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  BOSTON WON'T PLAY CHICAGO IN THE WORLD SERIES, SORRY.  
   
 

There are 16 different permutations for a possible World Series matchup this season. The odds are, you will mostly hear dreamy musings about one: Red Sox-Cubs. The potential series between sports' most endearing losers is enough to make any sportswriter wax poetic in their team-sponsored buffet.

But the 2003 baseball playoffs are full of great storylines. Will the Yankees be able to please their oafish owner, and if so, will they actually enjoy it? Will Michael Lewis write a book about the 2003 A's? (Will Joe Morgan still think Billy Beane wrote it?) Will people actually root <EM>for</EM> Barry Bonds? Will Dusty Baker have trouble controlling Giants manager Felipe Alou's son (Moises) as he did his own? Will the Braves sell out a playoff game?

There's a temptation to say that this year, there are no "favorites" in the playoffs. But that's essentially true every year. Five (or seven) games in a playoff series basically boil each matchup down to a crapshoot. The best team might not always win … but it'll always be exciting.

Here's a preview of each division series matchup, with predictions and random rants/musings. Beware: These predictions are most certainly going to be wrong.

 

 
 

New York Yankees (AL East champions) vs. Minnesota Twins (AL Central champion)

One of the best -- and most frustrating, depending on your perspective -- aspects of the way baseball selects its champion is its postseason. You struggle through a grueling 162-game season, making adjustments, shifting on the fly, just trying to muddle through. Every personnel and managerial move is based on the fact that the season is long, and if you lose today, it's not going to kill you. Sometimes you even sacrifice a game for two or three down the road. Streaks and slumps cancel each other; realize that the

 
 


Milwaukee Brewers, the worst team in baseball's worst division, at one point won 10 games in a row this season. Your eye always has to be on the long term -- soon-to-be-disposed Phillies manager Larry Bowa never understood this -- and you have to have faith that over the course of the season, your team's talent and luck will all even out, and you'll rise above the pretenders.

And your reward for surviving? You play a five-game series where everything is arbitrary. All that mattered during the regular season is irrelevant. If your

 
 

starting pitcher, who has dominated all year, throws one wrong pitch, the ebb and flow, the equalizing nature of the game itself, it's all pointless. You just lose. The worst baseball team has a better chance of beating the best baseball team in any one given game than in any other sport. If you happen to run into a team in the midst of a hot streak, it doesn't matter if your team is actually better than theirs; a game is a game, and next thing you know, your glorious regular season was wiped out in less than a week.

So, in a way, you almost have to pity the New York Yankees. (Almost.) The Bombers won their sixth consecutive American League East title this year, despite a season full of notable flops (Jeff Weaver, Jose Contreras, Raul Mondesi), octogenarian pitchers finally staggering under their own weight and a rather fierce charge by the Red Sox, one of the best hitting teams in baseball history. (The Red Sox broke the all-time total bases record this season; to be fair, every one of the top five has occurred in the last seven years.) Manager Joe Torre has been unflappable at the wheel, even as his obese jitterbug of an owner has threatened to fire him and break up the team any time the Yankees so much as failed to drive in a crucial run. It has been another banner year for baseball's most storied, hated franchise.

And it will all mean absolutely nothing if the Yankees don't easily dispatch the Minnesota Twins, a team with just over a third of their payroll that plays in a stadium more aptly suited for a roller derby. Outside Yankee Stadium, heads will roll, ladies will scream, children will hide their eyes and the entire Bronx might refuse to leave their

 
 

apartments until springtime, at least. 'Tis the deal the Yankees have signed up for. If they win, they get a solid pat-on-the-back, waytago, just what we expected, now do it in again next year, or else. If they lose, the ground they stand on might very well swallow them all up. Sure, everybody hates the Yankees, but come on … that doesn't sound like a very fun life of fandom, does it?

