10 things I like about this World Series
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.

Note: No book or movie talk this week. It's all about baseball right now, baby.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds: You love him, you hate him ... but you watch him.
I've heard the rumblings east of Reno. No interest, people are saying. Dud series. It's a California thing -- who cares.

Don't think that way.

Ignore the rumors of TV and advertising execs wandering the desert, rending garments and wailing at sky; pay no attention to the ho-hum, pencil-tapping drone coming out of newsrooms from Cheyenne to Boston. Tune out the guy at the end of the bar who keeps saying, "No, seriously, can you name five Angels? You can't, can you? I didn't think so," and hang up the phone when your Uncle Sal calls from New York to tell you these aren't the real Giants -- "You know that, right? -- because the real Giants died when they came west in '58, and you, you're just rooting for a bunch of no-account imposters.

I know, it's not the Yankees and Dodgers, the Yankees and Braves, the Yankees and Cardinals, or even the Yankees and a scrappy band of softball-playing girls from Our Lady of the Perpetual Heart, but still there are plenty of reasons to get into this Angels-Giants thing.

Here's a list, just to warm you up, and in no particular order:

1. Barry Bonds plays for the Giants. You've heard that, right? He's real good. He hits the ball hard; it travels a very long way. People jump up out of their seats, some crazy fools in inflatable rafts scramble for position out in the cove beyond right field, the ball shoots across the sky like a comet, his kid greets him at home plate, fireworks and such explode, strangers hug each other (even the ones who might sue each other later for the rights to the ball). It's impressive.

1a. Barry Bonds plays for the Giants. You don't care much for Bonds -- didn't like him in Pittsburgh, don't like him now. Only thing you like is to see Bonds swing and miss, and you know, in your heart of hearts, that this so-called "new" Barry -- the one who hits in the playoffs -- is a paper-thin front. For you, the Series is all about watching the little bad men creep around on Bonds' shoulders and whisper in his ears: "You can't do it, big man. You're getting tight, Mr. MVP." You hope the Angels do pitch to him because you know it's only a matter of time before he wakes up and realizes where he is -- the center of the baseball universe -- and what time it is -- crunch time -- and wilts under the enormous pressure of it all.

2. David Eckstein. Check him out in the on-deck circle -- looks like Ichiro Suzuki hopped up on bennies, arms waving wildly, knees bending and popping. Check out his throw to first. He takes about seven steps in the run-up and comes over the top on his delivery, like an 8-year-old kid trying to will the ball across the diamond. He's lovable, but in a scary sort of way, and he's scrappy, but in a charming sort of way -- think Tanner in "The Bad News Bears."

Mike Scioscia
Who thinks Mike Scioscia's an idiot now?
3. Fresh managers. No more of Joe Torre's sad-eyed mysticism about how Yankee Stadium is a magical place. No more of Bobby Cox's aw-shucks, head-scratching admiration for his pitchers. Did you see Mike Scioscia handle the postgame after the bring-in-Percival mess in Game 1 of the AL division series? ("How many of you thought I was an idiot?" Beautiful.)

Did you see Dusty dancing -- just put your hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care -- in the locker room during the trophy presentation Monday night? These guys are fun. Plus, they were teammates of old, and they both played for Tommy Lasorda once and in key game-strategy situations, if you look closely, you'll be able to see their wheels turning ... what would Tommy do right now? And then, moments later, with a whole lot of love in their hearts for the old guy, you'll see them make like Costanza, and do just the opposite.

4. History. I'm thinking two things: No. 1, lots of nice pregame montage material. Willie Mays morphing into Bonds, Juan Marichal into Jason Schmidt, and so on. And then maybe some Gene Autry lyrics over slow-mo shots of this year's Angels diving, swinging and sliding.

No. 2 is redemption. Both these teams are longtime losers. Their reputations are way bad going way back. They're looking to get over, to get born again, to come out of this thing with a shiny coat of championship paint on their hoods. They want it bad. That adds a certain crazed, desperate edge to everything. Guys will play with 40-plus years worth of organizational frustration pent up in their systems, they'll make asses out of themselves trying to make plays, they'll hurt themselves (they'll hurt each other) to get a win. That's good TV.

