In an election year that feels like a dark turning point in the history of the American nation, Major League Baseball is offering us a World Series that consoles us with the most wholesome pleasures conceivable. In sports terms, the Indians and the Cubs are ancient and venerable clans, with hard-bitten fans that are too used to losing year after year.
The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. The Cubs last won a World Series in 1908. Pick your favorite historical note. I've enjoyed relaying to people that the Indians last won a World Series before RCA introduced the 45 RPM record. And the Cubs last won a World Series before construction on the Titanic begun. (Four years before Downton Abbey's setting, if you prefer.) And yet we know that, barring a civilization-ending meteor strike, one of these teams is going to win the World Series this year.
To give you some idea of how seriously people are taking this, standing-room tickets in Wrigley Field are going for over $3,000 apiece. The Cubs present an extra bit of visual nostalgia — and it's not just the ivy. Unlike the roomy luxury seats of new stadiums, the crowd behind home plate in Wrigley is still crowded into each other tightly.
Despite their lovable losers reputation, the Cubs are coming in to the World Series as heavy favorites among bookies. The Cubs dominated the National League from the very start of the baseball season in April. They outgun the Indians in starting pitching. You may remember last year's National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Right behind him is Kyle Hendricks, who may win the Cy Young this year. And behind him is one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation, Jon Lester. Lester has pitched 21 innings this postseason and given up only two earned runs and two walks across them. He may pitch in three games out of seven if this Series goes the distance.
Dexter Fowler, who will become the first African American to appear in the World Series wearing a Cubs uniform when he comes to bat at Progressive Field for the first time, leads a lineup of batters that have recently shaken off a slump.
This is a team built to win this year and beyond. The turnaround has to be credited to Tom Ricketts, who purchased the team in 2009 and hired Theo Epstein as his president of baseball operations in 2011. If Epstein breaks the Cubs' curse just a little over a decade after doing the same for the Boston Red Sox, he becomes a Hall of Fame-worthy executive.
But don't plan for the parade yet.
The Indians are a team like few others. Like the Kansas City Royals in the last two years of the World Series, the Indians are a lineup without transcendent stars that somehow gets above-average contribution from the whole team. Well, maybe they have one transcendent star; shortstop Francisco Lindor has hit .323 for the Indians in the postseason while playing the kind of spectacular defense that has you texting friends or calling family members in from the kitchen to say, "You gotta see this." He is emblematic of a team that doesn't just win the game, but wins over new fans each time they play.
If the Indians have a shot it is because Terry Francona has pioneered masterly and innovative bullpen strategies to get through the playoffs. And he has the ultimate weapon to deploy in reliever Andrew Miller.
Miller is single-handedly inventing a new relief-pitcher role. In the past we had firemen who put out situations before they got out of hand. In the late 1980s, Tony LaRussa used Dennis Eckersley to pioneer the modern "closer" role, in which a great reliever was tasked with stealing the last three outs from a team that found itself behind in the final frame. In Miller we have a new "relief ace" who can be deployed at any time during the game. He may pitch two innings or more in a game, shutting down an opponent whose lineup is set to do damage in the middle innings. He is the breakout star of the 2016 postseason. During the regular season he put together a 1.45 ERA with a 0.68 WHIP.
This is the most fun matchup in the World Series in a long while and it could not come at a time when we needed it more. In the weeks before our quadrennial presidential election, the whole country fills with a kind of existential anxiety because we insist on treating that contest like it is a referendum on our own membership in our nation. My advice is to seek some relief in turning to a national pastime. In this one, America's nostalgists can find so much of the country's heritage to celebrate in the meeting of these venerable clubs and the new life that this Series brings to them. And our futurists can revel in a glimpse of America's future on the field, seeing in it something diverse and energetic.
Turn off cable news. Turn on the World Series.
The Week, Oct. 25, 2016