Who to Root for in the Baseball Playoffs (Not the Astros)

The Padres and their fans were pretty psyched about going to the NLCS. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Before we begin discussing the four teams remaining in the baseball playoffs, The Discourse apparently requires us to first mention certain teams who have lost: specifically, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, both of whom went down in first-round, best-of-five-game series. Critics say that format does not properly reward these teams’ regular-season accomplishments (the Dodgers won 111 games this year, finishing 22 games above the Padres, who promptly defeated them) and leads to overly random outcomes.

As this argument — that there’s something “unfair” about a playoff system in which a team that wins three games is allowed to advance over a team that wins one — somehow gains cultural currency, let me make the argument that the outrage is in fact good news for baseball. A whole range of people are suddenly shocked by the randomness of a best-of-five playoff system that has been in existence for 55 years. This must be a sign that the sport is at last reaching a new audience, because there is no way anyone who has ever watched a baseball postseason before could seriously object now. The 2006 Cardinals won 83 games and a World Series. The 2021 Braves had the worst record of any postseason team and came home with the trophy anyway. (That happened last year.) None of this is new. Baseball is getting some legitimate knee-jerk, dumb-guy, just-got-here outrage. This is good! This is progress!

Just as a reminder: The playoffs are by definition not fair. They are not meant to be indicative of which team is more “talented” or has “earned” a championship, whatever earned is supposed to mean. They’re just meant to be riveting. As long as two really good teams battle each other over the span of a week full of moments so stressful they seem specifically designed to give you a heart attack, the system is working.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s onto the rankings. You may be a fan of one of the four teams still in the hunt for a World Series; more likely, you’re not. So with one game in the books (the Phillies beat the Padres on Tuesday night), here’s a League Championship Rootability Ranking for each team, with a case for the unaffiliated fan to climb on the bandwagon — and a case against.

1) San Diego Padres (Last World Series Win: Never.)

Reasons to Cheer For: They are the only team remaining who has yet to win a World Series, and one of only six teams in the whole sport with that ignominious distinction. They’ve only reached the World Series twice, and in those appearances had the misfortune of facing two of the best MLB teams in the last 50 years: the 1984 Detroit Tigers and the 1998 New York Yankees. But the likability of this Padres team goes beyond historical futility. When the NFL’s Chargers departed for Los Angeles a few years ago, San Diego was left with only one major professional sports team. Rather than fold up the tent like some other orphaned teams, the Padres went all-out to try to own their city and make it proud: They signed former Orioles and Dodgers star Manny Machado to a huge contract; they traded for young superstar Juan Soto at the deadline. They’re actively challenging the hated Dodgers, widely considered the best franchise in baseball despite having a fanbase that thinks they should be handed trophies just for showing up. This is what you want teams to do: Try to win, no matter the cost. That’s what the Padres are doing. They also have the best uniforms in baseball and a mascot that looks like it came from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. They also have a fanbase that has waited decades for their team to break through like this and thus are frenzied unlike any other in baseball right now. They’re the easy pick.

Reasons to Cheer Against: Their most popular player, Fernando Tatis Jr., failed a drug test earlier this year and is banned from the postseason, though all told it would be pretty funny if they won the World Series without him. Also, the farther they go in the playoffs, the more you’re going to have to listen to broadcasters repeat the same Anchorman jokes. And their stadium may be named Petco Park, but they have never once, not once, allowed a dog to play in a game.

Celebrity Fan: Emma Stone.

2) Philadelphia Phillies (Last World Series Title: 2008.)

Reasons to Cheer For: The Phillies are the team with the worst record in the playoffs, so every time they win a series, they anger people who want to complain about the postseason format. And it’s good to anger stupid people. The team is led by Bryce Harper, who was expected to be a brash, outlandish, paradigm-destroying player when he entered the league but turned out to be a pretty nice guy who was great at baseball. The Phillies hadn’t reached the playoffs in 11 years before this season and have thus been throwing a wild party every night this entire postseason. If you say out loud that you’re not rooting for the Phillies and are standing near someone who is a Phillies fan, they will hear you, find something blunt and heavy, and then beat you to death with it. That kind of intensity is refreshing.

Reasons to Cheer Against: Their best player this year, catcher J.T. Realmuto, missed the team’s trip to Toronto because he wasn’t vaccinated, saying he’s “not going to let Canada tell me what to put in my body.” (Clearly spoken by someone who has never had Saskatoon Berries!) And while intensity is good, it is sometimes difficult to support a fanbase that, if you happened to walk into its stadium wearing the other team’s jersey, will light you on fire on the pitcher’s mound and then use video of the incident to play on the Jumbotron as between-innings entertainment during future games.

Celebrity Fan: Bradley Cooper.

3) New York Yankees (Last World Series Title: 2009.)

Reasons to Cheer For: A World Series title would be the perfect way to cap off Aaron Judge’s historic (and eighth-place all-time!) home-run season. The Yankees actually have some legitimately likable players — we’re still partial to Matt Carpenter and his cop-stache, and of course there’s Nasty Nestor Cortes — and they kicked suspended-for-domestic-violence-reliever Aroldis Chapman off the team for the postseason, a move that was was long overdue. The newish Yankee Stadium has all sorts of issues, but there really is nothing quite like the Bronx on cold October nights in the postseason. Also, every Yankees fan had to suffer through the loquacious Bob Costas calling their games during the ALDS and therefore is due from the universe for some sort of sun shining on their head.

Reasons to Cheer Against: Former sports writer Bill Simmons once wrote that “rooting for the Yankees is like cheering for the house in blackjack,” but 13 years without reaching a World Series has changed that calculus a bit. It’s now more like rooting for Apple stock to go up: You just want a soulless corporation to keep on making money even though its products have been steadily getting worse for more than a decade now. Also, if the Yankees win the World Series, there is going to be a moment when Rudy Giuliani is happy and satisfied with where he is and what he’s done with his life.

Celebrity Fan: Rudy Giuliani.

4) Houston Astros (Last World Series Title: 2017.)

Reasons to Cheer For: They’re devastatingly, oppressively good every year: This is, incredibly, their sixth consecutive appearance in the ALCS. Jose Altuve is one of our most unappreciated future Hall of Famers and not worthy of all the scorn he receives. Justin Verlander is a modern marvel, about to win his third Cy Young Award at the age of 39. They have a player with the last name “Stanek,” which is not dirty but still sounds dirty. Um … the scenes from Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud that were filmed at the old Astrodome are great.

Reasons to Cheer Against: Well, they were involved in the sport’s biggest cheating scandal in decades, and even if you think that episode was very overblown (and I do), it’s a terrific excuse to boo in the postseason, particularly if you are sick of the Astros winning every year. This is probably enough to go on. It’s really not fair that the Astros have the reputation as cheating cheaters who cheat, but that’s sports for you: They need to have villains, and the Astros reliably play that role every year, always playing late enough into October that everyone’s bile is worked into a good lather by the end of the month. Cheering against the Astros is a reflex at this point: It’s just what you do when the doctor hits your knee with the flexor.

Celebrity Fan: Joel Osteen.

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Who to Root for in the Baseball Playoffs (Not the Astros)