Francisco Rodriguez
Something otherworldly shines on Francisco Rodriguez.
5. Francisco Rodriguez. What were you doing at 20? Were you doing it in front of 50,000 people every night? Right. So watch this kid -- there's something otherworldly shining down on him.

6. Crowds. All this talk about the Metrodome, but the loudest place during the playoffs has been the Ed in Anaheim, and Pac Bell hasn't been far behind. And it's not just noise, it's movement. Thunder Stix, towels, banners, orange and black chests, red and white faces, little kids dressed up in monkey suits looking like Cha-Ka from "Land of the Lost."

7. Home runs. Lots of them. In bunches. By guys who've hit seven all year and stuff.

8. Tight-rope relief. Troy Percival and Robb Nen both have this delicious habit of blowing a little air on the fire before they blow it out. Mariano Rivera came in for the Yankees and you felt like the game was over (when he gave up runs to the Diamondbacks last fall it felt like a miracle, or a terrifying disruption in the cosmic order of things, depending on your perspective).

Robb Nen
Robb Nen flirts with disaster but gets the job done.
These guys come in and you think, now it's getting interesting. Much more often than not, they nail things down, but everybody -- from coaches and players to guys selling dogs in the stands, to little old ladies knitting team-logo socks, sitting in front of the big-screen back home -- has to sweat it out a little.

9. Yeomen. Kevin Appier and Benito Santiago have traveled the long and winding road to the promised land, my friends. Appier was driving a truck on I-80 most of last year, hauling cabbage and corn, mostly. He'd play in beer leagues and throw batting practice to high school kids on dirt fields. In the years before that, he played in Japan, Mexico, Venezuela and in a fledgling league in Hungary, where he was also a piano teacher and a butcher.

Santiago broke into baseball in 1967 as a bullpen catcher with the Dodgers' Class A farm team. He toiled in obscurity for years, bouncing in and out of the game (took an odd job as the guy who makes funnel cakes at a carnival, was a blacksmith for a while), rubbing oil into the palm of his glove every night before bed, just in case. Then he got a call from Baker in March, asking him to be his everyday catcher, and you know the rest.

OK, none of that is true (except the phone call from Dusty part), but it is true that each of these guys has been at it a long time, and that each of them has been a key contributor down the stretch. It is also true that if there is such a thing as deserving a shot at the brass ring, they are deserving. Root for these guys -- Appier was maybe one of the top three or four pitchers in the '90s and nobody knew it; Santiago was severely injured in a car crash four years ago and has been a stone-cold hit machine in September and October this year -- they deserve it.

Benito Santiago
Benito Santiago looks like he's been around since 1967, but he plays like a guy in his 20s.
10. Big innings and late innings. The Angels put up eight in one inning against the Yanks, a record, and then came back a few days later and dropped 10 on the Twins in the seventh inning of the fifth and deciding game of the LCS. I smell a 12-spot somewhere in the next week.

The Giants, meanwhile, seem to specialize in just-enough-run rallies in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings. Sometime during this series, it's likely that you'll see one of those cascading-runs, everybody-gets-a-hit innings that makes you laugh out loud at the absurdity of it, and at some other time, odds are, you'll be treated to a screw-tight, hold-your-breath, back-from-the-brink-of-disaster inning that will turn the tide of a game, maybe the series. You see a couple of innings like those, next thing you know, you're all wrapped up. You care.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



Eric Neel Archive

Critical Mass: Never too late to redeem Bonds

Critical Mass: It's been our privilege, Ernie Harwell

Critical Mass: Do new ads work the United Way?

Critical Mass: No one compares to Johnny U.

Critical Mass: The power of empathy

Critical Mass: The A's must be butter ...

Neel: There is crying in sports movies

Critical Mass: Father knows nothing ... and everything

Critical Mass: Second look at 'A Zen Way of Baseball'

Critical Mass: Sound of L.A. goes silent

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index