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Forget the ‘one great player’ structure for this World Series

Oct 23, 2013, 11:59 AM EST

BOSTON — There seems to be quite a bit of talk about continuity going into this year’s World Series. Well, hey, it’s the Cardinals and the Red Sox again. Fourth time. That was the matchup in ’46, with Stan Musial and Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter and Johnny Pesky, Red Schoendienst and Bobby Doerr and that whole cast of characters.

That was the matchup again in ’67, the Impossible Dream Red Sox and the awesome Cardinals. Nobody could get out Lou Brock. Nobody could get out Carl Yastrzemski. Jim Lonborg proved almost unhittable. It was a last hurrah for Roger Maris. In the end, an indomitable Bob Gibson decided who was better.

And then, one more time, 2004, the Cardinals won 105 games, most for the franchise since the end of World War II. They were a dominant team. But the Red Sox had 86 years to make up for, and they had just vanquished the Yankees in the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history, and they rolled to a four-game World Series sweep.

Yes, there’s a lot of talk about the history — Red Sox and Cardinals all over again.

Except, if you think about it in a different way, this series is more about how much baseball changes than how much it stays the same. Think about the last time we saw these two teams in the World Series. For the Red Sox, that was 2007 when they swept the Rockies. For the Cardinals, that was 2011 when they beat the Rangers in a stirring and disjointed series.

If you asked at the time, who would have been the key player on each team?

For the Cardinals, clearly, it was first baseman Albert Pujols. He was still widely regarded as the best player in baseball.

For the Red Sox I think, it was general manager Theo Epstein, who had found a way to marry Moneyball tactics with big market resources to build what many thought would be the baseball superpower of the 21st Century.

If you had told fans at the time that, soon after, Pujols and Epstein would leave — people could see it coming with Pujols — they would have panicked. They would have expected a great fall. After all, both men seemed utterly irreplaceable. Who could do what Pujols did? They called him The Machine because year after year after year he hit .330, and he walked 90 or 100 times, and he scored 120 runs and he hit 40 doubles and he hit 40 home runs and he played great defense. He was the heart of the team, he was the soul of the team, he was the engine of the team.

And two years after he left, the Cardinals are back in the World Series.

Theo’s excellence was more subtle, but nobody missed it. Epstein built an organization around advanced thinking (with one of baseball’s great revolutionaries, Bill James, working for the team) AND around their advantages as one of baseball’s richest teams. One of the 2007 team’s best players was a little second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, who the Red Sox had taken in the second round of the 2004 amateur draft because they didn’t fall for the conventional wisdom that he was too small. Their best hitter, David Ortiz, had been discarded by the Minnesota Twins — they had not seen him clearly. Meanwhile, they were also spending a fortune on established superstars like Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling. All together, it seemed like Epstein and the Red Sox had beaten the system — they were smarter AND they were richer.

And two years after he left, the Red Sox are in the World Series.

In baseball, more than any other sport, teams win championships. Not individuals, I don’t mean that baseball is more about teamwork than football or basketball or hockey or soccer— that isn’t true. Those sports rely more on teamwork than baseball does. Football in many ways is the ultimate team sport because everybody plays a different role.

No, I’m saying that in football one player — especially if he’s a quarterback — can define a team. A team with a great quarterback will win more games than a team with a lousy quarterback no matter how good the rest of the team might be. Obviously that’s true in other sports. LeBron James or Sidney Crosby or Messi, almost single-handedly, can turn a a bad team into a good one and a good team into a great one.

But in baseball, it really doesn’t work that way. The game’s structure prevents any one person from being too important. The world’s best hitter will still only come up one out of nine times. The world’s best starting pitcher will only pitch one out of every five days. The world’s best closer will (likely) pitch in the ninth inning. The manager cannot really design plays. The general manager cannot just go out and sign a couple of big free agents and win championships the way the Miami Heat did. The Angels tried that when they signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in back-to-back years. They went from 86 wins in 2011 to 78 wins in 2013.

The Cardinals are in the World Series because they combined some good veterans (Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday) with some excellent homegrown hitters (Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams) and built the best offense in the National League. Their rehab program with starter Adam Wainwright obviously worked wonders; he missed all of 2011 and two years later was again one of the two or three best starters in the National League. Their spectacular minor league system helped them build a spectacular bullpen with pitcher after pitcher throwing 100 mph darts. And the emergence of 21-year-old pitcher Michael Wacha, the Cardinals first round pick in last year’s draft, certainly has helped this postseason.

The Red Sox are in the World Series because a few of their mainstays — Pedroia, Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz — all had fantastic seasons. They made some very shrewd free-agent signings, picking up outfielder Shane Victorino and first baseman Mike Napoli and reliever Koji Uehara. All three of them had huge seasons. A big-money free agent who had looked like an all-time bust, John Lackey, finally got healthy and pitched well. A guy they plucked out of the Independent League a few years ago, Daniel Nava, had a superb year as did the well-traveled Jonny Gomes.

Which team will win? It’s so close. And it’s only seven games. It could come down to the Cardinals amazing bullpen, especially with the colder weather likely to dampen offense. It could come down to Fenway Park, where the Red had a .654 winning percentage during the season and have won three out of four in the postseason. It could come down to how well the Cardinals starters deal with a Red Sox lineup that, all the way through, works and frustrates and spoils pitches.

And it could come down to something entirely unforseen. That’s actually a pretty good bet. Both the Red Sox and Cardinals just dispatched teams with higher profile stars. The Red Sox beat the Tigers who will probably have this year’s American League MVP (Miguel Cabrera) and Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer) not to mention superstars Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder. The Cardinals sent home the absurdly-talented Dodgers with baseball’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and a cavalcade of stars like Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and so on.

People will say that this is a great feat, beating the team that is “more talented,” but I think the return of the Cardinals and Red Sox to the World Series tells a larger story: A talented baseball team is not a team that has a few talented players. It is the team that has talent everywhere, even in places you do not see. It’s the team with talented scouts, talented coaches, talented medical people, talented analysts, talented management, talented players top to bottom.

You will often hear that the Miguel Cabrera has to be the league MVP because the Tigers would not have made the playoffs without him. But I wonder if that’s true. Miguel Cabrera is to Detroit what Albert Pujols was to St. Louis. One player, no matter how great, can only do so much. That, to me, is what this World Series is about.

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