- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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HOUSTON -- Your attention please: Major League Baseball announced today that it has moved the start time of all future Astros-Cardinals games to 10:19 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
The shift will ensure that no National League Championship Series games will conflict with telecasts, pregame shows, postgame shows, Max Kellerman debates or America's Most Wanted specials involving the compelling, enthralling and downright mesmerizing Yankees-Red Sox ALCS, which has monopolized all American sports conversation.
A baseball spokesman said MLB regretted any inconvenience this might cause to ticket-holders, Tony Danza viewers or to the handful of sports fans actually interested in the NLCS.
However, to minimize that inconvenience, streaming video of each game can be downloaded immediately after the game on Major League Baseball's website for a small fee. ...
OK, so none of the above is true. We admit it. We made it up. And it has nothing to do with the fact that we spell our first name the same way as Jayson Blair.
But just the fact that you've read this far down in this column tells us that you actually may have found that fiction plausible. Which it practically is.
Here in that other series, the jokes abound. It's the NIT. It's the JV tournament. It's the play-in bracket. It's the best supporting actors competition.
What it really is, though, is absurd.
The Cardinals and Astros apologize from the bottom of their souls for not being the Red Sox or Yankees. They sure do feel awful that the Cubs couldn't be here. And they profoundly regret neglecting to ever employ Babe Ruth.
But while 18 trillion Americans obsess over The Main Event back east, they apparently forgot to notice something:
If the Astros or Cardinals should be so lucky as to be allowed by network authorities to win the World Series, they are positioned to write two of the most memorable championship sagas of modern times.
The Cardinals, in case nobody noticed, won 105 official National League games this season, the fourth most of any NL team since division play began 35 years ago. And every one of them counted.
So if they should go on to win the World Series, they would join a prestigious club that includes the most renowned teams of the entire division-play era. Only four other teams in that span have won that many games in the regular season and also won the World Series. You've heard of every one of them:
The 1998 Yankees.
The 1986 Mets.
The 1975 Big Red Machine.
And the 1970 Orioles.
Which suggests that this Cardinals team really is ready for prime time -- just as soon as the folks at Fox feel it's OK to preempt the Simpsons.
Then again, the Astros aren't exactly a snoozer of a story themselves.
They're also attempting to join a fairly exclusive club -- a club that currently has zero members.
Two months ago, you see, entering games of Aug. 15, the Astros found themselves trailing six teams in the wild-card standings -- and tied with a seventh (the Reds). So ask yourself this -- when was the last time you remember any team climbing over six teams in the standings that late in any season to make it into the playoffs?
How about never?
We know this because we personally rummaged through the standings on that date for every season since postseason play began in 1903. And not one team duplicated this feat. Four decades ago, the 1964 Cardinals came from fifth place, 8½ games out, to win the World Series. But that's about as close as anybody came.
So if this Astros team should win the World Series, it ought to go down with the legendary comeback kings in baseball history -- the "Miracle" Braves of 1914, the Bobby Thomson "Giants Win the Pennant" team of 1951 and the 1978 "Bucky Bleeping Dent" Yankees.
Meaning it should instantly become so darned legendary itself, it should have a classic nickname all its own. Uh, the 2004 Houston Astronomicals? In honor of the odds of this really happening?
"We don't have one yet," said Jeff Bagwell, as the hunt for that nickname welled up around him. "But I sure hope we have to think of one."
If they do, it would be a sign that they've overcome this 2-0 NLCS hole they're in and reached the World Series. Then again, some of them are beginning to have their doubts they'll be allowed to compete in that World Series even if they do win this series.
"If it was in Fox's hands," said catcher Brad Ausmus, "I'm sure they'd like it if there would be a Yankees-Red Sox World Series. Just play another round, best of seven."
One of these years, you have to figure Fox will reach out to its core demographic and just inject reality-show rules that supersede the way-too-traditional baseball format currently in effect. Turn it into American's Diamond Idols -- just call up and vote on which teams you'd like to see in the World Series.
But in the meantime, while we await that futuristic transformation, we're stuck with this system. So to clear the prime-time path for Yankees-Red Sox this weekend, the next two NLCS games will be played in the late afternoon. Where they can find their proper place in the American sports scene -- right between the shoulder pads.
The Yankees and Sox can play The Big Games. And these guys?
"It's like we're going out in the backyard and playing sandlot baseball," laughed Cardinals pitcher Ray King.
At least out here on the sandlots, these guys haven't lost their senses of humor. Or their perspective.
