With no hockey to comment on, the obvious sports choice this time of year is none other than the fall classic, the World Series of Major League Baseball.

Now maybe it’s just me or just the fact I have no NHL to watch, but the baseball playoffs this year have captivated me like never before.  They seem to have taken on a whole new meaning, right from the opening pitch of the divisional series, straight through both dramatic league championship series.  Can it honestly get any better than this?

Perhaps it’s the surreal comeback the Boston Red Sox staged against the New York Yankees, losing three straight before they finally scored an extra innings win, and then duplicating the feat less than 24 hours later to get the ball rolling on a monumental comeback.  Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals – Houston Astros series really was everything it was hyped up to be.  Could be we’re seeing players hit the ball out of the park more than ever before, at key times.  Whatever the reason, baseball is certainly doing its part to fill the hockey void.  Too bad it’s almost over.

While I was growing up, I watched baseball every chance I got.  For some reason I can remember the 1982 World Series between St. Louis and Milwaukee like it was yesterday (or maybe because it was the only thing on T.V.).  Believe it or not, I actually preferred the sport over hockey for many years.  I actually played on a Northern little league softball team, until I almost ate an aluminum bat being swung by a kid on deck.  Four lost teeth and a partial later I’m here to tell you kids out there bats do not taste good.

Living in Canada, televised games usually involved Montreal or Toronto.  The very possibility of either team winning a pennant was unthinkable until the late 1980s when Toronto really started to fly.  One can only imagine, then, how special it was to watch the Jays become the first Canadian based major league team win the World Series not once, but twice in 1992 and 1993.  To this day I still rank Joe Carter’s homerun given up by the Curt Schilling (then playing for Philadelphia) as the greatest baseball play ever.  A lot has changed since then.

Many people, myself included, will argue until they’re blue in the face the 1994 World Series would have been won by the Montreal Expos, that is until the big strike wiped out the pennant races, league championships and fall classic.  Of course, they never played the games, so we’ll never know for sure if they could have pulled it off (and will never know if they can do it again as “les Expos” will now call Washington home).  The whole situation left a bad taste in my mouth, along with millions of other baseball faithful.

Back then it was a dark time for baseball, and sports in general, very similar to the feeling I have now about the NHL Lockout, a gloomy cloud cast over the head of the league I’ve followed religiously for so many years.  To add insult to injury, the last lockout was taking place at the same time there was no World Series.  So as you can imagine I felt a sense of emptiness, like there was something missing inside, as if one of my vital organs was savagely removed from my body by a psychotic monster from one of those Hallowe’en horror flicks.  No hockey?  No baseball?  What gives?

When both baseball and hockey resolved their differences, the damage had already been done.  I’d watch both from time to time, but I could care less about either one of them.  Then something happened.  The local team here in Ottawa who we all know as the Senators actually started to win a few games, and the very next year, they actually made the playoffs.  The very same year my favorite team from Edmonton beat the Dallas Stars for the first (and only time) in a dramatic seven game series.  I’d never be the same, but I still hadn’t forgiven the players and forgotten about what had happened.  As for baseball, it wasn’t until Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa chased down and obliterated the homerun record that the sport started to peak my interest again, and then, the Yankees just had to win the pennant, again.

Fast forward to now, and because of the Red Sox-Yankees series I have a renewed faith not only in baseball but in sports in general.  To understand the magnitude and importance of where the 2004 American League Championship Series will undoubtedly stand in sports history, you have to understand this is something which has only happened twice previously in all of pro sports, and the two times it did happen were both during the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Prior to the ALCS, this had never happened in MLB history, and hasn’t ever happened in NBA history either.

In 1942, the Toronto Maple Leafs, like the Red Sox, were in an 0-3 slump against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Coached by Hap Day, the entire hockey world was stunned when Day boldly left two of the Leafs’ star players on the bench: forward Gord Drillon and defenseman Buck McDonald.  Turk Broda, the Leaf goalie, let in only seven goals during the final four games.  The comeback was not only the first of its kind in hockey, but in pro sports period, and it wouldn’t happen again for 33 years.

In 1975, the New York Islanders faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best of seven quarterfinal series, and like the 1942 Leafs before them, fell to 0-3 before winning the next four straight.  Unlike the Leafs though, they’d have to win Game 7 on the road, and they did it in style, as Islanders’ goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch would post a shutout and Ed Westfall would score late as New York completed the comeback with a 1-0 win.  After Game 3, Islanders head coach Al Arbour challenged his players by saying, "If there's anyone here who doesn't feel we can come back and beat these guys, get off the ice immediately."  The Islanders almost did it again in the semi-finals, facing the eventual Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, as they again fell 0-3 before winning the next three to force Game 7.  It wasn’t going to happen again though, as the Isles lost that game by a final score of 4-1.

It’s taken almost 30 years to happen again, but now in 2004, the Boston Red Sox had lost the first three games of the ALCS against the New York Yankees (most convincingly I might add) and were literally six outs away from being swept in Game 4 when the miracle happened.  Two extra innings wins at Fenway Park, both games needing more than five hours to finish, and a virtual collapse by the Yankees at home set the stage for Game 7 October 20, and the Red Sox didn’t disappoint.  The ALCS most valuable player David “Big Papi” Ortiz started things off for Boston, and Johnny Damon, who was quiet for the entire series, came up with the biggest homeruns of his career, hitting a grand slam and a two run homer, and the rest as they say is history.  Final score: Boston 10 New York 3.  “Who’s your daddy” indeed!

This is what it’s all about folks, every game a series within a series, every at bat making you gasp (or in hockey, every end to end rush and every shot on goal sending chills up your spine), every guy on the mound, at the plate, on deck, or in the dugout giving 125%, even if their bodies aren’t 100% (case in point Curt Schilling in Game 6, need I say more?).  I can’t remember the last time I felt so passionate about a game, when I’d tune in no matter what, like it was something I just had to say I witnessed, even if it was only on T.V.

Hockey has had its moments, but nothing of this magnitude.  When was the last time you saw a team from either conference celebrate clinching a semi-final series like they had just won the Stanley Cup?  The past few years it has become custom to grab a quick picture with the conference trophy and get off the ice.  When the New Jersey Devils beat Ottawa in the 2003 Eastern Conference final, Scott Stevens wouldn’t even touch the Prince of Wales Trophy, preferring to allow his teammates to carry it into their locker room.

I can only hope hockey will be this exciting to watch again once the NHL and NHLPA achieve labor peace and the fans have forgiven and forgotten, because God only knows the sport will need everybody’s undivided attention just to survive.

As for my always fearless prediction, even though I think both teams are equally as capable, I’m picking the Cardinals – in 7 – and fellow Canadian Larry Walker will be the World Series MVP.  The reason is simple really.  St. Louis has yet to lose at home this postseason, and Boston only has a chance if they can keep their current karma going.  Boston does have the home field advantage, but will it really matter if we split the first two games?  Will the Curse of the Bambino finally be broken after 86 years?  We’re about to find out, but let’s not also forget, the Red Sox have never beaten the Cardinals in two previous World Series attempts.  Where’s Bill Buckner when you need him?

At least for the next couple of weeks I won’t have to watch Ron Maclean introduce movies I already have on DVD, and for once I can actually enjoy watching a sporting event.  And can we please, please stop speculating on whether or not Wayne Gretzky will coach the Phoenix Coyotes, because until the NHL starts skating again, nobody really cares.


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