The Crucial Role of World Series Losers

The Crucial Role of World Series Losers
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The Houston Astros celebrating their win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series. Credit Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Baseball is a series of definitive moments, but none are quite like the final out of the World Series. It’s recorded, and we all, players and fans, claim instant perspective. Win the World Series and everything you experienced before it has led, inevitably and majestically, to this moment. Even previous failure has new meaning, and previous success has been bottled. More important, winning made it worth it all, whatever “it” was — the rehab from Tommy John surgery, the 111 losses four years ago, the boos.

Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of the Astros, has been accused of thinking he was smarter than everyone else. He experimented with unconventional concepts. He split minor league games into two parts, in effect using two starting pitchers (a k a the “piggyback”). He unearthed unorthodox players and turned them into stable big leaguers. Luhnow, the Penn grad with degrees in engineering and economics, brought with him a decision scientist with a NASA engineering background from his previous position with the St. Louis Cardinals. He thinks and lives outside the box.

An Astros victory could show that maybe he was smarter than everyone else, or at least could see the future more clearly than others. Anyone who blazes a trail will at one time or another be considered an outsider, a rogue. Only with the benefit of time can we think about it objectively. A 13-12 win, or a 13-12 loss, in Game 5, for instance, can be the difference between being perceived as a visionary or as a gimmicky bureaucrat. Results create perceptions.

The Astros put together a 101-win season in 2017, after losing over 100 games for three years running. Now they’re fueled by MVP candidates galore, and opponents must pick their poison: Pitch to Jose Altuve, George Springer or Carlos Correa? Defensively, they seem to catch everything, and they feature a lefty-righty standout pitching combo of the 2011 Cy Young Award winner and MVP Justin Verlander and another Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel.

In the other dugout are the Dodgers, who carry the hefty cargo of a storied organizational history. Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Jackie Robinson to Vin Scully. They, too, won over 100 games this year (104), but they got there by way of four 90-plus-win seasons in a row. Their past covers a lot of ground, including their epic rival battles with the Yankees from the 1940s and ’50s, into the ’70s and even the ’80s. Oversimplified, those Dodger World Series teams were mostly Yankee punch lines. Yet in real time they were also a franchise of excellence, with six championships.

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