The Twins have been the hottest team in baseball over the second half of the season. The mainstream coverage of the Twins' turnaround -- at the All-Star break,


 
 

they were considered one of the biggest disappointments in the game -- has been confused, to say the least. Much of the credit has been given to Shannon Stewart, the scrappy leadoff man acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays midseason for promising youngster Bobby Kielty. The logic seems to be that since the Twins started playing better once they acquired Stewart, he therefore must be the reason. (Some foolish souls have actually cited this as a reason to vote for Stewart for MVP.) This is much like praising the farmer for magically making milk; the cow's teat was ready to burst, and all he did was just sit there with the bucket. Stewart has been an above-average player, but the real reason for the Twins' second-half surge has been, as it usually is, pitching. The top three starters, Johan Santana, Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse, are 26-5 combined since the break, and, obviously, they'll be the (rested) playoff starters against the Yanks.

In a way, the Yankees are in the same position they were last year. A successful regular season was washed away by running into the postseason buzzsaw that was the Anaheim Angels. (Not surprisingly, the defending champion Angels, who were fortunate enough to catch fire at just the right time last year, regressed to their natural level this year: Third place.) The Twins are this year's Angels; a young team that has been together since the minor leagues, all coming together when it counts. Much has been made about the Yankees' dominances of the Twins in recent years -- the Twins are 0-13 against the Yanks over the last two seasons -- but baseball is not football, where coaches can psych each other out, "getting in their heads," if you will. Baseball is an individual sport played collectively; it is highly unlikely that when Torii Hunter is digging in against Roger Clemens, he's thinking, "Man, the Yankees swept us back in April." Such statistics are essentially meaningless.

But does that mean the Twins will actually win? Minnesota has the obvious defensive edge -- for all the praise Derek Jeter receives for that fluke (if admittedly brilliant) flip play against the A's two years ago, he's one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball -- and the pitching is younger than the Yankees, but not necessarily better (as rickety as Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and David Wells might be, they're all at the top of their profession, if they can stay upright). And despite the "struggles" of Jason Giambi this season -- his average is way down, .253, he still hit more than 40 homers and is third in the American League in on-base percentage -- the Yankees lineup is typically stacked, top-to-bottom. This is a team that bats Aaron Boone, the best player the Reds had the time of his midseason trade, eighth. The boring, tired adage is that pitching beats hitting in the postseason … but this is a lot of hitting. The Twins will need an Anaheim-esque approach at the plate, selective and relentless, just to keep up with the Yankees. (To their credit, they certainly looked like they're capable of it in their clinching series against the White Sox.)

Can they do it? Game 1 will be key; Santana, often compared to Pedro Martinez, has been one of the best pitchers in the game since the Twins finally put him in the rotation, and Mike Mussina has faltered late. If the Yankees start playing scared after an early loss, this series could be over before you can say "Rally Monkey." But if the Yankees jump out early, the Twins just don't have the bats to come back. Here's saying the Yankees have enough to eke out a Game 1 win, and a series win. Because God help them and the city of New York if they don't. PREDICTION: YANKEES IN 4.

Oakland A's (AL West champions) vs. Boston Red Sox (wild-card)

You know baseball is changing when the focus going into a series will be on the general managers.

Michael Lewis' best-selling novel Moneyball couldn't have come out at a better time. The book tracks the 2002 Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane, who overcomes payroll constraints to revolutionize the way baseball teams are run, through statistics, mathematical methods, innovative scouting techniques and some good old-fashioned moxie. The principle is called sabermetrics (named after the SABR, the Society of Baseball Research) and involves valuing statistics like on-base percentage, slugging percentage and strikeouts-to-walk ratio over more traditional stats

 
 

like batting average, RBIs and saves. There are three teams in baseball whose general managers aggressively follow the approach: Oakland, Toronto … and Boston, headed by 29-year-old wunderkind Theo Epstein, a protégé of Beane's.

