Every October baseball comes home to its roots. The prodigal game sheds the laziness of summertime, the wretchedness of No. 5 starters and middle relievers, the forgiving nature of a 162-game schedule and the hollow attempt to sell a midweek game between the Detroit Tigers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as meaningful. Come the postseason, when runs and a resting pulse are at a premium, baseball rediscovers the beauty of the sacrifice bunt, the sublime tension of a low-scoring game and the urgent effort required by the brevity of a schedule blessed with those two magic words—if necessary.� October does not harbor the extraneous, especially not this October. In what has played out as the most riveting postseason since 1986, when the California Angels and Boston Red Sox each lost a series after they were within one strike of winning it, the 2003 playoffs featured 17 games decided by two runs or less among the 27 played through Monday, including eight that were decided in a team's last at bat. Those 27 games had an average of 7.5 runs scored, a 21% decline from the regular season.
It was baseball without wriggle room, and that included the pavement outside Chicago's Wrigley Field. Crowds that would have passed for great regular-season turnouts at Pro Player Stadium in Miami jammed Waveland Avenue last week just to be in the vicinity of the Cubs' National League Championship Series games against the Florida Marlins. They heard some exciting baseball.
No matter your vantage point, the LCS games in both leagues made for must-see TV. The setup was perfect: Take the game's two most accursed franchises, the three most ancient baseball cathedrals and the two most bitter rivals since Athens and Sparta, and what you get is 46% more people watching the LCS on television than tuned in last year. The Cubs were playing in a park built in 1914 while trying to win their first World Series since 1908, or five years after the Wright brothers' first flight. The Boston Red Sox were playing in a park built in 1912 while trying to win their first World Series since 1918, or two months before the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. And the New York Yankees, Boston's opponent, were playing in a park originally built in 1923 while trying to win their first World Series since 2000, which happens to be a drought of Biblical proportions on the Steinbrennerian calendar.
Crashing this celebration of antiquity were the Marlins, who play in a football stadium where fans can watch from hot tubs and no one over the age of 10 can truly claim to be a lifelong fan. "Everyone wants to see Cubs-Red Sox, but we're going to spoil that," Marlins righthander Chad Fox said after Game 1. "Not in a cocky way, but we know what the fans want, what the media feel. But so what?"
Fox popped off before blowing one of the 29 leads that didn't stand up in the first 27 playoff games, this one in a pivotal and strangely entertaining NLCS Game 3 that had cosmic significance. For one, the game was played under a full moon over Miami. For another, it was played four days after the 58th anniversary of the creation of the Cubs' infamous goat curse.
The Cubs were leading Detroit two games to one in the 1945 World Series when tavern owner William (Billy Goat) Sianis bought box seat tickets so he could bring his goat to watch Game 4 at Wrigley. The Cubs would not allow the goat to enter the stadium, which prompted Sianis to place his infamous curse upon the franchise. The Cubs gave up four runs in the fourth inning of Game 4 and lost 4-1. They eventually lost the Series and have not returned to the Fall Classic since.
The Cubs did appear in the postseason as recently as 1998, but they hardly created a blip in the TV ratings. This year, a few days before the playoffs began, Fox Sports president Ed Goren was studying information from his research department, which predicted that the Chicago- Atlanta Division Series would attract slightly fewer viewers in a prime-time slot than the Yankees-Twins series. Goren, however, anticipated that the Cubs would be the darlings of the nation and scheduled them to open the postseason against the Braves in prime time on Sept. 30, relegating the Yankees to a rare afternoon opener. Sure enough, the Cubbies have been a hit.
What could possibly be so different about the 2003 Cubs compared with the forgotten 1998 team? "Three words," Goren says. "Baker, Prior and Wood."
Manager Dusty Baker and his Nos. 1 and 1A pitchers, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (who was on the '98 team but lost his only playoff start), turned Chicago into a bona fide championship contender. Sure enough, though Marlins righty Josh Beckett two-hit the Cubs in a 4-0 victory in Game 5 on Sunday, Chicago needed only one win to reach the World Series and had Prior and Wood lined up to pitch at home in two shots to get them mere. Entering Game 6, the Cubs were 5-0 in this postseason when Prior and Wood started and 1-4 when Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement took the mound.
Baker has been riding Prior, 23, and Wood, 26, the way Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenley rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the 2001 championship. For instance, beginning on Sept. 16, Prior had thrown 124, 131, 133, 133 and 116 pitches, respectively, in his five starts heading into Game 6. Baker even left Prior in to start the eighth inning of NLCS Game 2 with a 10-run lead.