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Baseball's battle between 'good' and 'evil'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The World Series starts tonight. For many baseball fans, it's Game 1 of a battle between good and evil. The Houston Astros, still tarnished after a cheating scandal broke two years ago, are back and ready for everyone's boos. The Atlanta Braves are the darling upstarts, but they bring their own baggage. Evan Drellich is in Houston covering the series for The Athletic and joins us now on Skype. Welcome back.

EVAN DRELLICH: Thanks for having me, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So, first, I want to talk about the Braves. They're back in the World Series for the first time since 1999. How did they get there?

DRELLICH: Well, a little bit of luck, frankly. People didn't pick the Braves to be in this position, not at the start of the season and not even at the start of the postseason. They were an 88-win team in the regular season, and the team they defeated in the prior round to get to the World Series won 106 games, the Dodgers. So they weren't supposed to be here. But they had a combination of young players who really came together at the right time. And that's what happens in baseball's postseason, where the underdog has a better chance than it does in football, basketball and hockey.

MCCAMMON: At the same time, the Braves are not without their own issues. The so-called tomahawk chop is still on full display in the stands, and that's even after the former Cleveland Indians changed their name. I mean, this is 2021. Why hasn't that changed, and what is the team and the fans saying about it?

DRELLICH: It's still a topic. And I'm hoping that the commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, directly addresses it sometime during this World Series. We'll see. He usually speaks to the media sometime during the Fall Classic. In 2020, in the midst of the Astros fallout from the sign stealing scandal, he said, frankly, we haven't been able to get to it yet. The Braves' position on the chop has been that they are listening and continuing a dialogue. But prominent Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians and the Cherokee Nation, have both spoken out against the chop. So at this point, the clock is ticking. Why haven't they taken action? They're dragging their feet.

MCCAMMON: It was assumed that, when the Astros were punished by baseball last year for that sign-stealing scandal, that they'd kind of stay under a rock for a while. But they're back again. And isn't it a lot of the very same players that were wrapped up in that cheating scandal who will take the field tonight?

DRELLICH: There are few prominent players left. Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, middle infielders for the Astros, are still around from that 2017 team, but the majority of that group is gone. It's been a lot of roster turnover, but you still have some of the faces of the team. One person people seem to be rooting for on the Astros is Dusty Baker, their manager who last was in a World Series in 2002. But one thing I'd quickly point out - the Braves also had a cheating scandal that most people weren't aware of a few years ago not on the field but off the field. They had an executive banned for life for improper international signings. So the Braves also had some familiarity with wrongdoing.

MCCAMMON: And really quickly, I want to talk about Dusty Baker, the Astros manager. He is 72, looking for his first title in 24 years of managing. He's a former player, one of the few African American managers in baseball. What's the significance of tonight for him?

DRELLICH: He's somebody who's beloved in the industry. There are few figures like that left where they've had real staying power. There's been a lot of turnover in a lot of different teams, but Dusty Baker kind of rises above the crowd. And he's looked at generally as a good person and someone who deserved a shot to manage and might not have gotten it for a variety of reasons - race could have been one of them - for a number of years. And to see him back there, I think, makes the industry in general very pleased.

MCCAMMON: That's Evan Drellich with The Athletic. Thank you so much for your time.

DRELLICH: Thanks, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI'S "BASEBALL THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.