As baseball’s two best teams prepare to face off in the 2011 World Series beginning Wednesday night, you’re probably aware of the sweeping storylines.
The Texas Rangers, who are back in the Fall Classic for the second straight year, will try to win their first championship after a largely illustri-less history that goes back to their start as the Washington Senators in 1961. They face the St. Louis Cardinals, who have won 18 National League pennants, the most of any team, and 10 World Series championships, the second most ever.
But do you know about “beer showers” and luck-bearing rodents?
Here's what you may not know about the people and teams in this year's big games:
* Soaking in the suds
After a Rangers player hits a “walk-off” home run – or game-ending blast – he is treated to a quick beer shower upon arrival in the clubhouse. So the players duly take precautions: When Nelson Cruz hit his walk-off grand slam against the Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, he stopped at the clubhouse door and took off his spikes. (That was the first walk-off grand slam in postseason history, which is saying something.) And when the Rangers won the American League pennant, clubhouse manager Richard "Hoggy" Price placed a bin in the dugout for everyone to leave their game shoes. He gave the players old shoes to wear, so their game spikes wouldn't get ruined.
The tradition appears to have started in May 2006, when Phil Nevin hit a bottom-of-the-ninth homer that completed a Rangers comeback from seven runs down against the Oakland A’s. “My shoes are full of beer,” he said after squishing his way through the clubhouse.
The Cardinals’ connection with beer can be summed in two words: Busch Stadium.
* Happy Cardinals
The Cardinals have their own way of celebrating: chanting and shouting “Happy flight! Happy flight” when they win on “getaway days,” or days they play before getting on a plane. Remarkably, they’ve had 17 such flights in a row going back to Aug. 3, which is the last time they lost on a getaway day. Shortstop Rafael Furcal is credited with coming up with the victory slogan, though he recently said “it doesn’t mean anything” – winning does.
* It's crazy the Cardinals are even here
First, they lost their undisputed ace, Adam Wainwright, for the year in the first week of spring training when he blew out his elbow. He won 20 games last year, and 19 in 2009.
Then, after some midseason struggles, the Cardinals were 68-63 on Aug. 26 – 10½ games behind the Atlanta Braves for the wild card spot and a game behind the San Francisco Giants. But the Cardinals rallied, going 21-9 the rest of the way, and the Braves had one of the biggest collapses in hardball history, losing 20 of their final 30 games.
The Redbirds overcame the Braves on the last day of the regular season, as Chris Carpenter threw a two-hit shutout to beat the Astros, and the Braves lost in 13 innings to the Phillies. As TBS analyst and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz told The Associated Press, "This is a year where if you know anything about baseball, throw it out the window."
The last Cardinals team to play in the World Series was also highly unlikely: the 2006 squad was just 83-78 in the regular season, but went all the way in the playoffs.
* The two teams have barely played each other
That unfamiliarity is a rarity in the era of interleague play. For most of baseball’s history, the National League and American League have been sharply distinct entities, and an National team like the Cardinals would only play an America team (aside from spring training) if they both made it to the World Series, like when the Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game series a generation apart in 1946 and 1967.
But since Commissioner Bud Selig inaugurated interleague play in 1998, AL-NL matchups have become a regular part of the schedule, particularly for natural rivalries like Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox. The Rangers and Cardinals, however, have only played each other in three games ever, in 2004 – and never in St. Louis, where the World Series begins Wednesday night. (The Cardinals won two of those three, in case you were wondering.)
* Pitching for "J.R."
Cardinals lefthander Arthur Rhodes, who played on both teams this season, has a very personal ritual when he takes the mound: he draws the initials of his son Jordan in the dirt and says a prayer. Jordan died when he was just 2 years old in 2008. Rhodes opened up about it when he made the All-Star Game for the first time in 2010, at age 40. “He was my little idol,” he said then. “I am still playing because of him.”
Texas released Rhodes on Aug. 8 after he struggled in 32 games for them -- but he signed with St. Louis a few days later, appearing in 19 games down the stretch. He turns 42 on Monday, when the teams will play Game 5 in Texas, unless one of them sweeps the series.
* Superstitions, anyone?
Rangers relief pitcher Mike Adams chews only sugar-free Bazooka gum during games – that’s his lucky gum. He also carries his own backpack to the bullpen instead of making a rookie or younger player do it. Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland has used Eric Church’s country song “Homeboy” as his walk-up music all season, while teammate Elvis Andrus, a shortstop, has changed up his tune in every at-bat of every game.
It might not be a superstition, but Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is known for wearing sunglasses at night. Fans have their rituals, too: The Cardinals won at least the first 12 times fan and pastor Bill Marler wore their 2006 World Series cap this September and October. "There's no such thing as superstition in theology, but there is in baseball," he told the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader.
* Rally caps, rally monkeys…Rally Squirrel?
The Cardinals lost the first two games of their division series against the Phillies, putting them on the brink of elimination. Then they came home to St. Louis – and a cute rodent darted across the field in both games, which they won. The Rally Squirrel was born – and soon enough he had his own Twitter feed and stuffed animal. At Game 3 against the Brewers, St. Louis gave out 40,000 red rally towels emblazoned with the squirrel that said “GO NUTS FOLKS…” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who calls himself “old-school,” even twice posited that the Rally Squirrel was dating his player Allen Craig’s pet tortoise.
“As far as the squirrel and the tortoise is concerned, they had this relationship, so I think it first came out there because Craig wasn’t playing, and his boyfriend told him or girlfriend or whatever it was,” La Russa said, according to The Associated Press. “And this squirrel was looking for Craig, ran all over, finally found him.”
“Torty Craig” has Tweeted early and often since then. “World Series Eve seems to pass as slowly as Christmas Eve,” he said today.
– NBC DFW's Rontina McCann contributed to this story