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The World Series begins with upstart Philly taking on Houston, the tainted juggernaut

Houston's Minute Maid Park is ready for the World Series which gets underway Friday. The Astros are taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in the best-of-seven series.
Bob Levey
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Getty Images
Houston's Minute Maid Park is ready for the World Series which gets underway Friday. The Astros are taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in the best-of-seven series.

A Major League baseball season that started late because of a work stoppage, angering many fans, begins its final chapter Friday. The World Series matches the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies. A full 162-game regular season and exciting playoffs have wiped away the crankiness and in fact there's a lot of excitement about the two teams storming into the Series: Houston is undefeated this postseason and in its fourth World Series in six years; Philly, the powerful underdog, started its postseason run as a wild card team and now is playing for a title for the first time since 2009.

When stupid finally makes sense

Like most teams that make it this far, the Phillies are in the World Series because of the whole – contributions up and down its roster. But another key to success? The big names on that roster are...coming up big.

Back in 2018, the Phillies had just gone through their sixth straight losing season when team owner John Middleton decided enough was enough. He was ready to dive into the free agent market, cash be damned.

"We're going into this expecting to spend money," Middleton was quoted as saying, "and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it."

More than a half billion dollars may seem stupid to working men and women, but in the sky high-priced world of major professional sports it's the cost of doing business. And the $527 million Middleton paid for slugging superstar Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million), pitcher Zack Wheeler (5 years, $118 million) and ball-masher Kyle Schwarber (4 years, $79 million), has turned stupid into baseball genius.

Wheeler has been scintillating in the playoffs. In 25 innings, his earned run average is 1.78 – that's really good. He's struck out 25 batters and walked only three.

Schwarber, a 6-foot, 230-pound outfielder, is built like a D-cell battery with arms and legs – he not only hit 46 home runs this regular season...second to Aaron Judge's record-setting 62...but it's the way he does it. He mashes baseballs...poor baseballs...to such an extent his homers are nicknamed "Schwarbombs," and even leave his teammates stunned.

That teammate, Bryce Harper, has done his fair share of stunning things during a stellar career. He's a seven-time All Star, he's twice been named Most Valuable Player in the National League. But now, finally, he's in his first World Series. Fittingly, it was his home run that gave Philadelphia a lead it never gave back in the game that clinched the National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres.

Beyond the half billion

Those big-money players are paying off.

But make no mistake – the Phillies are much more. Including first baseman Rhys Hopkins, with his five postseason home runs and epic bat spikes, which seem so much more satisfying than a bat flip. Not that I've ever had the opportunity to do either.

Jean Segura of the Philadelphia Phillies participates in the World Series workout day on Thursday.
Carmen Mandato / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Jean Segura of the Philadelphia Phillies participates in the World Series workout day on Thursday.

Second baseman Jean Segura perhaps had the kookiest playoff performance ever. In game three of the NLCS against the Padres, the Dominican Republic native had an error, an RBI (actually his single drove in two runs) and then he was picked off at first base. All in the same inning – an MLB playoff first. Yes he heard boos, even a home crowd in love with its Phillies lets them hear it...it's Philly...but Segura made it clear afterwards, it's nothing.

"The way I handle pressure since I was a little kid, I love it," Segura said after the crazy game. "It's just the way we handle pressure in [the] Dominican Republic. Even when we play winter ball, we've got guys in the stands [who say] 'hey, when you get out, we're going to kill you. We're going to do something bad to you.' It's just the way we play the game out there."

But there was mostly love for Segura, who also had two stellar defensive plays in the game, and for a team that's surging at the right time.

Astros dominate, but still prompt anger

The Houston Astros have been surging for six years.

They won the World Series in 2017 and since then, they've advanced at least to the American League Championship series each year. It's a unique run of dominance in the majors, but of course tinged with controversy.