And now they're facing each other in the playoffs. Dave Pinto, a former researcher for ESPN's Baseball Tonight who runs the wonderful Baseball Musings weblog, has had some fun with the mentor-protégé relationship between Beane and Epstein. When the A's were pounding the Red Sox a few weeks ago, causing serious damage to

 
 

Boston's playoff hopes, Pinto opined:
Those of you old enough might remember a 70's TV series called Kung Fu. This was a famous scene. A young Caine wants to know when he'll be able to leave the temple. His master instructs him:

"As quickly as you can...snatch the pebble from my hand." [Caine tries and fails]

"When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave."

Do you get the feeling Billy Beane is doing that to Theo Epstein this week?

"Snatch a victory from my team." [Epstein tries and fails] "When you can beat this team, then you can go to the playoffs."

Maybe Theo should shave his head.

All that said, it's Epstein who has built put together a more sabermetrically constructed team. Epstein -- and sabermetrics found Bill James, whom the Red Sox hired in the offseason -- received much flak from the vicious Boston media in the offseason for not re-signing closer Ugueth Urbina (preferring the since-ditched bullpen-by-committee approach, a system that would likely work if the relievers weren't as bad as Boston's) and not trading for then-Expo Bartolo Colon. But the money Epstein saved from those signings allowed him to pick up an astounding lineup of free agents, including Kevin Millar, David Ortiz and, most impressively, Bill Mueller. Add those to Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon and Johnny Damon … and, well, you have one of the best group of mashers baseball has seen in years.

The problem all season has been that bullpen. Even midseason trades for Scott Williamson, Scott Sauerbeck and the underrated-but-still-skittish Byung-Hyun Kim failed to stablize the pen, a problem that is magnified in the postseason. And as good as Pedro Martinez,

 
 

Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield have been, they can't pitch nine innings every time out. There isn't a single member of the Fenway faithful who doesn't think the bullpen is going to blow at least one playoff game for them.

Oakland, despite the similarities in philosophies, couldn't be a more different team. The lineup is one of the worst in baseball, so bad that Beane was forced to trade for Cincinnati's Jose Guillen, who might be the definition of the non-sabermetric hitter (few walks, poor plate discipline). What has carried the A's has


 
 

been the bullpen, led by Keith Foulke (yet another A's closer reclamation project) and Moneyball star Chad Bradford, and a seemingly endless supply of starting pitching. For most of the year, Mark Mulder led the young, cheap staff, but when he went down, rookie Rich Harden stepped in. He hit the rookie wall, so up stepped Ted Lilly, who was once traded for Jeff Weaver. The trio of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Lilly might not be as impressive as last year's Mulder/Zito/Hudson triumvirate … but it's close.

That the A's have been so successful for so long on such a short budget is astounding; heck, someone should write a book about it. But, fact is, this is probably the weakest A's team to make the playoffs since Beane began his run. Zito hasn't had one of best seasons, Lilly has been hot but won't be confused with Mulder, and the lineup requires Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez -- two of the most talented yet maddeningly inconsistent hitters in the game -- to carry them. What Beane has done with the A's is incredible, but a World Series has eluded him, much to his frustration, considering the crapshoot nature of the postseason. It would be ironic, one supposes, if Beane's worst team was the one that actually snuck in the World Series … but when you're facing a lineup like the Red Sox's, irony and two bucks will get you uptown.

Expect the Boston bullpen to blow one game, likely a game Pedro pitches, just to piss him off, but that should probably be it. Is the world ready for another Red Sox-Yankees League Championship Series? PREDICTION: RED SOX IN FOUR.

 

San Francisco Giants (NL West champions) vs. Florida Marlins (wild-card)

Seeing the Marlins in the playoffs is enough to send a shiver up any baseball fan's spine. Few diehards have yet to be able to shake the image of the Marlins in the 1997 World Series, in which a gerrymandered Frankenstein of a team, assembled chaotically with nothing but owner Wayne Huizenga's open wallet, somehow sneaked past the Cleveland Indians -- the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series! Imagine! -- to win it all in only their fourth year of

 
 

existence. Huizenga's dismantling of the team in the offseason somehow made it worse; it was like six-month college sublet being featured on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. The only thing worse would be having no World Series at all … but that would never happen!

