My two favorite professional sports leagues are MLB and the NBA. The absence of the Sonics has dulled my love for basketball and the Mariners torment their faithful, but the two sports captivate me nonetheless. Where they diverge, usually, is the playoffs. Barring a peculiar matchup (congrats, 2009 Orlando Magic), the NBA tends to result in the two clear best teams matched up in the finals. Meanwhile, playoff baseball's five or seven game model increases the likelihood of randomness, and often represents a departure from game strategies used throughout the 162-game regular season. Even odder, I find myself on the fence on who to root for.
The Houston Astros are a relative oddity in this year’s playoffs; of the eight teams that made the Divisional Round this year, six had at least one former Mariner on their playoff roster. Norichika Aoki was the lone former M on Houston’s roster this year, and he was jettisoned quickly before ending the season in Toronto. Their 14-5 record against the Mariners this year helped to buffet them into first place, but as their last trade occurred in 2010, Houston cannot be accused of directly taking advantage of Seattle’s flotsam or unfortunate trades.
The Dodgers represent the other side of the coin. Sporting the most former Mariners of any playoff roster, LA deservedly flaunts their haul of one-time M’s. Chris Taylor is the main story, hitting leadoff or second and playing all over the field. This season his swing has been unlocked and revamped by the Dodgers’ army of handsomely paid coaches and he has fully converted to the church of Hitting the Ball in the Air from teammate, and co-NLCS MVP, Justin Turner. The Mariners' 1st round picks of 2006 and 2008 also now lurk near Chavez Ravine. 33-year-old Brandon Morrow never burned as bright as Tim Lincecum, to whom he will always be compared in Seattle, but he’s still here, throwing 100 mph, with a respectable 12.4 WAR career, and Lincecum was last reportedly seen at the Women's March in San Francisco. Joining Morrow in LA’s vaunted bullpen is the mercurial Josh Fields, a member of the "other" Erik Bedard trade, who similarly saw his career rejuvenated by a move to the bullpen. A matchup between the bully of the AL West and the reclaimers of Seattle’s past failures of development posits a disheartening World Series for the Pacific Northwest.
All of that, and yet I’ve rarely been so excited for a World Series. I recognize I may exist in a bubble of baseball junkies, but at least within my purview this is a consensus. Who to root for is a tougher debate.
The team without a World Series victory or the one with a lengthy drought? Rooting for or against former Mariners to succeed? Cheering the "underdogs" who terrorized Seattle all year, and seem poised to for the next few seasons? Or the "lovable" “underdog” NL team, whose playoff roster’s payroll of approximately $162.2 million (nearly even with Houston’s $162.5 million, by my rough calculation) obscures the fact that the Dodgers have been able to cruise to dominance in spite of around $108 million more of their payroll going to players who were hurt, released, or superfluous pitching depth that their record-high payroll allowed.
If I were younger there’d be no debate—down with the evil empire, except that the day I don’t enjoy a grown man licking a baseball bat for good luck mid-at-bat, I will have truly died. Both teams have leaned heavily into analytics and exploited the previous MLB systems to their advantage (for LA, international free agency, for Houston, old draft rules), and have built majestic, 100-win teams. It’s Goliath vs. Solomon, except Goliath is brilliant and Solomon has been working out. There’s no right answer, but that’s also because there’s no wrong answer, and all I’m hoping for these next two weeks is seven games. Give me baseball, always more baseball, and dammit, let’s have some fun.