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108 Chances, 1 Meeting

You could’ve used the phrase, “The Tigers will meet the Giants in the World Series” in 1908, but Fred Merkle didn’t touch second, Johnny Evers pulled some shenanigans with the first baseball handy and the powers that be got suckered into calling a Giants win over the Cubs a tie, thereby compelling a makeup game that went the wrong way. Thus, the A.L. champion Tigers did not meet the Giants in the World Series in 1908.

You could’ve used the phrase, “The Tigers will meet the Giants in the World Series” in 1934, but the Giants didn’t put enough distance between themselves and the Gashouse Gang Cardinals to overcome the nearness of their manager’s foot to his mouth. Bill Terry had joked before the season, regarding his downtrodden crosstown rivals’ prospective finish, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” The Dodgers got the last laugh, however, taking a pair of games the Giants desperately needed, ensuring the league flag would fly in St. Louis. Thus, the A.L. champion Tigers did not meet the Giants in the World Series in 1934.

You could’ve used the phrase, “The Tigers will meet the Giants in the World Series” in 1987, but the playoffs had other ideas. The Tigers, heavily favored in the ALCS after they leapfrogged the Blue Jays to win the Eastern Division, were shocked in five games by the seemingly unspectacular 85-77 Minnesota Twins. And even if they hadn’t been, the Giants of Jeffrey Leonard’s one flap down succumbed in seven to St. Louis in the NLCS. Thus, the A.L. East champion Tigers did not meet the Giants — nor did the N.L. West champion Giants meet the Tigers — in the World Series in 1987.

Because of the First Amendment, you could’ve used that phrase in those years or conceivably any year from the birth of the World Series in 1903 clear through to the most recent edition in 2011. Two baseball team names in simultaneous continued use for more than a century would seem a natural for coupling in an October sentence. But for more than a century you couldn’t say it and be accurate about it.

Christy Mathewson did not face Ty Cobb. Hank Greenberg did not stare out at Carl Hubbell. Jack Morris in his prime didn’t have to go after a young Will Clark. No Hal Newhouser vs. Bobby Thomson or Denny McLain vs. Willie Mays, for that matter. So many Tigers and so many Giants have graced the upper echelons of baseball history, yet there was never a Tigers-Giants World Series.

Until now [1], of course.

The last time we had a situation akin to what’s about to unfold — two pre-expansion franchises that had never previously clashed in the Fall Classic under their ancestral names finally getting together as such to decide the championship — was 1975, when the Reds and Red Sox forged a showdown for the ages. Now, at last, we have the maiden Tigers-Giants World Series. We have Justin Verlander and Buster Posey; Matt Cain and Miguel Cabrera; Octavio Dotel and Angel Pagan, perhaps. We have National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Marco Scutaro carrying a ten-game postseason hitting streak into what loomed more as MLB Finals more than Fall Classic before this, the 108th World Series, came into full view.

I never saw baseball when it was two leagues sending their first-place finishers off to battle one another. The last time that happened was 1968, the Year of the Tiger, which was also the last time I was too young to know enough to have a favorite sport. For the ensuing quarter-century, four division champions yielded two league champions, which seemed ideal and orderly. Then came tinkering: eight teams, six divisions, a couple of Wild Cards. It seemed less ideal and less orderly, but reasonable enough.

The ten-team setup we’ve just witnessed whittled to two feels, even in the aftermath of four dynamite Division Series and one seven-game League Championship Series, just a shade on the wrong side of overkill. It feels like the NBA playoffs. It feels like it just goes on and on until some Portland Trailblazers or Utah Jazz perennial contender-type team from the ’80s or ’90s — pretty good to very good but not quite extraordinary — emerges to take up half of an officially licensed logo. My sense was the whole thing was less a means to a hallowed end than the penultimate step to the last round of tournament play.

But that feeling evaporated in the ninth inning of San Francisco’s 9-0 blowout of the luck-run-out Cardinals, when the rains enveloped Phone Company Park and 43,056 of the most vocal supporters imaginable grew wetter and louder; and their clothes drenched to deeper and deeper shades of orange and black; and Scutaro, even before there were three outs, was raising his arms to the skies like Andy Dufresne when he “came out clean on the other side” upon tunneling into a downpour of freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. This was no longer merely surviving and advancing in the tournament. This was the pennant about to happen…the National League Pennant, just like the 17 the Giants earned between 1888 and 1954 when they played in Manhattan, just like the four the uprooted version of the same franchise raised in 1962, 1989, 2002 and 2010. The Giants were on the cusp of claiming a 22nd pennant and, with it, the right to play the Tigers, recent recipients of a 10th American League Pennant.

Who among us wouldn’t gleefully stand in the rain to be a part of that?

Baseball gets away with diluting its postseason distinctiveness because it’s had pennants forever and the World Series for nearly as long. Winning the seventh game of the NLCS instantly elevated the 2012 Giants’ status. Suddenly they were pennant-winners. Suddenly they were in the World Series. They were part of this grand continuum, both within their own family lore and along the broader expanse of baseball history. The ratings won’t be as good as they once were and kids won’t be able to stay up for the late innings and the commercials will be hellishly repetitious by the middle innings and there’ll be a million little complaints that things aren’t what they used to be where the World Series is concerned.

But it will be the World Series, which is something that drips with tradition like 43,056 black and orange caps dripped with rain Monday night. It will be laced with the DNA of two ancient and accomplished opponents who have somehow managed to miss each other every October until now. Nobody’s ever before been able to say, “The Tigers will meet the Giants in the World Series,” yet doesn’t it somehow sound comfortingly familiar?