Houston vs. Los Angeles. Texas vs. California. Oil money vs. Hedgies. Kershaw vs. Verlander. The pride of baseball in the Americas— the U.S., Cuba, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. And, the fingerprints of the Big Apple and Windy City. Some background on a series for everyone.
Written by Kyle Magin
It may take a keen—or willing—ear to listen for the heartbeat of baseball in Texas. But it thumps through the state’s history, cultural contributions to the wider world, and the sport, with a rhythm that’s unmistakable once you hear it.
In California, it’s a steadier pulse, defining eras as readily as a mid-century ranch in La Canada-Flintridge says 1950s and a town named (anything) Bar in the Sierra says 1850s. From Lazzeri to Dimaggio to Williams to Chavez to the Coliseum to Petco, you could mark the chapters in a history book of the Golden State by its players and stadia.
The two states have shared much in one of the greatest exchanges of all manner of baseball talent in American history. The Lone Star State gave California baseball Nolan Ryan, Gene Autry, and Clayton Kershaw. California sent back Augie Garrido, native Houstonian Richard Linklater’s seminal baseball valentine, Everybody Wants Some!!, and Stanford’s AJ Hinch.
The joining of the two on the sport’s biggest stage is a gift of sorts. It’s not a bi-coastal bash or a showdown of the heartland’s two megacities, but rather the clash of the two best teams in baseball and the states, cities, and ownership groups who got them there.
Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson were Los Angeles sandlotters long before they shipped east to lace up their spikes for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. The city—a warm-weather redoubt for a sports which thrives in them—had longed pumped American Legion, high school, college, and minor league talent into the big leagues before the Dodgers moved west in 1958. Some 228 major leaguers were born in city limits, including five future Hall of Famers—Bobby Doerr, Joe Gordon, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray and Snider. It’s home to one of the sport’s great cathedrals in Dodger Stadium—the 56,000-seat park in Chavez Ravine, which was built in 1962 after the canyon’s original occupants, mainly poor Mexican immigrants, were forced from their homes. A product of the city, UCLA’s Chase Utley, is expected to get some big at-bats in the World Series.
Like Los Angeles in California and the west, Houston served as a baseball beachhead. After branching no further into Dixie than St. Louis for its first 80 or so years of existence, big time baseball gave Houston the sport’s first truly southern franchise in 1962 when the Colt .45s (a two-year moniker before ‘Astros’ unseated it in 1965) took up residence in the city. Houston had a long association with the sport preceding the Astros in the form of the minor league Houston Buffaloes and a vast assortment of home-grown big leaguers. By this season, some 121 players born in the Bayou City have played in MLB. Among those are Curt Flood, Adam Dunn, and Carl Crawford. A collection of colleges in the city including Rice and the University of Houston have also stocked major league rosters over the years. Almost undoubtedly, though, the city’s greatest contribution to baseball came in the form of roofing. In 1965, the newly renamed Astros—which borrowed naming inspiration from the Houston-based Johnson Space Center, a wholly-unnecessary federal project delivered unto the city by the then-president and King of Pork himself, LBJ—moved into the Astrodome, the world’s first roofed stadium. Meant to shade visitors from that city’s muggy summer climate, the Astrodome served as the Godfather of a movement that made the sport possible in Canada and Seattle, Miami and Arizona. It’s not hyperbole to say the Astros did for baseball with the Astrodome what the Louisiana Purchase did for the United States. The team now plays in the 41,676-seat Minute Maid Park, built originally in 2000 as Enron Field (yes, that Enron), a cozy downtown facility with all the modern bells and whistles.
Owners to Know
Baseball is full of colorful bosses from Charlie Finley to Bill Veeck to George Steinbrenner. However, both the Astros and Dodgers have had game-changing owners, neither of whom hailed from the cities.
