Mudville Revisited

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Sad Tribe Fans
Yes, the opening of the World Series kicked up a storm of questions, from “Is this Sox team the greatest World Series offense of all time?” to “Is calling Jeff Francis an ace like calling Subway a delicacy?” That’s all well and good, and at the end of the day the team that wins four games latest in October earns the right to all the glory the sporting world can bestow.

But go back to Cleveland. Despite my sick Red Sox fever, I can’t help but feel pangs of regret for the losing diehards, the Cuyahoga crazies, consigned and resigned to another snowy winter of woe. It’s going to be the 49th consecutive year where family members’ holiday conversations will center on we-need-to-improves rather than here’s-how-to-defends. After twenty seasons, you begin to lose count; after forty, you simply can’t forget. Every year, new Clevelanders reach that twenty year mark, and hope drains from them like blood out a cut fish.

This season is especially brutal. The Indians scratched and clawed their way to a 3-1 series lead, punctuated with a seven run fifth inning in a 7-3 beatdown over Boston. The Indians, boasting a powerful lineup with Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez, and anchored by two solid aces in Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia, were knocking on the pennant’s doorstep.
Then the other shoe fell. Bing, bang, boom. A 30-5, 11 hour horror marathon. All of these nightmares became written in stone in the seventh inning of Game Seven, when Joel Skinner, by all accounts a decent and hardworking man, held up the fastest player in Cleveland Indians history from scoring on a throw by the slowest left fielder in Boston Red Sox history. An errant bounce against the left field outcropping left Kenny Lofton stuck at third base with one out. Casey Blake stepped to the plate against Hideki Okajima and promptly bounced into a 5-4-3 double play that effectively killed the Indians’ chances of tying the game. In the bottom of the frame, noisy cricket DustinDustin Pedroia crushed a two run bomb to put the pennant out of Cleveland’s reach. Major League was wrong. Oh My God, The Indians Lose.

Now Cleveland fans are wiping away tears with their LeBron and Winslow jerseys as they prepare to focus on some other sport until spring. The Indians are still a young team, and a good team; their 96-66 record tied for the best in baseball and is held up by their 91-71 Pythagorean split. GM Mark Shapiro has done a great job after blowing up the last Tribal incarnation in 2003. Only Joe Borowski, Casey Blake, and Paul Byrd are heading into their shuffleboard years, and none are integral to the team’s success. Yet for all of the tangible assets that ran around the bases at the Jake this season, only the great intangible will decide this team’s success for the coming years; can they deal with such October devastation?

Many teams have overcome such ignominy to return to autumn heights. In the World Series alone the St. Louis Cardinals (1985) The Calland Baltimore Orioles (1979) each returned to the Fall Classic within a few years of their 3-1 collapses. Even the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals and 1958 Braves were a year removed from triumphant, seven game victories. These things happen. The 1996 Cardinals and 2003 Cubs returned to the playoffs within a few years as well, both after blowing 3-1 leads.

In fact, since the start of division play in 1969, only one team’s 3-1 postseason collapse truly devastated a franchise. The 1986 California Angels went from on their way to their first pennant to another infamous notch on the belt of one Gene Mauch, the skipper forever doomed to never be in a World Series. Holding a 5-2 lead over the Red Sox entering the 9th at home in Game Five, they were one pitch away several times. But a one-out home run cut the lead to 5-4, and with two down and the tying run aboard first, Dave Henderson crushed a two-run shot off star-crossed closer Donnie Moore Donnie Moore. Boston gave up the lead in the 9th but held on to prevail in extra innings. The Angels flew to Fenway and had no chance, getting blown away 10-4 and 8-1 in the next two games. That was the end for the veteran Angels team; they plummeted to sixth in 1987. The next time the team approached a division title, they blew an 11 game lead to Ken Griffey’s Mariners in 1995; their first postseason appearance after 1986 finally arrived in the World Series year of 2002.

Tough, right? So close and yet so far. Well, that’s nothing. Imagine repeatedly climbing a mountain, stumbling again and again. Your oxygen is low and you make one last dash up the peak, only to tangle your boots and fall 20,000 feet? Now that’s a collapse. That’s destructive. That’s the Pittsburgh Pirates. 15 years ago, Pittsburgh was a sports haven, with a two time Stanley Cup champion Mario Lemieux, a playoff football team with a young new coach in Bill Cowher, Go Steelers 1993and above all, a baseball powerhouse. Let’s rehash.
In 1990, a young Pirate team with no starters over age 29 snuck into the NL East title with a 19-10 September to upend the last great 80s Mets hurrah. They weren’t ready for the bright lights and were collectively eaten alive by the Cincinnati Reds’ fabled Nasty Boys bullpen. In 1991, however, the Pirates won 98 games and steamrolled into the playoffs with an NL best OPS and second best ERA. But just as they made their move to head to the Fall Classic, their bats fell asleep. After pushing across the sole run in a 1-0 Game Five victory over the worst-to-first Atlanta Braves, the vaunted Bobby Bonilla/Barry Bonds/Andy Van Slyke trio vacationed the rest of the series. Pittsburgh scored no runs in the final 22 innings of the series, coughing up Games Six and Seven in front of a stunned Three Rivers Stadium.

