The World Series starts tonight with Game 1 in Houston, where the Astros will face off against the Atlanta Braves.
The stakes are high for fans of each team. The Braves haven't gotten this far since 1999, while the Astros have been in the series three of the past five years — including in 2017, when they cheated using an illegal, sign-stealing, trash can-banging system to call pitches.
The Astros have looked to put the scandal behind them, but many fans outside of Houston still see them as the bad guys.
"Many are painting this as good versus evil on the baseball diamond," NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman told Morning Edition.
It's not entirely black and white
The Astros faced punishment for the cheating scandal last year, even though they're still paying for it with a lot of fans.
Meanwhile, the Braves have an appealing underdog story: They overcame injuries to some of their best players this season. Plus two faces of the franchise — manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman — are team lifers. "We like loyalty in sports," as Goldman put it.
On the other hand, some Braves fans still do the "tomahawk chop" arm gesture and chant, which are increasingly considered both offensive and outdated. Teams from the pro leagues to high school athletics are moving away from derogatory slogans and this particular expression of enthusiasm.
The teams took very different paths to the World Series
The Braves didn't have a winning record in their regular season until their 111th game in early August. at which point they surged. Goldman says that's the longest it's taken a team to get to a winning record and then make it to the World Series. So they were by no means a sure thing.
Notable players: Third baseman Austin Riley and outfielder Eddie Rosario, who was traded to the team in July.
The Astros have consistently played well since their tarnished 2017 season — for instance, they've played in the American League Championship Series for five straight years.
Notable players: infielders Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, José Altuve and Yuli Gurriel; and powerful hitter Yordan Álvarez.
And a fun fact: Beloved Astros manager Dusty Baker started his MLB career playing for the Braves.
The oddsmakers favor the Astros
Goldman says fans could make the case for either team. Their pitching staffs are pretty even, and each is highly motivated, he notes. But Houston stands out on offense, plus has more recent experience playing in "the pressure cooker of the World Series."
Oddsmakers are leaning towards the Astros, and Goldman agrees. Hear the full interview here.
This text originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Game 1 of the World Series tonight in Houston - the Astros are playing in their third Series in the last five years. The Atlanta Braves haven't gotten this far since 1999. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman has a theory about this Series. He says it's not just about baseball; it's a morality play also. Good morning, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi.
KING: How is this a morality play?
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, it's not just my theory. Many are painting this as good versus evil on the baseball diamond. In the mans - in the minds of many fans not living in Houston, the Astros are the bad guys. You may recall in 2017, Houston cheated on its way to a World Series title using an illegal sign-stealing, trash-can-banging system. Punishment was handed down last year, but the Astros are still paying for it with a lot of fans. And even though their manager since 2020 has been Dusty Baker, one of the more beloved characters in baseball, that still doesn't soften things for Astros haters.
KING: And so are Atlanta the good guys just because they didn't do any sign-stealing, trash-can-banging?
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) No, no trash-can-banging. They also have appealing stories. So the Braves overcame injuries to some of their best players this season, and they still succeeded. And also two faces - the franchise manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman, last year's National League Most Valuable Player - they are Braves lifers. Snitker has been in the organization for decades. Freeman has only played for Atlanta in his 12 years in the majors. And Noel, we like loyalty in sports. So this helps Atlanta's label of being the good guys.
One knock on the good guys, though - Atlanta is still connected to the tomahawk chop and chant. Fans still do it. It's offensive to a lot of people and outdated. Sports teams, from the pros to high school, are moving away from derogatory team names and slogans and tomahawk chops - time for Atlanta to do the same.
KING: OK - good guys but imperfect. These two teams must have had very different journeys to the World Series based on what we're looking at here.
GOLDMAN: The Braves didn't have a winning record in the regular season until their 111th game in early August.
GOLDMAN: That is the longest it's taken a team to get to a winning record and then make it to the World Series. So they weren't expected to be here. Since August, they surged behind players like third baseman Austin Riley, outfielder Eddie Rosario. He was traded to Atlanta just in July, and he's been fantastic. He was the MVP of the National League Championship Series. His 14 hits tied the record for a playoff series.
KING: And what about the Astros?
GOLDMAN: Well, they've been consistently good - really good since that tarnished 2017 season. They have played in the American League Championship Series five straight years, so getting this far isn't a surprise. Houston's four infielders have been the constant core of the team since 2017, and they're still playing at a very high level - Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel. Add to them players like 24-year-old Yordan Alvarez, whose powerful hitting earned him this year's American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player award, they're really good.
KING: So who do you like?
GOLDMAN: Well, you can make a case for both. The pitching staffs are pretty even. Where Houston stands out is on offense. They don't often strike out. They get a lot of hits, and they score a lot of runs. The core players I mentioned, they have recent experience playing in the pressure cooker of a World Series, too. Both teams highly motivated, of course, for different reasons. The Braves last won the World Series in 1995. They've been to the playoffs 16 times since then without another. The Astros want to show the baseball world they can win a World Series clean, assuming they are. The oddsmakers say Houston's the one. I think that's the right call.
KING: All right - the bad guys. Kidding. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.