First off, while I realize this interests few people besides myself, I have decided that the 1995 Indians should be eligible for the list on my last post, and therefore should rank #1 overall.
I was conflating with the 1995 Indians with two other dominant regular season teams that fell short in the playoffs, the 1954 Indians (111-43, swept by the New York Giants in the World Series) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46, lost in the ALCS to the Yankees in five games). That was a mistake. The 1995 Indians had a much different set of circumstances than the other two teams.
The 1954 Indians had just won the World Series six years earlier, making their loss at the hands of the 97-57 Giants not only an upset, but a disappointment – a pennant wasn’t that much to celebrate in Cleveland. They could have no idea in 1954 what was to come. And the 2001 Mariners only made it to the ALCS, which they had just done the year before as well as back in 1995. That team had to make it to at least the World Series to do something special – the Mariners had never been to the World Series, and thanks to the 2001 Mariners falling short, they still haven’t.
But the 1995 Indians…that team was different. That team hadn’t been to the playoffs in forty-one years, since the 1954 Indians. From 1982 to 1993 they had 11 losing seasons in 12 years…following their only winning season in 1986, Sports Illustrated famously predicted that they would win the World Series in 1987 – the Indians lost 101 games, making them the worst team in baseball and SI’s prediction literally the worst prediction you can possibly make. That was just eight years earlier. Just four years earlier, in 1991, they had lost 105 games. In 1989, Major League came out. Even Hollywood saw the Indians as the baseball team most synonymous with losing.
In 1994, they were coming together, and might have made the playoffs were it not for the strike. They were expected to be really good in 1995. But no one thought they’d be this good. Remember, the 1995 season was only 144 games long – their record extrapolates to 113-49 over a full season. They had 12 walk-off wins during the season. They then stormed through the ALDS and ALCS to the World Series, where they lost to the Braves…and while the Braves only went 90-54, no one really thought it was a huge upset, not with the Braves’ pitching staff, or the fact that the Braves had been to two of the three previous World Series already. Even after that season, with the incredible young offense the Indians had built, everyone expected that 1995 was just the beginning of a long run of success for the Indians…and everyone was right, as that was just the first of their five straight AL Central titles.
(Also, it occurred to me that for a team that didn’t even win a pennant, the 1984 Chicago Cubs deserve a mention. Maybe it’s because I live in Chicago, but it’s amazing how much that team still resonates today.)
So yeah, if I had to pick one non-championship team to root for in the last 60 years, it would be the 1995 Indians. Here, then, is my list of the five most enjoyable non-championship seasons in the last 60 years:
1) 1995 Indians
2) 1967 Red Sox
3) 1991 Braves
4) 2007 Rockies
5) 2014 Royals
I got a chance to root for one of them. I’ll take that.
The Royals not winning Game 7 upset an awful lot of my plans. I was planning to spend a truly irresponsible amount of money on a wall of photographs of iconic moments from the postseason – I had like a dozen such moments already picked out – for my house, and the same for my medical office. I was planning to be a guest on The B.S. Report. I was working on the lyrics to a new sixth-inning song for the Royals to play. I was planning to walk barefoot from my home in Chicago to Kansas City, then crawl on my hands and knees to Kauffman Stadium, and then grovel outside Dayton Moore’s office and beg for forgiveness until security arrived.
Those plans have been dashed, but I still have much to be thankful for. The Royals might have lost Game 7, but they won damn near everything else. For one thing: the Royals went 11-4 in the postseason. Not only is that the best playoff winning percentage ever for a team that didn’t win a championship, it’s the best possible playoff record for a non-championship team. Until the Wild Card game was introduced three years ago it wasn’t possible to do better than 10-4, and in fact the best playoff record by any non-championship team in the three-division era had been 10-7. To go 11-4 requires a perfect confluence of events: qualify for the Wild Card game, win the Wild Card game, sweep the LDS, sweep the LCS, lose the World Series in seven games. It might be a decades before another team goes 11-4 without winning the World Series.
The Royals had a better postseason record than most of the teams that won the World Series. The Giants, of course, went 12-5 in the playoffs this year. They are the first team to win 12 playoff games, thanks to being the first world champion to go through the Wild Card game. Of the 20 previous world champions in the wild card era (1981 and 1995-2013), just seven lost fewer than four games in the playoffs, and three teams (the 1996 and 2009 Yankees and 2010 Giants) went exactly 11-4. Which means that the Royals had a better playoff record than 11 of the 21 world champions in the wild card era.
