Rangers Versus Cardinals: A Middle-Class, Middle-America World Series

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Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images, Leon Halip / Getty Images

Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, left, and Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers, right, face off in the 2011 World Series.

This World Series is for the heartland.

For just the third time since 1995, neither team in the World Series, which starts tonight at 8:05 Eastern, is based on a coast. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team that was 10 1/2 games back in the wild card race in late August, only to totally crash the post-season, host the Texas Rangers, last season’s American League pennant winners. It’s a middle-class – St. Louis has the 11th highest payroll in the majors, while Texas ranks 13th – middle-America series.

Sarah Palin might call it a series for “real America;” during an era of screaming anti-elitism and calls for institutional austerity, it’s only fitting that baseball’s top-spending coastal kings – the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox — are spending late October on the golf course, weather permitting.

This year, there wasn’t even a coastal team in the league championship series, the first time that’s happened since 1991. A Rangers-Cardinals series may lack historical rivalry or sex appeal. And these two inland teams likely won’t boost World Series television ratings, which have lagged (though the Cardinals enjoy a fan base across several Midwestern states).

But we can let the suits worry about the Nielsen numbers. If you just enjoy good baseball, this World Series could be special.

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Among the story lines to watch:

1. Can Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers complete the greatest post-season hitting performance ever?  Had you never really heard of Nelson Cruz before this year’s playoffs? You’re not alone. Against the Detroit Tigers in the League Championship Series, however, Cruz roared: he slugged six home runs, and had 13 RBIs, both postseason records for a single series (and he didn’t even play a full seven games – the Rangers finished off the Tigers in six).

Not long ago, Cruz was a player who was regularly tossed aside. Since 1998, the Dominican Republic native has bounced from the New York Mets to the Oakland Athletics to the Milwaukee Brewers to the Rangers, who demoted him to the minors in 2008. But since that last setback, Cruz has been a steady producer for the Rangers. He has averaged 28 home runs per season since 2009. And he’s been hitting like Babe Ruth from the seventh spot in the lineup, which speaks to the power and depth of the Rangers offensive.

2. Adios, Albert? Sports fans aren’t to just soak in the present. They must fret about the future too. And even as the Cardinals chase the 11th World Series title in the franchise history – only the Yankees, with 27, own more championships – one question in central: will Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of the last decade, leave St. Louis? He’ll be a free agent this off-season. In the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Pujols showed he’s still prodigious: he hit .478, with 2 home runs and 9 RBIs.  

If Pujols earns his second World Series ring with the Cardinals – he won one in 2006 – fans would surely bet he’d stick around. How can you leave a winner? But if the Cardinals do defeat Rangers, they should be careful. People do silly things when on a high. For example, coming off Alex Rodriguez’s MVP season in 2007, the New York Yankees signed A-Rod to a 10-year, $275 million contract. He was 32 at the time. Four years later, the Yankees would tear up that contract in a heartbeat, as injuries and age have slowed Rodriguez down.

Pujols is 31. With a victory, the Cardinals would have won two titles, and three National League pennants, with Pujols in the lineup. That’s pretty impressive. If you’re St. Louis, is it worth hamstringing your financial future by overpaying for Pujols in free agency.

3. A First? Fans in Denver, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, and Tampa/St. Petersburg should be rooting hard for the Cardinals. Because if Texas wins, Dallas-Fort Worth will no longer join them on the list of current major league cities whose franchises have never won a World Series.  (Though the Milwaukee Brewers have failed to win a series, the Milwaukee Braves won the 1957 title. The Washington Nationals have stunk, but the Washington Senators won it all in 1924.)

Also, a Rangers win would make Dallas a modern-day title town, coming just four months after the Mavericks took its first NBA crown.

Now, as for ‘dem Cowboys … let’s just say Tony Romo won’t be toasted at the Rangers victory parade.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.