"We'd just be kidding ourselves if we didn't think there was more interest in the Red Sox-Yankees series than there is in Cardinals-Astros," said Houston outfielder Lance Berkman. "The Yankees and Red Sox are two teams like the Cubs, with such a broad appeal. I know I was a Yankees fan growing up in Texas, because my dad was -- because he liked to watch Mickey Mantle. And that's the way it is with both those teams.
"But you'd be hard-pressed," Berkman speculated, "to find an Astros fan outside of ... well ... maybe outside the city of Houston."
OK, so we'll concede the Astros have just a slightly higher national profile than, say, the Devil Rays. But they do employ Carlos Beltran, the marquee free agent this winter. Not to mention the first player in history to hit six home runs in the first 28 postseason at-bats of his life.
Oh, and you might have heard some mention over the winter that they signed some guy named Roger Clemens. Who only happens to have won more games (328) than any right-handed pitcher in the history of the live-ball era.
Once, in his other lifetimes, Clemens was a ratings lightning rod. But when he heads for the mound Saturday to make his third start of the playoffs, it's fairly incredible to note that none of them will have been on display in prime time. What's up with that?
"Maybe Roger's star power is going down, playing at 3 o'clock," Ausmus conjectured.
Yeah, once he was prime time. Once, he was Seinfeld. And now that he's an Astro? Now he's Oprah.
"Matter of fact," Ausmus quipped, "he reminds me of Oprah."
All right. So no he doesn't. But it is fascinating how he's lost his high-profile time slot now that he plays in Texas.
We've already admitted, though, that the Astros just aren't America's darlings. So we'll give up on that angle. But what about the Cardinals? They draw nearly 4 million fans a year, play in one of the great baseball cities on earth, run All-Stars out to practically every position on the field and have fans well beyond their beloved city limits. And even, for that matter, beyond their time-zone limits.
"I'll tell you what," said Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty. "I've been here 10 years, and I'm still amazed when we go around the country and see those red shirts in the stands everywhere we go.
"A lot of it is KMOX radio. KMOX was like what the superstations, WGN and WTBS, are now to TV. KMOX was so deep-rooted that there are Cardinals fans all over the country. Even in Los Angeles last week, it was incredible the number of Cardinals fans in the stands. That's why I think they're making a mistake underestimating the popularity of this franchise. I think they'd be surprised by the ratings this team would get," he said.
Even the Astros concede that the Cardinals aren't just some rinky-dink local-yokel Midwestern franchise that connects only with a few thousand loyal rooters down at the barbecue joint.
"St. Louis has a huge following," Ausmus said. "The problem is, they have the nicest fans in the universe. So there's not enough squabbling."
The Yankees and Red Sox, on the other hand, understand the power of squabbling. So if the Cardinals and Astros want to measure up, they're just going to have to start misbehaving a lot more.
"Maybe if we had two or three bench-clearing brawls," Berkman suggested. "Turn this series into a mosh pit out there. Maybe hire Don Zimmer and get him to go after Tony La Russa right by their dugout. That would get some attention."
The sad truth, however, is that even that wouldn't work. This Yankees-Red Sox thing has been going on for so long that it's more than just the No. 1 rivalry in America. It's a true regional obsession -- and in the most populous sector of the country. So there's no fighting that.
"I grew up a Red Sox fan, so I'm aware of it," said Ausmus. "When the Yankees and Red Sox play, they're the national focus. But from the southern tip of New Jersey to the northern tip of Maine, there is no other news."
Hey, wait a second. You mean if Mount St. Helens erupted one day, and lava was flowing across America, clear to the Massachusetts Turnpike, nobody would notice?
"Not," Ausmus grinned, "if the bases were loaded in the seventh."
Well, if you get that concept, even from as far away as Texas, you don't see the point in spending all your spare NLCS time grumbling about lack of respect. So it has been amazing to see just how tolerant both these teams have been of their lot in life.
"I understand," said Bagwell. "I was a Red Sox fan growing up, so I understand. ... But I also know this: I'm not after ratings. I'm after a ring."
And if things break right for one of these two teams, this under-the-radar profile they've been dealt this week could actually work in their favor as they pursue that ring.
After all, imagine the shock the winner of Yankees-Red Sox is in for when it discovers it still has to play another round -- against one of these teams. So these guys might have those guys right where they want them.
"Hopefully," King dreamed, "they'll drain each other. I'm all for that. It'll be like two heavyweights battling it out with each other -- and we got next."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
While the Red Sox-Yankees series grabs the headlines, Astros-Cards continues to play second fiddle, writes Jayson Stark.