That doesn’t make them the world champions. But it does mean that we Royals fans experienced as much playoff joy and as little playoff heartbreak as it is possible to experience without winning a title.
The Royals played in 15 postseason games this year. They had played in only 43 postseason games in the entire history of the franchise prior to this point. They won nearly as many playoff games in one month (11) as they had won in their previous 45 seasons (18). They won more playoff games in 2014 (11) than they did (10) in six postseason appearances from 1976 to 1984 combined.
The Royals had a pretty terrible postseason record as a franchise coming into 2014, at 18-25. They are now a .500 team overall, at 29-29.
Mike Moustakas not only set the team record for most homers (5) in a single postseason, he now ranks second in career postseason home runs as a Royal, behind only George Brett’s 10. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are tied for sixth on the Royals list of career hits in the postseason, with 20; Alcides Escobar is eighth, with 19. Alex Gordon is tied with Amos Otis for third in career postseason doubles, with 6. James Shields is fourth all-time among Royals pitchers in postseason strikeouts, tied with…Wade Davis.
After a generation with no playoff moments to speak of, the Royals had a decade’s worth of playoff moments in one postseason. The Royals have now played more postseason games this century than the Mariners or the Orioles or the Nationals, and as many as the Brewers. They won more playoff games this year than the Twins have won (6) in the last 20 years. They won nearly as many playoff games this year as the Padres have won (12) in their existence.
But it’s not just that the Royals finally have a ledger under “postseason games in the 21st century”. It’s not just that they’ve played in the postseason, or even won in the postseason, it was the way they won this postseason. They’re the first team in the history of baseball to win four extra-inning games in one postseason. Using a simple definition of “dramatic victory” – a victory where the winning run scores in the ninth inning or later – the Royals had five dramatic victories in their first six playoff games.
In the entire history of the Royals franchise prior to 2014, you know how many dramatic victories they had in the postseason? Two. The first was Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The Phillies had scored a run in the eighth to tie the game; in the bottom of the tenth, Willie Aikens singled home Willie Wilson from second base with two outs to end the game. The second was Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, which should need no explanation. The Royals had lost six games in the ninth inning or later – including Game 5 in both the
1977 and 1978 1976 and 1977 ALCS (remember, those were best-of-five series back then)
along with Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, Games 2 and 4 of the 1985 ALCS, and
Game 2 of the 1985 World Series.
The Royals had more dramatic victories in their first three playoff games this year than they had in their entire franchise history. They had only won one extra-inning playoff game before 2014; they won four this year. They had never hit a home run in extra innings in the postseason before; they hit four this year.
Five dramatic victories in six games.
How unusual is that? The St. Louis Cardinals have played 120 postseason games since 2000. They’ve gone 63-57 in those games – incredibly, the Royals are farther above .500 in playoff games than the Cardinals this century. Of their 63 postseason wins, the winning run scored in the ninth or later in 10 of those games. The Royals have packed half as many dramatic victories in one month as the Cardinals have had playing in 11 of the last 15 postseasons.
Five iconic hits that I may never forget, including Mike Moustakas’ home run into the first row in Anaheim; Eric Hosmer’s blast the following night; Alex Gordon’s towering fly ball in Baltimore; Alcides Escobar’s doubled that hugged the right-field line.
For those four hits, the drama was only diminished by the fact that, being on the road, none of them were game-enders. That was left for Salvador Perez’s walk-off single in the Wild Card game, and it says something about that night that I’m not even sure Perez’s single – which many consider the biggest play of the year – was even the biggest play of the game. Was it bigger than Christian Colon’s Baltimore chop which tied the game two batters earlier? Was it bigger than Eric Hosmer’s triple off the top of the wall which gave the Royals life when they were two outs away from elimination?
And that was just the twelfth inning. Was it bigger than Brandon Finnegan, with all of seven innings in the major leagues under his belt, throwing a scoreless tenth inning in the biggest game of his life, and then doing it again in the eleventh? Was it bigger than Jarrod Dyson stealing third when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going? Bigger than Josh Willingham’s pinch-hit single leading off the ninth, the final hit of Willingham’s career? Bigger than the blizzard of singles and walks and stolen bases which led to three runs in the eighth inning when the Royals appeared to be without a prayer?
Pick out your favorite moment. Decide for yourself what the most important play of the game was – for me it was Hosmer’s triple, but you can make a case for like a dozen different ones. But that’s just it: there was no one moment. There were five straight innings of incredible drama. There were three innings where the Royals put together rallies with no margin for error, and I do mean rallies – what happened in the eighth, ninth, and 12th innings could not have happened without the combined contributions of multiple players. Break any link in the chain, and the 2014 Royals are a mere footnote in history, the team that technically broke a 29-year playoff drought, but was eliminated from the playoffs before the calendar even flipped to October.
