In opposition of the warped significance of regular-season standings wrought by the Wild Card era, this 2013 World Series matchup is a reminder of what once was.
The St. Louis Cardinals won 97 games this season, surviving a division battle that included two other postseason teams. They were, according to the raw records resulting from the 162-game grind, the best team in the National League.
The Boston Red Sox won 97 games, surviving a division battle that included one other postseason team and two additional clubs with winning records. They were, according to the raw math of 162, the best team in the American League.
Now, fresh off their mutual Game 6 satisfaction, they'll meet in a Fall Classic that is as much about the best teams in baseball as it is about the hottest.
This sort of thing never seems to happen anymore.
In fact, in the Wild Card era, dating back to 1995, there have been only been two times in which the teams with each league's best record met in October -- 1995 (Braves and Indians) and '99 (Yankees and Braves). In that sense, what we're about to witness, beginning Wednesday night at Fenway Park (8:07 p.m. ET first pitch, 7:30 air time on FOX), is something of a throwback, and the fact that it involves two storied franchises with such extensive October history makes it all the better.
But because unbalanced schedules will always lend themselves to varying interpretations of "best," perhaps we ought to just view this World Series for what it really is: a celebration of two of the most expertly operated organizations in baseball.
People will call this a "rematch" of the 2004 World Series, but that's barely true. David Ortiz is the last remaining link to Boston's band of "Idiots," and Yadier Molina, then just a rookie backstop backup to now-manager Mike Matheny, is the last remaining link to that NL pennant winner.
Even if you want to tie these teams to their organization's most recent World Series incarnation, it's a tenuous link, at best. Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester are the only guys around now who were on the roster when the Red Sox won it all in '07. And though the Cards won it all just two Octobers ago, they have 19 different guys on this 25-man roster than the one that launched that incredible comeback against the Rangers, with Molina, David Freese, Matt Holliday, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Lance Lynn the only holdovers.
So, what does that tell you? It tells you these clubs reload like few others do.
Best vs. best
World Series matchups of teams with the best regular-season record since Division Series started in 1995
Red Sox (97-65)
NYY in 4
Atl. in 6
They had to reload recently. The Cardinals entered the season with rampant questions in a rotation that lost Chris Carpenter to injury (and with Kyle Lohse departed in free agency, the Cards were especially hopeful for a healthy return for Carpenter after his 2012 woes) and had Jaime Garcia pitching with a bum shoulder. Yes, the Redbirds still had a lineup so deep it would have fit just fine in the AL, but a common consensus was that the Reds looked a little bit more polished and prone for October (anybody who tells you they saw the Pirates coming is lying).
And the Red Sox? Too many questions to count. They faced the daunting prospect of going from worst to first, and their method of doing so was to make relatively short-term investments in aging talent (re-upping with Big Papi and bringing in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and David Ross ), all while hoping for a bountiful bounceback from the likes of Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey.
After the embarrassment of the 2011 collapse, which dictated the end of the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era, and the short-lived spectacle that was the Bobby Valentine era, which culminated in the unloading of 20 million worth of salary on the Dodgers, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington sought to change the Red Sox's clubhouse culture. He asked prospective free agents, "Do you want to be here?" He wanted them to embrace the particular pressures that come with playing for such an impassioned fan base.
The Cardinals and Red Sox are meeting in the World Series for the fourth time, tied with three other matchups for fourth-most common all-time.
"It's probably the way we've gone about doing it and the type of players we've brought in," said manager John Farrell, who was the pitching coach on that '07 championship team, "that's as rewarding as the success on the field."
Cherington and Farrell wanted a club that was disciplined, prepared and accountable.
You know. A club very much like the Cardinals.
Ten postseason appearances, seven division titles and four World Series appearances (including two titles, so far) -- all since 2000? That's an incredible track record in an era of increasing parity. And GM John Mozeliak and the Cards, whose payroll is large but not outlandish, are the envy of every other organization because they've attained that track record the old-fashioned way, scouting and developing and crafting championship-caliber talent at every turn, and rounding it out with smart signings like Carlos Beltran, who is finally getting his Fall Classic calling.
"I think we've been fortunate to be in an organization," said Matheny, "where winning is a tradition, winning is an expectation."
Both of these clubs made good on that expectation, and now we have a World Series pairing that engenders reams of respect. There will be no talk of culture clashes or Mickey Mouse ears or disparities in style and swagger. Aside from those Boston beards, getting longer and more frazzled by the minute, the approaches here trend toward the traditional. Respect the game, respect your opponent and play your butt off.
Good luck picking a favorite.
The Red Sox have a wealth of left-handed presence in the regular lineup that will match up well against St. Louis' four right-handed starters, and the lefty Lester will be a handful for a Cardinals club that struggles against southpaws.
Then again, a Cards lineup likely getting Allen Craig back in the mix doesn't face the same vulnerability in an AL park that many NL teams do. And this is far from the soft-tossing staff that the Red Sox jumped all over way back in that '04 Series sweep, especially when they start dipping into that absurd assortment of high-velocity arms in the bullpen.
If pressed, I might be inclined to give the slightest of edges to the Red Sox, if only because of the home-field factor that has proven to loom large should the Series go to a sixth and seventh game.
But truthfully, there is no clear-cut favorite here, because whether you put your faith in regular-season records or October trends, this is a retro Fall Classic that satisfyingly serves as a battle of bests.