Tampa Jesuit and FSU; Red Sox 3B coach Brian Butterfield, former Eckerd College assistant; Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, Sarasota High.
Among other personal storylines, expect to hear plenty about Cardinals OF Carlos Beltran and Red Sox OF Jonny Gomes. For Beltran, this is his first trip to the World Series in a 16-season career, and getting him there — especially after two cruel NLCS Game 7 losses — became something of a rallying cry for the Cardinals. Rays fans are familiar with the intangibles that Gomes can bring to a clubhouse in terms of team-building, toughness and leadership, and after similar stints with the Reds and A's, the Red Sox brought him in and he was a key part of their worst-to-first turnaround in manager John Farrell's first season.
The Cardinals are good, but the Red Sox are better. Boston in six.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.