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Championship rematches uncommon in MLB

In contrast to familiar NBA Finals, it's been 40 years since repeat World Series matchup
May 31, 2018

Tonight, just down the road from where the A's will have completed the final game of a 10-game homestand against the Rays a couple of hours earlier, the defending NBA-champion Golden State Warriors will play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. If you are in the

Tonight, just down the road from where the A's will have completed the final game of a 10-game homestand against the Rays a couple of hours earlier, the defending NBA-champion Golden State Warriors will play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. If you are in the Bay Area and don't have to go to an office today (and have an extra thousand bucks or so lying around for the nightcap), you could have yourself quite a sports day.
I know this is a baseball site, so I won't belabor the issue, but it is worth noting how generally negative the reaction has been to a Warriors-Cavaliers finals matchup. You would think that the most popular, dominant team in the sport going against maybe the sport's best player of all time would be enticing to fans, but that does not seem to be the case. Anecdotally speaking, most NBA fans are completely over this series before it even begins. The reason is clear: They've seen all this before. This is the fourth consecutive season in which the Warriors and Cavaliers have met in the finals. For many, the battle has grown stale.
The exhaustion could be overstated. After all, last year's finals, chapter three in the ongoing Warriors-Cavaliers saga, had the highest television ratings for an NBA Finals in nearly 20 years.
What's fascinating about this, as we transition ever so effortlessly back to baseball, is how the NBA's familiar rematches contrast so dramatically with how baseball works. This is the fourth straight year of Warriors-Cavs, but the last NBA Finals matchup before those, the San Antonio Spurs vs. the Miami Heat in 2014, was a rematch of 2013's NBA Finals. This happens all the time, which is why fatigue has set in; imagine not being excited about a Warriors-esque juggernaut in the American League, like the Astros or even the Yankees, facing off against Bryce Harper, who isn't the LeBron James of baseball (that's Michael Trout) but certainly is as ubiquitous a cultural presence. Familiarity breeds contempt in the NBA, and that is hard to imagine in baseball.
But that's because in baseball ... this almost never happens.
This October, it will be 40 years since the last World Series rematch from a previous season. In 1978, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in six games to win their 22nd World Series championship. This was noteworthy because the Yankees, the "Bronx is Burning" Yankees of '77, had done the exact same thing the season before, besting the Dodgers, also in six games. If that weren't enough, the 1978 League Championship Series were in fact rematches of the '77 League Championship Series: The Dodgers beat the Phillies again, and the Yankees beat the Royals again.
The last time the NBA Finals started without LeBron James, baseball looked quite different
If there were complaints then about the rematch, it's difficult to find much evidence of them today. If anything, having the same teams on the same stage deepened the intrigue of the series, with the same players having the same battles but with a wider history, including some simmering resentments. The Dodgers leapt out to a 2-0 series lead in 1978, but the same Yankees who got them in '77 got them again in '78, including Reggie Jackson, who not only hit a key Game 6 homer, but was involved in a pivotal Game 3 play in which he, as a baserunner, may have intentionally interfered with a ball thrown by Bill Russell that led to a rally that would give the Yankees their first win in the series. They wouldn't lose another game.

There were of course some differences between the two series, namely that the Yankees had a different manager in 1978 than they did in '77. In July 1978, Yanks manager Billy Martin, as usual fighting with somebody, said that Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner should get along perfectly because "one's a born liar and the other's convicted." One shudders to think how social media would handle such a midseason controversy today, but the result was the same: Martin was gone, resigning under a torrent of tabloid headlines. No matter: After the Yankees won the Fall Classic in 1978, Steinbrenner went ahead and hired him back in '79.
That was probably enough ongoing plot-line excitement for a while, considering it was, indeed, the last World Series rematch -- though the Yankees and Dodgers would meet again in 1981, this time with the Dodgers coming out on top. Before 1978, they were considerably more common.
Previous World Series rematches:
• Tigers-Cubs, 1907-08
• Yankees-Giants, 1921-23
• A's-Cardinals, 1930-31
• Yankees-Giants, 1936-37
• Yankees-Cardinals, 1942-43
• Yankees-Dodgers, 1952-53
• Yankees-Dodgers, 1955-56
• Yankees-Braves, 1957-58
It is a lot easier to have a rematch when one of the teams is making the World Series every year.
The last season we were close to a World Series rematch? That's been a while, too. In fact, it has been a while since the two World Series combatants even both made the playoffs the previous season -- it hasn't even happened this century. The last time the two World Series teams were both in the postseason the year before was 2000, when the Yankees and Mets faced off after the Yankees won the World Series in 1999 and the Mets bowed out in the NLCS. That's a remarkable fact, one I felt compelled to check multiple times to make sure I had it right. If that pattern holds -- and it has held for nearly 20 years -- one of the two teams to reach the World Series this year wasn't even in the postseason last year. There's hope for the Reds yet.
Of course, it's not an impossibility that the drought ends this year. The Astros are back in their familiar spot in first place, and while the Dodgers have had some well-documented struggles to begin their season, they're only 3 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West. Fangraphs' playoff odds actually still have them as the favorites in the division with 18.4-percent odds to return to the World Series. That's third-best in the NL, behind the Nationals and the Cubs. As fantastic as last year's World Series was, another one could be even more of a blast (it was in fact my preseason prediction). The odds are still against a World Series rematch, but then again, they always are. If we get one, I'd like to think baseball fans would be more excited about it than their NBA counterparts currently are. You don't see history all that often. One should appreciate it when it happens.

Will Leitch is a columnist for