It's difficult to get past those teal monstrosities of a uniform, but this Marlins team is considerably more likable. For half the season, Florida management seemed to be delusional. It signed catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a figure far above his market

 
 

value. It refused to trade third baseman Mike Lowell, the most sought after commodity on the market, and despite being just a couple games over .500 and behind about six teams in the wild-card chase, it traded (too much) for closer Ugueth Urbina, neglecting the fact that it already had a closer in Braden Looper.

(Looper, in the last week of the season, while the Marlins were pounding the Phillies to clinch the wild-card spot, lost his closer's job to Urbina. Never a good sign.) And when the Marlins fired manager Jeff Torborg and hired 72-year-old Jack McKeon, it looked like the season was over.

Surprise! The Marlins have exploded in the second half, thanks to solid pitching (of course) and that most often neglected baseball commodity: Speed. Juan Pierre has been the spark for Florida, and a young, feisty rotation led by Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and whirly-bird lefthander Dontrelle Willis has carried the team past a mediocre National League wild-card field.

But now they have the defending NL champs to deal with, who definitely have unfinished business. St. Louis' Albert Pujols' triple crown chase has been the talk of baseball this year, but there is no doubt that the MVP, and baseball's most dominant force in decades,

 
 

remains Barry Bonds. Without Bonds, the Giants are mediocre; with him, they're favorites to go to the World Series. His influence on their lineup cannot be overstated; baseball will likely not see his type again.

Much has been written about Bonds likely not receiving many pitches to hit in the postseason. On a lark, Bill James once did a study about intentional walks. He took a hypothetical team full of terrible hitters, slap-hitting utility infielders, just the absolute dregs at the plate. He then gave put the 1921 Babe Ruth on the team. As an


 
 

experiment, he ran the team through computer simulations of two different scenarios. First, he had pitchers throw to Ruth just as they ordinarily would; in the second, he had the opposing pitcher walk him every time he came to the plate. Over the course of a season, the second team scores 66 more runs than the first one. An intentional walk angers fans, but it provides a team with the most valuable piece of property: A baserunner. Last postseason, the Giants consistently had runners on and were scoring like mad. And when they didn't, Bonds would simply homer. Pujols had an incredible year, but saying he had a better season than Bonds is ludicrous.

Bonds' notoriously odious public persona has even softened a bit this year, thanks partly to a slight warming by him and mostly because of the death of his father, Bobby Bonds. All that is missing from his obvious Hall of Fame resume is a World Series title. He will never have a better chance than this season.

Oh, and the Giants will also trot out Cy Young candidate Jason Schmidt, Sidney Ponson and crafty rookie Jerome Williams. No offense to the Marlins, but … NEXT! PREDICTION: GIANTS IN THREE.

Atlanta Braves (NL East champion) vs. Chicago Cubs (NL Central champion)

What could be more cuddly than those lovable Cubbies, the perennial losers with the day baseball and friendly confines? They're so adorable! What could be cuter than them?

Let me tell you: A lot.

The Cubs are everyone's cause celebre these days, but this is not a plucky Expos team, or overachieving Oakland squad. This is a team full of malcontents playing for a greedy corporation that bleeds its long-suffering fans dry in the name of the bottom line, selling nostalgia to drunken overgrown frat boys who usually don't notice there's a game going on until the seventh inning stretch. You'd almost feel bad for the players if they weren't all jerks too.

Sammy Sosa is a bat corker, a cheat and a fraud. Kerry Wood is a headhunting, Roger Clemens-wannabe who still hasn't learned how to

 
 

control his fastball. Rookie phenom Mark Prior could be the next Tom Seaver if only he'd keep his priorities straight. Tony Womack, Doug Glanville, Kenny Lofton and Tom Goodwin are just the sort of overpaid, pampered "veterans" that baseball fans claim to hate. And spinning it all together is manager Dusty Baker, baseball's most overrated manager and cutthroat foot-in-mouth specialist. (He controls a baseball game about as well as he controls his son.) And they all peddle their wares for the Tribune Corporation, which has money to spend on payroll but prefers to sit on it and go after the very-same-rooftop-watchers it  
 

likes to promote as part of the "Wrigley spirit."

