When the League Championship Series are over, there is a certainty that the more sporting among us will feel compelled to say something nice about at least one team we don’t care for. Whoever emerges between the Nationals and Cardinals we’re not naturally inclined to praise. Half of the ALCS already potentially looms as a guaranteed pitfall for the civility our society once claimed to cherish.
Obviously, go Astros, the good half of the junior circuit finals. Save for some hard feelings over Mike Scott and sandpaper, we have nothing against the Houston club. We hailed them two Octobers ago on their glorious quest and are happy to go to hail on their behalf again. (And thanks for J.D. Davis!)
As for the National League, the Cardinals are a tough sell around here in any decade, though I’ll confess that not having gone head-to-head versus St. Louis for a sizable bag of marbles since 2006 has left me autumnally vulnerable to their cause a couple of times. I didn’t mean to board their rally squirrel train in 2011, but kind of did as they dramatically blew up the Texas Rangers’ world championship plans at the last possible minute. When they were briefly in possession of Carlos Beltran’s excellence during the 2013 World Series, I could at least conceive a reason to root them all the way home (where they didn’t get). Otherwise, they haven’t been in the playoffs since 2015 and they haven’t been missed.
Yadier Molina, the major reason my relatively dormant mid-’80s disdain for all things Redbird reignited as it did on 10/19/06, has become a latter-day Chipper Jones in my view. I hated Chipper Jones in 1999 and continued to hate Chipper Jones well into the new century. Yet I could send Larry Wayne off into retirement with a cap-tipping booooooo in 2012; I stood, I clapped, I jeered. I may not rise to my feet for Molina whenever I know it’s his last tango in Flushing, but I no longer instinctively reach for a bat and imagine what I might to do him with it when his image flickers across the television. I don’t know if that’s progress or going soft.
I still despise what Molina did to the Mets, and could do without him doing any more of it, yet the fact that he’s still doing what he does to anybody, including the Braves in the NLDS, can’t help but earn a grudging admire from me. Yadi and Chipper basically morphed over time into the Malachi Brothers from the legendary Pinky Tuscadero arc of Happy Days. Sure, they were demolition derby villains, but the Count (a.k.a. Marvin) and Rocco were sportsmanlike enough to show up at the hospital to look in on Pinky after the Malachi Crunch inflicted injury on her. Even the Fonz gave them the thumbs-up. By the end of the two-parter, Garry Marshall ensured you could no longer truly hate the Malachis.
You’re welcome to hate Molina, just as I’m sure there are some who’ve never degrudged from Jones, but a career that’s gone on and on with no more than a couple of annual drive-by reminders of whatever became of Aaron Heilman seems a little less abhorrent every year. Time heals, a tad. Molina and Jones did their worst and then stuck around running up Hall of Fame credentials. Whatever we lost to Molina and his equally culpable batterymate Adam Wainwright we eventually found. Sure, 2006 remains a bitter end, but 2015 removed the lingering sting and turned it into history as opposed to something awful that I swore happened the week before.
My perception of these Malachi types differs from the likes of Chase Utley, who recently said something benignly complimentary about the passion of Mets fans (no sale). Utley never faded as an enemy for us because he wasn’t around that much longer beyond his crime, a misdeed that wasn’t simply about competing and succeeding, but a cheap, unpunished shot. Ditto for Roger Clemens, his selective control and his faulty object recognition. Utley and Clemens aren’t sitcom villains. They’re the crew Walter White schemes to blow up at the end of Breaking Bad.
As for the Nationals, I have the feeling that if they went under some other brand and emanated from some other division, they’d represent a decently accessible feelgood baseball story from afar. It’s been nine years since we’ve had to process the presence of a division rival in the NLCS. The last instance was 2010, when the Giants did us the tremendous solid of removing the Phillies from the postseason premises. The only NL East team to advance beyond the NLDS since then, until this very moment, was the 2015 Mets, which was wonderful. The Nats, on their fifth try, are carrying our sector’s banner into the deep end of October now. We’ve dedicated ourselves to sticking our tongues out at Washington through too much of the decade to reel it back in so quickly.
That said, I don’t really despise too many of their frontline stars. Other than wanting the Mets to beat him when they face him and Jacob deGrom to outpoll him when Cy Youngs are distributed, I can’t help but like Max Scherzer. Ryan Zimmerman is essentially David Wright repackaged for the Mid-Atlantic market. Anthony Rendon is breathtaking. Juan Soto is mind-boggling. I’m not crazy about Strasburg, mostly as residue from chanting HARVEY’S BETTER, but I have to hand it to him for hanging in there as he has. Sean Doolittle seems like a righteous dude. Asdrubal is Asdrubal, albeit in the wrong uniform. Adam Eaton I’ll detest for Todd Frazier’s sake, but he’s Adam Eaton.
Most of our active animus for the Nationals stems from 2015, when they were our perfect foil, and the aftermath, when they swiped our NLCS MVP and recast him as Stan Musial. Daniel Murphy is safely disappeared from DC, and with him the sense that the Nationals exist as a specific plot against our happiness. They’ve also persevered minus the resting Bryce face of their franchise, which is delicious. Harper went to the Phillies. The Phillies went nowhere.
I was predisposed to get behind the Nationals the first time they entered October, in 2012. Davey Johnson was their manager and their Expo roots hadn’t totally withered from contemporary memory. Whatever made them a modestly empathetic story early in their relocation has gone the way of Chad Cordero and Nick Johnson. Too much water has flowed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge to kindle even fleeting postseason simpatico. The Nationals are the Phillies are the Braves, indistinguishable within the big ball of ongoing distaste we call divisional rivalry. (Marlins, too, should they ever choose to involve themselves in a playoff race.) Plus — and this is a big one — my Mets-loving friend Jeff who lives down there hates them with the fire of a thousand Utleys. It’s bad enough he couldn’t dance on the Nats’ NLDS grave a fifth time. I’d hate to think of him choosing sides within a Nationals-Yankees World Series if it comes to that.
I’d hate to think of an anybody-Yankees World Series. Like I said, go Astros.