But in 1992, the tides were turning. By now the NL East was a Pittsburgh Invitational, and the Buccs grabbed first for good on June 2. Young BondsBonds (on his way to his second MVP in three years), Van Slyke and platoon catcher Don Slaught spearheaded a solid lineup complimented by a stingy staff anchored by Doug Drabek. The NLCS against the Braves started poorly with a quick 3-1 hole, but the grizzled Pirates responded. Rallying around baffling rookie Tim Wakefield, they crushed Atlanta by a combined 20-5 in Games Five and Six. The stage was set for the Pirates to thump the Braves in a pennant playoff and roll through Toronto in the World Series for a glorious return to the We Are Family days.

First, of course, they had to win the game. For the first eight innings, Pitt rolled. The late home plate umpire John McSherry took ill during the second inning and in came Randy Marsh, whose strike zone, like his girth, was much smaller than the portly McSherry’s. It didn’t matter; even Enrico Pallazzo could have seen Drabek was in the zone, allowing only five hits and easing his way out of a bases loaded, no out jam in the sixth. Orlando Merced and Van Slyke had an RBI each to make it 2-0 up until the bottom of the 9th. During the regular season the chain-smoking, curmudgeonly manager Jim Leyland had pushed Drabek to the limit to the tune of 10 complete games and he trusted his ace to finish the job.

Plans changed. Reigning MVP Terry Pendleton doubled to start the inning; Jose Lind booted Dave Justice’s routine grounder and put him on too. A walk to Sid Bream was enough; there would be no chance for Drabek to wriggle out of this jam. Leyland called on bullpen hero Stan Belinda to shut down the rally. A sac fly, walk, and pop up set the stage; 2-1, two outs, bases loaded. Braves manager Bobby Cox had a difficult decision; with the closer up and the bench noticeably thinned, who bats? Cox went with Francisco Cabrera, a man with ten more at-bats during the season than the Fulton County Stadium fans. This was a mismatch on paper, on the field, on marble rye, anything.

But the free swinging Cabrera lashed at a 2-1 fastball and drove it into left. Justice scored easily, while Bream, who moved like ice melts, lumbered home. Bonds, the greatest defensive left fielder of his generation, threw a hair up the line and Bream slid under BreamMike LaValliere’s dive. Braves 3, Pirates 2. Braves a new dynasty, Pirates never heard of ’em. That 9th inning disaster destroyed baseball in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had less chance of coming back than Alderaan.

By 1993, LaValliere, Lind, Bonds, Alex Cole, and Drabek went from Game Seven to gone. Van Slyke missed half the year, Belinda was traded. The Pirates still had Jim Leyland, but left with the task of rebuilding a tower with Twizzlers, the Pirates lost 87 games. By 1995, they hit a wretched 58-86, and are now 15 seasons from a .500 mark. Attendance fell more than 50 percent from a respectable 1.8 million in ’92 to dead last by 1995. Even with a new stadium, the stunningly beautiful PNC Park (subject of this classic article) Pittsburgh has ranked no better than 12th in league seatfilling since 2001.

Comb through their list of All-Stars for a trip through mediocrity; the obligatory warriors are less honorable and more a blight one of baseball’s formerly great franchises. Even their three grandest stars in the last decade and a half have succeeded in boo piratesunassuming ways: Brian Giles was an OBP machine, Freddy Sanchez is a singles hitter, and Jason Bay a Canadian. Even Jason Kendall, supposedly a franchise catcher, evokes only the memory of his ankle seceding from his body.Baseball America ranks the Pirates farm system as 25th in the major leagues. It may be another decade before Pittsburgh re-ascends; the last fifteen years have provided no lasting enjoyment, no current prospects, and most importantly, no hope.

So chin up, Indians fans, it could be a heck of a lot worse. The most important thing that 2008 will bring will not be a splashy free agent signing, new club philosophy, or even breakout seasons from the young stars. No, 2008 will instead bring the luckiest gift that a deflated franchise could receive: next year. They’ve waited 59 winters in Cleveland. One more is just a few more snowflakes before sunshine.