SAN FRANCISCO -- We'll miss Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and their 650 strikeouts when the first Wild Card World Series arrives in Anaheim, that daffy land of mice and ducks, on Saturday.
Those two Arizona diamonds brought a majesty to last year's proceedings that we may never see again.
To a degree, we may even miss the Yankees. How can any lineup have six hitters who average 101 RBI, plus Derek Jeter, too? Someday, as many as six Yanks may end up in Cooperstown.
We'll feel compassion for Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, who, despite 11 straight division titles, will as usual go ringless. This is probably the end of the line for the best pitching trio ever to work so long and well together -- yet win only one Series. Glavine and Maddux are free agents. Sayonara, Cys.
Finally, we'll miss the marvelous A's, with their 20 straight wins, their cheap payroll and their young Hudson-Mulder-Zito rotation, not to mention the Contraction Kids of Minnesota.
What a month this has been for baseball farewells with so many vivid teams and their sagas, right down to the mourning Cardinals, eliminated far sooner than seemed likely.
Yet, at this juncture in baseball history, the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels -- the first pair of wild card teams ever to meet in the Series -- are exactly what the sport needs.
Far more than any other issue, baseball needs to re-establish itself as a game in which the clear majority of franchises can have a sensible chance to dream about winning a world title.
In recent years, thanks especially to the twin dynasties at Yankee Stadium and Turner Field, there has been a pervasive sense that money and team tradition were enough to trump any one-season show of inspiration, chemistry and luck.
Fans and front offices need only to look at Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels to be reminded what one amazing homegrown rookie can do to inspire a team in postseason play. Like Fernando Valenzuela and Bret Saberhagen, who came out of nowhere to lead their teams to Series wins when they were 21, "K-Rod" has hit the Angels like an electric shock.
With only 15 days on a major league roster, and no regular season victories at all, Rodriguez came out of the bullpen to win an unthinkable four games in two playoff series. Every time we think that baseball can't offer us something we've never seen -- 73 homers or a .582 on-base percentage -- it proves us wrong. At the infant prodigy end of the spectrum, Rodriguez fits that bill.
The 20-year-old is no fluke. His fastball and slider are absolutely top drawer and his poise, bordering on youthful unconsciousness, is so high that he even intimidates veteran hitters. For the moment, with 15 strikeouts in 10 innings and only four hits allowed, he has "Who is that guy?" mystique, but raised to about the third power.
The Giants also illustrate how, in baseball's seven-year-old era of wild cards, you don't need to have an impeccably bred roster to go all the way. The Giants don't have a 15-game winner or a quality bat to protect Barry Bonds. But they've made due.
When wild cards first arrived in 1995 as part of baseball's desperate attempt to win back furious fans after the strike of '94, many self-appointed purists, including me, declared it the end of the world. Real baseball, the true meritocracy where a 162-game season provided immutably proper champions, was dead.
Pass the five-course dinner of roasted crow.
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