So, your friends invited you over to watch some playoff baseball, but you don't know Albert Pujols from Albert Schweitzer? Not to worry: We've got all the information you'll need to fake your way through the first round of the baseball playoffs. Just tape this sheet inside your mitt and get ready to be mistaken for Tim McCarver.
American League Division Series: Oakland A's vs. Minnesota Twins
A's talking points: Odds are you've heard of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, which documented GM Billy Beane's strategies for winning with a low payroll: Draft college players and emphasize on-base percentage. Old-school baseball analyst Joe Morgan will send you flowers if you note that Beane's 2002 draft has produced a mere two major leaguers, and only four A's regulars have OBPs over .360. If someone says you're using selective evidence, shut them up by shouting, "Oakland's made the playoffs five times since 2000 and hasn't won squat. Five bucks says Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the playoffs this year, either."
Historical context: Oakland won the World Series in 1989, thanks to the syringe-powered exploits of "Bash Brothers" Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Suggest to your viewing partners that light-hitting A's outfielders Jay Payton and Mark Kotsay should henceforth be known as the "Sucky Siblings."
Conversation starter: "Huston Street is the best two-inning closer since Mariano Rivera."
Conversation stopper: "It was so brave of Billy Bean to come out."
Twins talking points: Everyone will note that the best pitcher in baseball, lefty Johan Santana, gives the Twins a fighting chance to win any series. You should argue that the back end of Minnesota's staff will decide how far the team goes. Two good lines: "Management knew Francisco Liriano had arm problems in the past. They should've been gentler with him during the season," and, "If Boof Bonser's right arm is as good as his name, we'll have a dynasty on our hands."
Historical context: The 1987 Twins, baseball conspiracy theorists argue, won the World Series due to creative deployment of the Metrodome's powerful air-conditioning system. Between innings, do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the stadium's postseason cooling bill.
American League Division Series: Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees
Tigers talking points: With a worst-to-first success story like this one, everybody's going to be talking about who deserves the credit for the turnaround. Make your case for Pudge Rodriguez, the slugging veteran catcher who anchored the Tigers just like he anchored the 2003 world-champion Marlins. Then blow people's minds by stretching the Marlins-Tigers comparison to the limit. Both teams were largely assembled by the same front-office guy (Dave Dombrowski), both featured a talented young pitching staff and a crusty old manager, and both are named after members of the animal kingdom. Creepy, huh?
Historical context: The Tigers were the worst team of the 1990s and the worst of the 2000s until this year. Although turnaround fever is contagious, try to restrain yourself from betting the house on the Devil Rays to win it all in 2007.
Conversation starter: "Billy Beane and Theo Epstein get all the press, but Dave Dombrowski is the smartest GM in baseball."
Conversation stopper: "It'll be neat to see the World Series come back to Tiger Stadium."
Yankees talking points: Tweak your local Red Sox fan by saying this is the least loathsome Yankee squad ever. Sure, the Bronx Bombers have a $200 million payroll, but this year has seen no veterans bitching over playing time and no Weaver-esque stress-induced meltdowns. Talk about how much you like Jeter's poise, Mussina's consistency, A-Rod's endearing awkwardness, and Chien-Ming Wang's youthful vigor. Bonus points if you use this sentence: "Despite all those injuries, this season went as smooth as Bernie Williams' latest jazz CD!"
Historical context: The 26-time champs haven't won it all since 2000, falling to the Diamondbacks and the Marlins in their last two World Series appearances. With no traditional Yankees rivals in the AL field, debate whether losing to the Twins, Tigers, or A's would cause Billy Crystal the most embarrassment.
Conversation starter: "Robinson Cano is better now than Alfonso Soriano will ever be."
Conversation stopper: "I wish every team banned long hair."
National League Division Series: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Mets
Dodgers talking points: In last place at the end of July, the Dodgers sneaked into the playoffs after trading for veterans Greg Maddux and Julio Lugo and ripping off 11 straight wins. Did L.A. just get lucky, or are they actually good? Argue both sides with the exact same sentence: "See what Nomar and J.D. Drew can do when they don't spend the whole year on the disabled list?"
Historical context: The greatest injured-player moment in baseball history came when the barely mobile Kirk Gibson homered to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers. This does not mean that you should pay some street toughs to break Kenny Lofton's kneecaps.
Conversation starter: "With a healthy Eric Gagne, the Dodgers would be a cinch for the series."
Conversation stopper: "I don't care how old he is. We need to give Maddux a multiyear contract, now."
Mets talking points: They ran away with the NL East, but the loss of ace Pedro Martinez has the Mets limping into the playoffs. Mets fans, pessimistic by nature, are full of reasons why their team will choke. Shore up their confidence by citing two reasons why they'll win the pennant: Nobody in the weak National League can compete with the Beltran-Delgado-Wright combination in the middle of New York's order. And veteran starters Tom Glavine and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez have enough experience and confidence to push the team through any tough series.
Historical context: The Mets' last playoff appearance came in 2000's overhyped Subway Series, otherwise known as the Crosstown Classic, or the Battle for the Apple. Pass the time during pitching changes by devising ready-to-use clichés in case the Mets and Yanks meet again. Extra credit if you refer to Sept. 11.
Conversation starter: "Julio Franco will be mashing the ball the opposite way until he's 50."
Conversation stopper: "I hope Pedro's healthy enough to beat up Don Zimmer."
National League Division Series: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres
Cardinals talking points: They call Tony La Russa the smartest manager in the majors, but that's like being the skinniest kid at fat camp. Adopt your snootiest voice and suggest that the St. Louis skipper isn't all he's cracked up to be—his teams tend to choke in high-pressure situations, and it's easy to look good when your lineup is anchored by the best hitter in the game, Albert Pujols.
Historical context: The Cards lost 14 of their last 22 games and barely made the playoffs, narrowly avoiding the biggest collapse in baseball history. Note that while the 1964 Phillies will be remembered for all time, this year's Cardinals will be forgotten by this Saturday.
Conversation starter: "I guess La Russa can't be blamed for the Cards' 4.54 team ERA."
Conversation stopper: "But he deserves all the blame for that greasy mullet."
Padres talking points: The story here is the Pads' veteran closer Trevor Hoffman, who recently set the major-league record for career saves. Here are some fun facts to spout as the opening bars of "Hells Bells" signal Hoffman's entrance. The save was invented by writer Jerome Holtzman in 1959. It lost all relevance in 1990, when journeyman Bobby Thigpen set the single-season saves record with 57. There are only four closers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, three of whom have moustaches. Billy Beane thinks saves are overrated. But, then again, Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the playoffs.
Historical context: The Padres are one of four major league teams that have never pitched a no-hitter. They did, however, introduce the world to the comic stylings of the San Diego Chicken.
Conversation starter: "Cla Meredith was the best relief pitcher in the majors this year."
Conversation stopper: "The only stat I care about is the Cuteness Factor."