A rather unassuming man, John McMullen bought the Astros in May 1979 from the stingy Ford Motor Company Credit, Ford’s financing division, which had gradually bought up the team from its original owners starting in 1975. The company, immediately realizing that a baseball team wasn’t the sort of investment it wanted to get into, started negotiating its sale with McMullen, who swore all involved to secrecy before the deal was finalized, a rather odd move amongst a group of rich men who usually succumb to bluster and bombast in the press at any moment. McMullen, a New York shipping magnate and former junior partner in the Yankees, didn’t even saunter down to Houston to announce his purchase, rather, he held a press conference at the World Trade Center. Almost immediately, he went to war with former partner George Steinbrenner—and emerged victorious with Nolan Ryan to show for it. The two had gone head-to-head for the free agent’s services, and McMullen made Ryan the first million-dollar-a-year player in baseball history, giving him $4.5 million for 4 years in November 1979. The deal kicked off free agency as we know it today, not the tepid free agent draft system the pennywise owners of an earlier baseball age would have preferred. The money has pushed baseball in every direction it’s traveled since then, both on and off the diamond, for better and for worse. McMullen dragged the sport into modernity, and for that should be memorialized. He would go on to sell the team in 1992. Ryan is still with the team in an advisory capacity, and son Reid Ryan is the Astros’ president.
Walter, 57, is the CEO of the Chicago-based Guggenheim Partners, a global financial services firm with $290 billion under its control which touches a galaxy of companies. Walter, who also serves as Los Angeles’ president, spearheaded Guggenheim’s $2.15 billion purchase of the Dodgers in 2012 and promptly began backing Brinks trucks into Chavez to sign every free agent and reinvigorate baseball’s best farm and scouting systems. If McMullen ushered in baseball’s last age—the spend and search for capital to spend more era—Walter has pushed the sport toward a pie-in-the-sky, almost-unattainable height: perfection. Be the best at drafting so you can call up Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger in back-to-back seasons. Be rich as hell so you can extend Clayton Kershaw, sign Justin Turner, and buy Utley as a glorified utility man for a premier starter’s salary. Be richer than that so you can keep Andre Ethier around to balance the lineup if it feels like it needs balancing. Nobody has ever spent baseball’s highest payroll better than the Dodgers under Walter’s leadership, and it’s a helluvan accelerator for the sport. Walter is currently involved in a pretty hilarious spat with fellow Guggenheim-ers over allegedly using company cash to buy a possible mistress (and fellow exec) a mansion in the ritzy Pacific Palisades neighborhood. There are rumors he could be pushed out at Guggenheim over the affair, so it’s not certain how long this style will last. But hey, this is L.A.
The American Series
All due respect to the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda, but this is a World Series mostly in name—the Americas are extremely well-represented. That’s fitting, because both Houston and Los Angeles are magnets for emigrants from the Rust Belt and Northeast and immigrants from Latin America. The U.S. mainland will be represented by the respective teams’ standard-bearing pitchers—Houston’s Justin Verlander and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw. Dodgers rookie of the year candidate Cody Bellinger and the Astros’ Alex Bregman represent a bright future for the nation. Cuba is here in a big way: the Dodgers trot out Yasiel Puig and Yasmani Grandal, while the Astros play Yuli Gurriel, who comes from Cubano baseball royalty. Puerto Ricans—beaten down by Hurricane Maria—can look for bright spots in the play of the Dodgers’ Kike Hernandez and Houston’s Carlos Correa. Venezuelans—another people who could use a pick-up after a year of economic and political disaster in the South American nation—are well-represented with the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez and the sport’s MVP in Jose Altuve.
The World Series starts Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. Here are a few more facts about the teams before it begins. Enjoy the games:
- Dodgers lead the all-time series of the one-time division rivals (a World Series first) 388-323
- Hall of Famers:
- Dodgers 6 (from L.A.)
- Astros 2
- All-time record:
- Los Angeles Dodgers 5,152-4,411
- Houston Astros 4,391-4,552
- 2017 Attendance (per game):
- Dodgers 46,492
- Astros 29,764
- World Series titles:
- Dodgers 5/9
- Astros 0/1
(Ed Note: Kyle predicted this match-up prior to the beginning of the playoffs. Read about it here.)