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Rays-Pirates World Series Incoming

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 23: Jack Suwinski #65, Ji Hwan Bae #3 and Connor Joe #2 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate after a 2-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park on April 23, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Rob Manfred went to all this trouble to restructure baseball this offseason—well, to be fair, he knew that other people were doing it so he could take credit for it, or until it came time for him to take blame for it—and now his worst nightmare is starting to form anyway:

The Tampa Bay–Pittsburgh World Series you knew could never happen.

OK, it's day 26 and a billion skillion things can happen between now and then, but we are already easing toward the moment that the Rays become inevitable. Monday night's 8-3 win over Houston puts them at 20-3, was their 14th consecutive home victory, and reinforced the notion that their years reinventing baseball have finally crossed the realities of the moment. They might be the '84 Tigers, and the fact that you can't name five of them will end up being your fault rather than theirs. They're doing shit like this in Game 23, for God's sake.

Then there are the Pirates, a team built on the cheapest stuff the Oakland A's haven't already low-bid, with a payroll roughly one-fifth the size of the Mets and without their best young player, Oneil Cruz, who fractured his ankle two weeks ago. The Pirates are the essence of pathological thrift, their owner Bob Nutting is a quarter-squeezer of the first magnitude, and they have escaped the wild card round once in 30 years. They are aggressively no.

And yet at 16-7 they are off to their best start since 1988, and they have already re-signed manager Derek Shelton to a new contract based on those 23 games. It cannot be because of the previous three seasons, in which the Pirates have gone 142-242, and it cannot be because Nutting has suddenly reconsidered his view toward money, or that general manager Ben Cherington is willing to tie his reputation on one-seventh of a season.

Still, 16-7 is 16-7, and if someone is willing to suddenly wax enthusiastic about the Pirates for something other than their excellent stadium and sharp uniforms, who are we to want anything other than the ultimate prize for an operation known mostly for its ability to screw down expenses?

We can see the dangers of the Rays finally beating the stupid out of all the other teams, as so much of what they do led to the sterile baseball that caused the rules committee to meth up the rulebook. But the Pirates, with an army of retreads, children, Bryan Reynolds, and Andrew McCutchen, have the best record in the National League with the league's lowest payroll. They have a 33-year-old rookie in Drew Maggi, a 43-year-old starter in Rich Hill, a shortstop in Rodolfo Castro still most famous from dropping his cellphone while sliding into third base, and Guys like Connor Joe, Ji-Hwan Bae, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Tucupita Marcano, Roansy Contreras, and Dauri Moreta.

And this is the team that must go to the World Series, to make Joe Davis cry and John Smoltz denounce baseball and Derek Jeter forget who is playing. They are spectacularly anonymous but they are off to a start that people might actually notice if the Rays weren't pulling wins out of their capacious arses on a nightly basis. Much as we might want to look at the Oakland A's and imagine the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, it is much more rewarding to see the Pirates and imagine the 1969 New York Mets.

Plus, a Rays-Pirates World Series might cause Manfred to yank out his own brain, and while we accept his role as a nattering figurehead with no actual influence, we'd watch Brian Kenny explain analytics with that as the background video for weeks on end if that was the reward. Hell, we'd watch Celebrity Below Decks with James Corden and Melissa McCarthy as deckhands if the background video was Rob Manfred beheading himself, but that's our own quirk.

Anyway, go Pirates, and go Rays if they must. We ask for so little, but on a day when Tucker Carlson gets shipped out with the tide for forgetting whose arses he must kiss, we are entitled to dream of Christmas in April.

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