It's easy to take shots at this year's World Series as an all-too predictable matchup of big-money teams we've seen too much of in recent years. Does anyone really need another close-up of Chipper Jones poking out his lower lip to show he's a new model of Brave and not the old-style automaton? Or one more shot of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner slouching in his spot at the stadium? Maybe not, but baseball needs a real battle after last year's Road Kill Series, which the Padres used to remind everyone never, ever to take San Diego seriously. Say what you want about the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees, but their Series opening Saturday night at Atlanta's Turner Field has the look and feel of one that could go the distance.
There are all kinds of great angles in this Series. Team-of-the-decade bragging rights are on the line. The Yankees are trying to repeat as World Series champs, and make it three of four years, and the Braves are trying to squeeze out just their second Series victory of the decade in five tries. The dramatic possibilities and relative balance of talent will make the twists and turns great fun to follow, putting the focus on the managers, which is always a good thing from a fan's perspective. No sport unleashes more lively conversation (as opposed to grunting) than baseball, and nothing in baseball is half as much fun as second-guessing managers.
Football coaches wear headsets and pace around blurting out strange code words for complicated plays no normal person could follow. Basketball coaches overdress absurdly and roam the sidelines waiting for those rare moments when they get to kneel down and jot out hieroglyphic patterns their superstar athletes can cheerfully ignore. But baseball managers are humbled by the crazy tradition of wearing a uniform, no matter how uniquely they might fill its contours, and the moves they make -- or don't make -- unfold right before any alert fan's eyes with painful clarity.
By now, Yankees manager Joe Torre and Braves skipper Bobby Cox are old adversaries one the national stage. As the two once again prepare to head into battle, Torre seemed to enjoy answering a question Friday afternoon at Turner Field about whether they are alike in any way. "I think probably we're the same in trying to be unpredictable," he said. "That's pretty much what it comes down to. It's sort of like a catcher catching, and you never want to follow a change-up with a fastball or a knock-down pitch with a change-up. You never want to get into any kind of pattern where they can figure you out, hitting-and-running on certain pitches and stuff like that."
Cox has a face like a Ralph Steadman caricature. If he weren't managing, he'd be a bit-actor walking out from behind a rock in some western, wiping his mouth, spitting into the fire and saying something like "What in the hell." He crouched over the interview table at Turner Field yesterday with the pained expression of a man having to work way too hard to move his bowels.
There's no mistaking Cox for a manager like Tony La Russa, who you just know would not enjoy a game unless he was making his presence felt. Cox always gives the impression during a game of a man who would like to do as little cogitating as possible, even when he's making unorthodox moves like sending starter John Smoltz into close Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
"We just wanna win, we don't do too much thinking over here," he said Friday afternoon, giving it his best old-salt heh-heh-heh laugh.
Torre likes to fade into the background, too, only more so. The camera pans over to him on the bench during a game and he looks like a man drifting off in thought, thinking something along the lines of, "You know, this bench is really kind of comfortable." Even before his battle with prostate cancer this year, which kept him out of action for the first month and a half of the season, you knew he was a man who had things other than baseball on his mind. That's more true than ever now, and his sad eyes and patient-to-a-fault demeanor will inspire even more love and adoration across American during the Series. He's as likable and genuine in person as he comes across on TV, and people sense it.
"Let me tell you something," he said Friday. "In spring training when the cancer got me, baseball was the furthest thing from my mind, there's no question. When I came back in May, it was still a tenuous thing at best, not knowing how important baseball was going to be. However, you get into post-season play, you're back trying to sell your soul again."
Torre is like the marquee star of a '50s sitcom, "Uncle Joe Knows Best." He might be the only one who could deal so well with flinty owner George Steinbrenner, mellowed but still George, and the inspired insanity of the New York sports scene.
"That's a pressure-packed place over there," Cox said Friday. "As a manager, I don't give much credit or take much credit, anything like that, but I think Joe really has meant a lot to that organization, just the calming effect that he can have on an organization like that. It is a volatile situation over there, and has been for a long time with George because he's so hands-on. He demands winning and it can get pretty touchy at times."
Steinbrenner has a gift for getting on people's nerves, as he proved once again during the American League Championship Series. He accused Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams of "inciting" the Fenway Park fans after one of many botched calls in the series led to a long stoppage in play. Asked about this later, Williams said: "When Georgie Porgie talks, I don't listen."
A lot of people across America had to enjoy that one. Even though he's become more human with age, and seemed truly moved by the Yankees World Series victory last year, George Steinbrenner is a great target. People like to root against him and his team. It's fun. But this year's tragicomic Baltimore Orioles club proved anew that spending money isn't all it takes to build a winner, since Peter Angelos' club led baseball in both payroll and clubhouse dissension.
The Yankees have a quality that's more than just tradition or mystique, and managing against them presents more of a challenge than anyone really wants to admit. Bruce Bochy impressed everyone with his managing of the Padres last season, and then led his team into the World Series like a scared kid. He was thoroughly outmanaged by Torre and his club was thoroughly intimidated by the raucous scene at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 and Game 2. One lesson was that denial is no kind of strategy for defusing the ticking bomb that is New York's presence in a postseason series, and it's obviously a lesson Cox and the Braves understand. That goes especially for Atlanta's Game 1 starter, Tom Glavine.
"Part of it for me is probably having grown up in Boston and being a Red Sox fan and as a youth a Yankee hater, but this series has a lot of feeling for me," he said Friday. "But also, I guess as a fan of the game of baseball and the history of the game, who would you rather play for a chance to win the world championship than the most storied franchise in baseball history and organized sports? It doesn't get any better than the Yankees when it comes to championships and stuff like that. And the history of their team -- you can go on and on about what they've done. Some of the greatest players who have ever played sports have put on the Yankee pinstripes."
Glavine talks the way he pitches, every word in place just like every hair is in place when he's on the mound, his uniform as neat as his syntax. He sloughed off any talk about the Braves feeling pressure not to miss out on another chance to win the World Series, given their three Series defeats this decade, and he's right. When it comes to X factors to keep in mind, the Braves are the ones who head into the series lighter on pressure and expectation. The sportswriters have anointed the Yankees as favorites, and newspapers are busy planning those "Team of the '90s" special sections. But like much conventional wisdom, this is wrong.
The Braves this year have just enough vinegar and orneriness to tune out the Yankees and make the most of their own amazing pitching staff, which is stronger than the Yanks' in both starters and middle relief. John Rocker, the head-case closer, may not last long in this game, but for now he's a blur of emotion and energy. It may have been foolhardy for him to taunt New Yorkers as "a bunch of stupid asses," or it may have been brilliant. Here's one guess that he and the Braves will be in a position to lean back with a split of Dom this off-season and laugh off the media fuss over Rocker's arrogant outburst as just one more delightful tidbit to savor as they go through the chain of events that made them 1999 World Series champs.