I was privileged to be there that night. It was a privilege enough to be at the first Royals playoff game in 29 years, which is why the crowd that night was so electric – those were the die-hards, the fans who understand the import of what, to another team, would have simply been the play-in game to the quarterfinal round. No World Series crowd save for Game 7 could match it. We all felt honored and humbled just to be in the stands that night, with no idea what was to come. In the tenth or eleventh inning, I remarked to my friends with me that night, Chris Kamler and Alex Robinson, that this was the best baseball game I had ever attended in person. And that was before the A’s took the lead again, before the Royals were down to their final two outs again, before they tied the game again, and before they won.
I had sold the game short. The best baseball game I had ever attended? It might have been the best baseball game in Royals history.
As long as drama plays some part in how you define “best” – otherwise Game 7 of the 1985 World Series wins in a walk – there is really one other game that contends for the crown. That’s because there is only one other Royals playoff victory in which the team was losing in the ninth inning: Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. That was a very tense game, scoreless into the eighth, and the bottom of the ninth is easily the most thrilling half-inning in Royals history. And because of the stakes, I think Game 6 is still the best Royals game ever – but with the rather significant caveat that you can’t discuss the game without mentioning the rather significant umpire error that will always define it.
But the Wild Card game is #2 with a bullet. I’m not even sure which game is #3. Some candidates:
1) Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. George Brett’s home run off Goose Gossage, clinching a sweep and sending the Royals to their first World Series. On the surface, it doesn’t look that dramatic: the Royals were up 2 games to 0 at the time, and Brett’s home run came in the seventh. On the other hand, Games 4 and 5 would have been at Yankee Stadium as well, and the Yankees had already defeated the Royals in the ALCS three times. That was an awfully big monkey that Brett knocked off the Royals’ back.
2) Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The only other walk-off win in Royals playoff history, on Aikens’ single in the tenth inning, gives the Royals their first World Series win and prevents them from falling behind 3 games to 0. However, the Royals never actually trailed in the game, and they lost the series anyway.
3) Game 161 of the 1985 season. The only regular-season game on our list. The Royals entered the day two games up on the Angels with two games left, but the Angels won that day, and the Royals were down 4-0 to the A’s in the bottom of the sixth. Brett hit a two-run homer in the sixth, Frank White and Steve Balboni hit RBI singles in the seventh to tie the game, and Willie Wilson hit a two-out walkoff single in the tenth to clinch the division. Remember: that victory put the Royals into the ALCS – the Wild Card game, even though it was a playoff game itself, only put the Royals into the ALDS.
4) Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS. The George Brett Game. Two homers, a double, a single, a ridiculous defensive play to nail Damaso Garcia at home plate. Brett scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth and the Royals won 6-5 to keep from falling behind in the series 3 games to 0.
I’d probably rank them like this:
1) 1985 World Series, Game 6
2) 2014 Wild Card Game
3) 1980 ALCS, Game 3
4) 1985 ALCS, Game 3
5) 1985 Regular Season, Game 161
6) 1980 World Series, Game 6
But you could really make a case, in retrospect, for the Wild Card game being #1. The Royals didn’t just rally in their last at-bat – they rallied in their last at-bat twice, and the first time their deficit was so large they had to rally in two separate innings. While their opponents were scoring five runs on two swings of the bat, the Royals were fighting back with speed and contact – it was like watching two utterly disparate philosophies of baseball clash in a duel to the death, and the Royals’ rapier parried the A’s cutlass over and over again before slicing the fatal wound. And when it was over, there was no controversy over who won.
Game 6 had higher stakes, but the Wild Card game had even more import because of what happened afterwards, which is that the Royals won the AL pennant. If the Royals had lost Game 6 in 1985, they still would have been AL champions. But if they had lost the Wild Card game, they’d have been just the ninth- or tenth-best team in the majors. They wouldn’t have sniffed being Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. No one would be talking about them as a model for how a small-market team should build. Game 6 of the 1985 World Series changed the narrative of that team. But the Wild Card game changed the narrative of the entire franchise. So if you wanted to rank it #1, you will get no argument from me.
