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What baseball fans can expect as the World Series gets underway


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Major League Baseball's World Series gets under way tonight in Houston.

John Yang has more on what's known as a Fall Classic.

John Yang: Judy, this year's Series puts a team that dominated the standings all season long, the Astros, against a team that barely made the playoffs, the Phillies.

While pro football's Super Bowl is the biggest event on the U.S. sports calendar now, a new history of the World Series calls it "The Grandest Stage." The author is Tyler Kepner, the New York Times national baseball writer. He joins us from Houston, where game one is going to be played tonight.

Tyler, thanks so much for joining us.

This year was the first year of a new playoff format. You had more teams making it. You had a new -- an additional Series. And you have got sort of a team that barely made the playoffs and probably wouldn't have made -- that wouldn't have made the playoffs last season, the Phillies, heading into the World Series.

A team that won more games than any other team in either the National or the American League, the L.A. Dodgers, didn't even make it to the championship series.

What's your take on this new format?

Tyler Kepner, The New York Times: Well, it's sort of displays both sides of it, right?

We have got one team that dominated, as you said, the American League all year, led the league in wins, and the other one, sort of the number six seed, the final seed, on the National League side. And that's what can happen.

I think, the way baseball is set up now, no salary cap, a lot of teams have some built-in advantages. The Yankees and the Dodgers are pretty much going to get to the postseason just about every year. So this is a check on that. This is a check on their supremacy.

And it really gives six teams per league a chance to do this, to go to the World Series.

John Yang: The first chapter in your book, you talk about sort of the pressures of playing in the postseason.

Of course, this year, we saw Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer descend the Phillies, as you point out, the number six seed, into the World Series. But you go back, and you look at another Phillies marquee hitter, Mike Schmidt, another postseason, 1983, where he really didn't do very well.

And he told you he sort of -- it was the sort of the -- he talked about that as sort of the fear of failure.

Tyler Kepner: Yes, that's a very real thing.

And it was great to be able to talk to Mike Schmidt, because he was the most valuable player of their championship in 1980. But, in 1983, when they got back to the World Series, he was one for 20 with a broken bat single. And that happened to be the first game I ever went to in the World Series in '83.

So he talked about how, in '80, he was just so locked in, he was confident, he could take the ball the opposite way and sort of wait for his pitch. And, in '83, he was jumpy, and he was out front, and he was hitting ground balls or pulling everything and just wasn't really the best version of himself.

And I think that's what everybody strives to be. We talk about guys who perform under pressure, like a Derek Jeter. Well, really, throughout his career, he was a great player, and he performed to his career norms during the postseason, and that's what guys want to do. They just want to be the best version of themselves and eliminate any pressing, that it's pretty natural to some people.

John Yang: And the flip side of that are sort of the unlikely heroes. You define them as the player who makes a seismic impact on a victorious World Series while barely registering otherwise in the Major Leagues.

Do you have a favorite example of that?

Tyler Kepner: Yes, well, I think back to the first Series I ever watched as a fan was 1982, the Cardinals and the Brewers.

And Milwaukee comes back to St. Louis for game six needing one win to win its first championship, and they have got a Hall of Famer on the mound, Don Sutton. And he's pitching against a guy for the Cardinals, a rookie named John Stuper. And John Stuper had a very short career. But in that elimination game, he pitched a complete game and saved the bullpen for game seven. He pitched through two-and-a-half-hours of rain delays.

He's most famous for being the coach at Yale for 30 years, and he said his players would get a kick out of looking at -- looking him up on YouTube and seeing him pitching in the World Series. And so, whatever he did, even though he had a short big league career, he could always say he was a champion who came through for his team when it mattered most.

John Yang: Another fun chapter, a fun, for me, chapter in the book was talking about sort of the big moments in World Series that everyone knows, like Carlton Fisk's home run, walk off homer for the Red Sox in 1975, or Kirk Gibson 's home run in 1988.

But there were also sort of smaller moments that either set those big moments up or had as an important role in the World Series victory. What's some of your favorite examples of those?

Tyler Kepner: Yes, well, we think about the perfect game by Don Larsen in 1956, right? There's only been 24 perfect games, I think, in the history of baseball, and one of them was in the World Series.

Didn't win the -- World -- didn't win the title, though, for the Yankees. That was only game five. So the very next day in Brooklyn, the Dodgers are facing elimination. They put a relief pitcher named Clem Labine on the mound. And Clem Labine throws a 10-inning one-hit shutout.

And it -- the game ends on Jackie Robinson's final hit of his career. So it was an amazing game. But it will always be overshadowed, of course, by a perfect game. But when you talk about Jackie Robinson's final hit and a 10-inning complete game shutout by a relief pitcher, I mean, those are some things that sort of blow your mind.

And it happened right after the perfect game, and very few people remember it.

John Yang: The book is "The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series," the author Tyler Kepner.

Thank you very much.

Tyler Kepner: Thanks so much, John. Great to be here.

Judy Woodruff: Big baseball weekend coming.

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