Other than all that, of course, the Cubs are the darlings of the postseason.

The Cubs either won their division during a grueling, wild five-game series with the Cardinals at Wrigley in early September (the Cubs won four, including a 15-inning epic first-game-of-a-doubleheader, which ended with a Sammy Sosa home run off 93-year-old St. Louis lefthander Jeff Fassero), or they won their division because the Houston Astros and the Cardinals, their only real competitors, collapsed down the stretch. It depends on whether you're reading a Cubs apologist piece. It doesn't matter, of course -- they're here, after all -- but the Cubs have become a trendy World Series pick and it's worth pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

First off, the Cubs' offense, despite the rather freakish infusion of players from the Pittsburgh Pirates, is weak at best, full of underproducing veterans added by Baker for their "presence." If Sosa is struggling (or walked), the Cubs have the inconsistent Moises Alou and … well, a bunch of dead lineup spots. Their bullpen has been saved by likable closer Joe Borowski, but getting to him requires hoping Kyle Farnsworth's head is on straight and praying that six-fingered Antonio Alfonseca will do something to get suspended before he might be needed.

No, the reason the Cubs are a trendy pick to come out of the National

 
  League is their rotation. And it is quite the rotation: Having Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano to head up your staff for the next three-plus years is something that makes the Cubs the envy of any general manager in baseball. But they're all righthanders, which the Braves -- the best hitting team in baseball -- have pounded for a .284 average this season (best in baseball) and a 77-48 record (also best), according to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark. The Braves, led by an otherworldly outfield of Gary Sheffield, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, are not a lineup you can make a mistake with. The Cubs' pitchers will have
 
 

to be perfect, because the punchless Cubs offense won't give them much to work with.

And the pitching matchups aren't even breaking right for the Cubs. Prior has arguably been the National League's most dominant pitcher in 2003, but his spot in the rotation won't come up until Game 3 (against Greg Maddux). The Cubs will throw Wood in Game 1 (against Russ Ortiz, who has had a better year), the 21-year-old Zambrano in Game 2 and probably Matt Clement in Game 4. Wood will likely go against Ortiz twice, neither of which benefits the Cubs, already shorthanded at bat. If Prior could maybe go twice, the Cubs could have a Pedro-esque postseason force. But Wood, despite a late surge, has been maddeningly inconsistent all season, and they'll be counting on him to win twice.

In two years, with some big bats coming up through the Cubs' systems, this team could rule its division the same way the Braves have ruled theirs. But that time is not now. It has become commonplace to mock the Braves for their postseason failings, but the Cubs would have been better off drawing the Giants in the first round, a team with similar lineup problems (outside of the great Bonds, that is). They do not match up well with Atlanta, who, despite problems of its own, including the health of closer John Smoltz, is just the type of team Chicago needs to avoid: Average pitching, huge bats, shut-them-down bullpen.

Yes. A Red Sox-Cubs World Series would be fun for everyone. But not this year. PREDICTION: BRAVES IN FIVE.

 

AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Yankees in 6
Everyone loves the Sox, but do you really envision Boston coming into Yankee Stadium and clinching a trip to the World Series? Me neither.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Giants in 5
You can imagine the Braves dropping two at home to start, then folding.

WORLD SERIES

Giants in 6
Bonds finally gets his ring. Steinbrenner then offers him $40 million to play right field.

 

*BT*

Will Leitch is managing editor of The Black Table and a former editor at The Sporting News. The views of Mr. Leitch, especially all that retarded shit about the Red Sox not beating the Yankees and going on to beat the Cubs in the World Series, are his own.