Rooting rules for the 2011 MLB playoffs

Who should any self-respecting baseball fan be cheering for this postseason? I’m glad you asked!

A year ago, inspired by Super Bowl XLV, I wrote up a post on my rules for deciding who to root for when your own favorite team isn’t in the picture. The rules I set out mostly came down to “root for the little guy”:

  1. The underdog, whether it be the weaker team that year or the team with a weaker history of success

  2. The team playing any serious rival of your own team

  3. A close, hard-fought contest

  4. Whichever team has the most appealing intangibles

  5. Cool, dramatic plays

My benighted Cubbies didn’t even sniff the playoffs this year, so who am I cheering for this year? A quick review of this year’s postseason participants:

Unfortunately for rooting rules, the opening round pits a few of the more appealing contestants against each other. Opening-round series: New York vs. Detroit, Texas vs. Tampa Bay, Philadelphia vs. St. Louis, Milwaukee vs. Arizona. But I’ll ignore that for a moment and, using my rules, rank my rooting interests:

  1. Anyone playing the New York Yankees. Unless you have the misfortune of being a Yankees fan, and your own team isn’t in the playoffs, this should always be a baseball fan’s number one rule.

  2. Milwaukee Brewers. I didn’t quite expect this, and the Brewers don’t have a big lead over the next team on the list, but I stand by it. They’ve never won the World Series, have been only intermittently good, aren’t a big spender, represent my home region of the Midwest, are generally quirky and likable, and, in what may be the tiebreaker, come from the National League. I’m an NL guy and prefer, all other things equal, for the National League to win. Unlike a certain other NL Central team, there’s not a lot of bad blood between the Cubs and the Brewers (at least not from the direction of the Cubs). My sympathy for the Brewers may evaporate the second they hoist the Series trophy, but until that point I’ll be cheering them on.

  3. Tampa Bay Rays. My top AL pick. The Rays were pathetic for so long before bursting onto the scene in 2008. They’ve consistently contended in the AL East since then despite a payroll that’s often less than the starting rotations of the Yankees and Red Sox. Last offseason they let a bunch of their best players leave via free agency, replaced them through youth and scrap pile free agents, and weren’t expected to contend — a true “Moneyball” redux. Moreover, the Rays, as I have mentioned and linked to enough already, have the amazingly compelling story of how they made the postseason in a madcap, last-day dash.

  4. Arizona Diamondbacks. They won the Series a decade ago but have been only occasionally good since then. They’re a very young team under first-year manager Kirk Gibson, and made the playoffs over defending World Series champions San Francisco and high-payroll Los Angeles. They were generally built through drafting and trades, not expensive free agents.

  5. Texas Rangers. Last year they won the American League pennant in their first year of respectability after a decade in the cellar. Had they won the World Series they’d have burned up most of their residual good will, but a loss there doesn’t override their history of pathos. (See: Rays, Tampa Bay.) The Rangers have a home-grown core but have supplemented it with free agents.

  6. Detroit Tigers. The last team on this list that I can genuinely say I have nothing against. They’ve got a bigger payroll than most of the teams here. Their days in the baseball wilderness are further removed than the Rangers, Rays, Brewers and Diamondbacks. Their star slugger Miguel Cabrera has some ethical issues. They seem to lack a sort of je-ne-sais-quoi of underdog attraction. But their ace Justin Verlander is appealing, many of their other players are young, and for rooting purposes they drew a fantastic first-round opponent.

  7. Philadelphia Phillies. The NL team to which the label “underdog” least applies. The Phillies have won two pennants in the last three years, won the World Series once, have a massive payroll and have assembled a ridiculously good starting rotation. They steamrolled over the whole National League despite an offense that’s only middling. I’d really prefer for someone to beat the Phillies this year. I just don’t want it to be the team they’re playing in the first round.

  8. St. Louis Cardinals. If I weren’t a Cubs fan, this team might be a bit higher on my list. Not much, but a little. Like the Rays they had a great comeback to make the postseason, but they were never as big of underdogs as Tampa was and beat the Atlanta Braves, a less obnoxious team than the Red Sox. Moreover the Cardinals have a vaguely unpleasant odor around them, starting from its longtime manager Tony La Russa and permeating everything. Everything they do is just a little bit grating. And they’ve won the Series relatively recently. The fact that they’re the bitter rivals of my Cubs only cements their position as the NL team I’d least like to see win. They’ll only get my cheers if they end up playing in the World Series against…

  9. New York Yankees. See entry #1. The Yankees are baseball’s big spenders, who win more than anyone else and never shut up about it. True, this year’s Yankees are less obnoxious than the mid-2000s version. Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson don’t inspire the same revulsion that Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens did. But the Yankees are the Yankees, even if they hadn’t won the Series in 2009. They’d have to go an incredibly long time without winning anything in order to climb out of the cellar.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, some of the more appealing teams are playing each other. Here’s who I’m cheering for, along with how firm that preference is.

TIGERS (100%) over Yankees (0%)

RAYS (70%) over Rangers (30%)

PHILLIES (55%) over Cardinals (45%)

BREWERS (70%) over Diamondbacks (30%)

The only result I’ll be distraught about in Round 1 is a Yankees victory. If the Rays and/or Brewers lose I’ll switch to rooting for the team that beat them. In those series where I lack strong rooting interests I’ll just move down my list of rules and cheer for cool plays, close games, and long series so I get more baseball.

My expected rooting for potential Championship Series matchups:

RAYS or RANGERS (100%) over Yankees

RAYS (80%) over Tigers (20%)

RANGERS (70%) over Tigers (30%)

BREWERS or DIAMONDBACKS (95%) over Phillies or Cardinals (5%)

References: 2011 MLB team salaries, 2011 MLB standings, list of World Series champions, 2011 MLB playoff schedule