Saturday 23 September 2017

Royals are a team you've got to love

In the first game of the series pitcher Edinson Volquez took to the mound just hours after his father died from a heart attack and contributed six solid innings
In the first game of the series pitcher Edinson Volquez took to the mound just hours after his father died from a heart attack and contributed six solid innings

Eamonn Sweeney

The World Series, which started last Tuesday night and continues this week, is one of the world's great sporting events. And this year's clash between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets is an unusually interesting one even by the standards of baseball's grand finale.

It is customary for the bores among us to express outrage at the effrontery of the Yanks in using the term 'World Series'. But we've just had a Rugby World Cup whose claim to global status might seem somewhat problematic given that it is only played to any serious level in the British Isles, a couple of European countries, the Antipodes, South Africa and Argentina.

The international nature of baseball is reflected by the fact that last year's major league season saw players from 16 countries apart from the US in action. And this year's Series will feature key contributions from players who come from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. And if you're inclined to make the 'sure aren't all those countries beside each other anyway' comment you might consider how close the Six Nations seem to each other from over there. The distance from Caracas to Havana is, after all, roughly the same as that between Dublin and Warsaw.

So while the World Series may not be global it is hardly parochial. And it also has a knack of throwing up unlikely winners. Nobody has retained the title since the New York Yankees completed a three-in-a-row in 2000 and there have been six different winners in the last ten years. This year there'll be a seventh as the Kansas City Royals are seeking a first victory since 1985 and the New York Mets their first since 1986.

It's a constant in American sport, this ability of underdogs to rise from the most hopeless of situations, and compares very favourably with the dominance of perpetual oligarchies in European soccer, for example. The Royals were for some time one of the transcendentally awful franchises in American sport: between 1995 and 2012 they enjoyed just one season where they won more games than they lost. And the Mets, who before this year hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2008, are perpetually overshadowed by their neighbours the Yankees, the Real Madrid of baseball.

Baseball doesn't employ the same means to equality as basketball and American football - there is no salary cap and the draft system isn't as central - yet something about the game itself seems to make it resistant to the power of money. The Royals' payroll placed them 16th out of 30 teams, the Mets were five places further down. Yet the Mets ($101m) still managed to knock out financial top dogs the Los Angeles Dodgers ($273m) in the play-offs.

Right now the Royals lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 and look set to go one better than last year when they were edged out 4-3 by the San Francisco Giants. What makes them especially lovable is that they've been hailed as the 'anti-Moneyball' team.

It's a source of sadness to me that the enormously over-rated Moneyball is often the only baseball book Irish sports fans have read. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that Michael Lewis, a journalist whose main area of expertise was in the field of big-time finance, would write a book insisting that numbers experts with a background in that field could work out the secret of baseball. And it spoke to the zeitgeist of a pre-slump time, a time when people believed that Wall Street whizz-kids were an almost superhuman caste.

Things don't look that way now and the Royals have embraced the notion of themselves as the risk takers who go against Moneyball's tight-assed nostrums on how to play the game, one player mocking it as "the only sports movie ever made where the team wins nothing at the end."

Add in the fact that in the first game of the series pitcher Edinson Volquez (pictured) took to the mound just hours after his father died from a heart attack and contributed six solid innings, and it's hard not to be on the side of the Royals. Their win in that first game, which came after five extra innings, was post-season baseball at its most viscerally exciting.

When something's this good, it doesn't matter what it's called.

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