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Wishing for certain World Series matchups says a lot about fans

One of the strange and wonderful things about late October is that millions of baseball fans with no natural interest in the only games going work some up.

A lucky few fans care madly about the Rangers, the Phillies, the Yankees or the Giants. It's a mystery, though, why so many normal fans, the kind who mainly love their team but not baseball in the abstract, manage at this time of year to watch the game as it should be watched: With the sinking feeling that everything is about to go wrong for a team they care about.

Having commissioned no survey, I have no idea which team the vast mass of unaffiliated fans has caught on to, or why they've done so. A lot of them are probably exulting over the Rangers' run, just because, but then again, a lot of people keep the Yankees as a sort of second team. There are likely many people pulling for the Phillies because they enjoy seeing great deeds such as winning three straight pennants. There are likely many pulling for the Giants because they find Tim Lincecum charming.

All this is fair enough, and down to quirks of taste as much as anything. Look at the question in a slightly different way, though, and you might gain an insight into the mystery that is the Royals fan pounding the bar as some Giants pitcher runs up yet another strikeout.

There are four possible World Series matchups. Just as every nonpartisan fan has a preferred team at this time of year, so all of them have an ideal Series. Knowing which someone likes might actually tell you something about him or her.

Take it as you will, for instance, but I want the Rangers to play the Phillies. The reason is simply that the World Series is best when it matches opposites. In the last really good one, in 2002, an Angels team with a lot of good players and no true stars faced Barry Bonds and an anonymous supporting cast of San Francisco Giants. The year before that was even better, with the Yankees, having won their fourth straight pennant, facing the Diamondbacks, who had existed for four years.

This sort of thing isn't sufficient to make a great World Series, but seems necessary. And of all possible combinations, the Rangers and Phillies offer something closest to it. One team never won a playoff series before this year; the other is trying for its third straight Series and second title in three years. One team is staffed largely by such reclamation projects and castoffs such as recovering addict Josh Hamilton and even Cliff Lee, surely the only pitcher as good as he is ever to pitch for four teams in two years; the other largely by a carefully nurtured group of homegrown stars like Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. One team plays in an archetypal East Coast baseball town, the other in the deepest football country.

Call this a Series for modernists, who value drama highly (above, for one thing, having the very best team in each league winning the pennants) and believe it comes from the inherent qualities of teams, and think that too much is sometimes made of the past when the best baseball ever played is being played for us. Call it one, too, for contrarians, who would delight in the least obviously appealing of the four matchups. This takes in a lot of fans.

The Series that would appeal to the most fans, though, would be the Yankees playing the Phillies. For that to happen again would need a leap from the grave for the Yankees, which would have its charms, and of course it would rematch last year's Series. More important, it would match each league's perpetually dominant team, so serving as a real test of which team is truly the best in the game right now. This would appeal to children (who understand better than adults sometimes do that sports are about being the best at something), people who don't follow the game closely (who understand better than really hardcore fans sometimes do that sports are about being the best at something), East Coast snobs and many, though not all, sabermetrically-inclined fans.

The next-most appealing Series, one might theorize, would see the Rangers face the Giants. Normally this would be the sort of thing that would force the commissioner's eye toward his liquor cabinet, but it comes with a sharp angle, as these are two of the four teams currently suffering the longest championship droughts, a combined 104 years of futility. The Rangers, as noted, had never won a playoff series before this year, while the Giants, astonishingly, haven't won a world championship since 1954, when they played in New York.

Such a Series would have an obvious appeal for boosters of such loser teams as the Cubs, Royals and Pirates, of which there are many. Sentimentalists -- the kind of fans who cried when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, for instance, or those who get deeply worked up when they hear old school stats like RBI and winning percentage derided --probably like the idea a lot, too.

The final possibility, a Series between the Giants and Yankees, entails a reenactment of wars that ended more than 50 years ago. In some ways, this might be the most interesting of them all, just because the Yankees have such a terrific lineup and such sketchy pitching, while the Giants have such a sketchy lineup and such terrific pitching. For this reason, I suspect a lot of sabermetrically-inclined types, who tend to be interested in how extremes react to one another, would like to see it. I know that people who have shelves full of books about the dire doings of Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham would love to see it. People who make a to-do of keeping score and people who are truly convinced that baseball will never again be as good as it was when they were children and the three best center fielders in the game all played in New York City would love it. These are nostalgics, more interested in some ways in what baseball calls to mind than in the game itself. They are rarely attracted to any other sport, and baseball is better for having them.

This is all speculative, and I wouldn't much argue with anyone who thinks that, say, sentimentalists would like to see the Giants play the Yankees. What I would argue is that however you would like to class all those fans with no obvious rooting interest who are nonetheless passionately following every pitch as if their team was near the brink following a century of pain, there isn't much mystery in the end as to why they're doing so. It isn't just that there are many millions of people who would rather watch a highlight reel of the 2003 Tigers than the Super Bowl; it's that baseball is a game of narrow patterns, and nearly any assemblage of them will call us back to what drew us to the sport in the first place. It might be nostalgia, it might be the thrill of watching excellence, it might be sheer crabbiness. Whatever it is, it keeps us fixed during the best time of the year.