This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.
Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)
Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.
Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)
In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the plate—long pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)—to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)
Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.
How’s this for the next great NBA tag team? One is 6’7” and 207 pounds and the prototypical NBA wing. The other lacks strength, can’t jump and is freakishly skilled. There has never been a backcourt like the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, two young gunners whose shooting range astounds even themselves.
Writes Chris Ballard, “If Thompson is a classic NBA type, Curry is an outlier. While many stars are considered blueprints for the next generation—seven-footers who shoot threes, linebacker-sized point forwards—Curry is a throwback. No GM would scour the college ranks for slight, 6′ 3″ guards who fit the “Curry model,” because there are none. You could call him a small, scoring, hybrid point guard, but that’s not accurate. What he really is the best long-range shooter in NBA history.”
Both Curry and Thompson are NBA legacies. Dale Curry, father of Stephen, played 16 seasons in the NBA and is the franchise leader in points (9,839) and three-point field goals made (929) for the New Orleans Pelicans‘ (formerly the Charlotte Hornets). Mychal Thompson played 12 seasons in the league and won two titles with the Lakers. Writes Jenkins, “Ask the fathers how much of their sons’ success is genetic and how much is due to everything else, and they struggle to answer. Mychal thinks for a while, then settles on 50% genes, 50% other factors. Dell puts it at 25/75: “You can have a great skill set, but if you don’t work to develop it, it won’t get you that far.” Genetics aside, there has never been a pair of teammates like Thompson and Curry. | SI senior writer Chris Ballard
When Paul Pierce persuaded Kevin Garnett to play for the Nets—and for rookie coach Jason Kidd—it clinched the deal of the summer. Now the clock is already ticking on a group of highly paid but aging stars as they strive to lead the franchise to its first NBA championship and give new meaning to the Beastie Boys’ addage, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Writes Chris Mannix, “Perhaps the most persistent concern is what Garnett, 37, and Pierce, 36, have left, a question that was raised after the Celtics lost in the first round last spring. “Don’t read too much into that,” says then Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “When [Rajon] Rondo went down, we asked them to do too much. They went from trying to mesh into the team to having to carry it again. But Paul can play forever; he never uses his athleticism. And Kevin—as long as you watch his minutes—can still be Kevin Garnett.”
Kidd is as attuned to the modern game and player as any, even though he is lacking in procedural aspects and experience at the helm. Last season he was a veteran player. This season he will be the boss, but not so far removed from his fraternity of brothers in the locker room. “Unlike most first-year coaches, Kidd isn’t expected to develop talent, but rather to make full use of a surplus of it,” writes Mannix. “Kidd understands that on a team loaded with stars, he is potentially its biggest liability. Still, his philosophy will blend the approaches of the men he played for.” | SI senior writer Chris Mannix
A year and a half after he tore his left ACL, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose is back. But will he be as good as new? Rose is one of 12 top NBA players who are attempting to return from knee surgery. Vrentas writes, “According to a 2010 article in the Sports Health journal that tracked the league’s injuries through a 17-year period, no other body part causes more missed games in the NBA than the knee. As players continue to get bigger with each passing season, and as the game has become more acrobatic, their bigger and stronger bodies place a greater strain on the knee as they twist and turn and jump. This applies to ACL injuries as well as tears to the meniscus, the C-shaped piece of cartilage in the knee joint.”
Rose was criticized by fans and media for sitting out last season instead of making a speedy recovery as did Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who returned to play nine months after tearing his left ACL. “NBA players recovering from knee surgeries face unique demands, including an 82-game season,” writes Vrentas. A sustained pace with dozens of sharp, abrupt movements; up to 12 minutes per quarter; and little margin for error in the essential skill of shooting. Returning to the court after knee surgery may take longer in the NBA than in other professional sports, like the NFL.” | SI writer Jenny Vrentas
Class is in session for Dwight Howard in Houston. The topic? Offense. Despite being a seven-time NBA All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard’s inside game is built on power and little else. That could change under the tutelage of the most balletic pair of old-school big men the game has ever seen: Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale. Writes Jenkins, “While Olajuwon methodically expanded his repertoire through 17 seasons in Houston, showcasing his speed with a balletic array of spins and counters, Howard’s routine remained fairly constant, forcing up those baby hooks.”
Olajuwon, who won two NBA titles with the Rockets, believes versatility is the one thing preventing Howard from being great. “You can’t have one move,” Olajuwon says. “It’s like having one outfit. I’m not going to wear the same thing to the party that I do to the gym.”
Howard worked with Olajuwon while he was with Orlando. Soon after Howard signed with the Rockets last July, McHale invited The Dream to once again become part of the team to help coach Howard and several of the team’s other big men, including 7-foot center Omer Asik. “How can we get Dwight better?” McHale asks. “That’s what we talk about. If we did nothing, and he played the way he has his entire career, he’d still be the best big guy in the NBA. But if Hakeem and I can give him a couple more tools, and he can master those, what a complement that would be.” | SI senior writer Lee Jenkins