That 2017 title came after the season of the garbage can – MLB found the Astros guilty of illegally using technology to steal signs from opposing teams, and then banging on trash cans to signal to batters what pitch was coming next. The illegal sign stealing, minus the garbage cans, continued into some of the following season as well.

Since then, Major League baseball took steps to prevent Houston, and any team, from breaking the rules. Phone lines into the dugout now are monitored for illegal communications; security personnel "retained by the Commissioner's office" keep watch to make sure there's no rule-breaking going on.

But that hasn't stopped many baseball fans, at least those not in Houston, from continuing to hang the "cheater" sign on the Astros. Is it rational, considering the safeguards and the fact that there've been no credible allegations against the team since 2017/18? Or is the resentment at least partly about Houston's annual excellence?

Whac-A-Mole baseball

You know the Whac-A-Mole game, where you whack one but then another pops out? It's a pretty good analogy for the Houston Astros. A handful of players has been with the team from the start of its six-year run: Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and pitchers Lance McCullers, Jr. and Friday's starter, Justin Verlander. Mostly though, the Astros have featured a constantly replenishing stream of impact players. In Whac-A-Mole terms, great ones leave, and then other keep popping up.

Jeremy Peña of the Houston Astros has had a wild postseason and helped propel the Astros to their four World Series in six years.
Carmen Mandato / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Jeremy Peña of the Houston Astros has had a wild postseason and helped propel the Astros to their four World Series in six years.

Case in point – rookie Jeremy Peña has admirably filled the very large shoes of former Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa, who this year signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins. Peña has shown preternatural calm for a 25-year-old, been great defensively at short and delivered three postseason home runs - one of them prompting a memorable shrug to his teammates in their clinching win over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship series. Peña was named the series' MVP.

Diversity questions

Diversity has become an issue at this World Series, even though the Astros and Phillies have rosters filled with Latino players, like Peña, many of whom are expected to have starring roles.

But there's a glaring absence that illustrates a deeper problem in the game.

There will be no U.S. born Black players on either team's active series roster. It's the first time that's happened since 1950, a mere three years after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues.

"Well, I don't think that's something that baseball should really be proud of," said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who's African-American. "It looks bad. It let's people know that it didn't take a year, or even a decade to get to this point."

Richard Lapchick, director of the The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, told the Associated Press the absence of Black players in this World Series is the exclamation point on "a story about the decline of Black baseball players that's been ongoing since the late 1980's." The decline's been fueled by the rising cost of youth baseball and concurrent rise in popularity of sports like basketball and football.

Lapchick's annual reports on diversity in sports reflects the downward trend in the majors. Black players comprised 7.2% of opening day rosters in 2022, a dip from 7.6% in 2021. And he said this year's was the lowest percentage since data was first collected in 1991, when 18% of MLB players were Black.

Baseball has been trying to battle the diversity decline with programs such as RBI – Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. And last year, MLB pledged up to $150 million over 10 years to the Players Alliance, a group trying to increase involvement of Black Americans at all levels of the game.

Baker believes help is on the way.

"You can tell by the number of African American number one draft choices," he said. "The [baseball] academies are producing players. So hopefully in the near future we won't have to talk about this any more or even be in this situation."

Third time a World Series charm?

Baker also would like to divert talk away from his involvement in this series – but it'll be hard. He's a hugely popular figure in baseball and at 73, managing his fifth major league team. He's also trying to win his first MLB championship as a manager. His Astros lost to the Atlanta Braves in last year's Series; in 2002, Baker managed the San Francisco Giants when they lost to the Anaheim Angels.

"Well that's why I'm here," Baker answered Thursday when asked what a first managerial title would mean. "That's why I'm glad that [Astros owner] Jim Crane brought me back here – because most of the places I've been I've had to sort of rebuild the team, but this team was sort of built already, and I had to carry on and try to enhance what we already have here."

The Astros have a lot. They're favored to win a second title since 2017, which would further the argument that Houston is a modern-day baseball dynasty. Regardless of what the still-angry critics will say.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.