A week earlier, I had never seen the Royals play a meaningful game period, let alone in person. Four days earlier, I was there in Chicago when the Royals clinched their first playoff spot in 29 years. One day earlier I had never witnessed a Royals postseason game. And then suddenly I had a primo seat for one of the two best Royals games ever played, a game I’ve taken to simply calling The Game, a game I intend to tell my grandchildren about. I’ll always be grateful for that experience.
I wasn’t there when the Royals clinched the ALDS at home, or the ALCS at home, but I was there for all four World Series games at Kauffman Stadium. I had never been to any World Series games, and now I’ve been to four of them. My wife flew down for Game 2, and it was honestly one of the most romantic evenings we’ve ever spent at an event: five-and-a-half innings of sheer tension in a must-win game, followed by an uproarious five-run rally with Hunter Strickland providing comic relief, and then three innings to party.
I was there for Game 6, and the biggest inning in Royals postseason history. And I was there for Game 7, which was A GAME 7. It was just the sixth Game 7 in the last 25 years. In that span there have been more World Cup Finals than Game 7s. Since 1988 there have been more presidential elections than Game 7s. You can be a diehard baseball fan for a lifetime and never have the opportunity to attend a Game 7. I’ll always be grateful for that experience too, even though the Royals lost.
The Royals lost, but for one brief shining moment they had an opportunity to do something that’s never been done. When Alex Gordon was held at third base, it brought Salvador Perez to the plate, and it occurred to me at that moment that if Perez hit a home run, it would be – without an iota of hyperbole – the greatest moment in the history of baseball.
Consider this: there has never been a walkoff hit in Game 7 of the World Series that came with the home team losing. There have been walkoff hits in tie games – Bill Mazeroski’s home run in 1960, Edgar Renteria’s single in 1997. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing in Game 6 – Dane Iorg, famously, but Joe Carter even more famously, as his walkoff hit ended the season. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing that clinched a pennant, like Bobby Thomson in 1951 and Francisco Cabrera in 1992. But the dream hit – Game 7 of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, your team is losing, and you win the game – has never happened.
“When I was 10 years old,” Yost said, “hitting rocks in the backyard, trying to hit it over the fence for a home run, I never one time thought ‘OK, bases loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth, game five of the World Series,’ you know? It was always two outs, bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series.”
The bases weren’t loaded, but otherwise there wasn’t a more dramatic situation possible than the one that Salvador Perez faced. In just five previous World Series has a batter even had the opportunity for a walk-off hit in Game 7 of the World Series with his team losing:
1912: The Red Sox and Giants were tied at 1 after nine innings, and the Giants scored a run in the top of the tenth. But Fred Snodgrass muffed pinch-hitter Clyde Engle’s leadoff fly ball in the bottom of the inning. Harry Hooper flied out with Engle moving to third, Steve Yerkes walked, and then Tris Speaker singled Engle home to tie the game; the Red Sox would win later in the inning. (Technically this was Game 8; there had been a tie.)
1962: The Yankees led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, when Matty Alou led off with a bunt single. Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out against Ralph Terry, but Willie Mays then hit a double to put the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Willie McCovey then came closer to the dream hit than anyone in history, scorching a line drive right at second baseman Bobby Richardson to end it.
1972: The Oakland A’s led the Reds, 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Darrel Chaney pinch-hit and was hit by a pitch, bringing the winning run to the plate, but Pete Rose flew out to left field.
1997: The Indians led the Marlins, 2-1 in the ninth, but Moises Alou – Matty’s nephew, Felipe’s son – led off with a single. This time it wasn’t in vain. Bobby Bonilla struck out, but Charles Johnson singled to put runners on the corners. With the tying run on third and one out, rookie Craig Counsell came through, hitting a deep fly ball off Jose Mesa to score Alou. The Marlins would win two innings later.
2001: Mark Grace leads off the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera, with the Diamondbacks losing, 2-1. Grace singles. Damian Miller puts a bunt down, but Rivera throws wildly to second and both men are safe. Jay Bell then bunts, but this time the lead runner is cut down. Tony Womack – Tony Womack! – then doubles to tie the game and put the winning run on third with one out; one batter later, Luis Gonzalez would end the season with a broken-bat looper over Derek Jeter’s head.
By win expectancy in Game 7, I’m pretty sure that Tony Womack has the biggest hit in major league history.
(There should have been a sixth game, but in 1926, after Babe Ruth walked with two outs in the ninth down a run, he tried to steal second base – and was thrown out. With Bob Meusel at the plate. And Lou Gehrig on deck.)
And now 2014, and Salvador Perez, who became just the 15th batter in major league history to step into the batter’s box in a situation that every kid the world over dreams about – with his team losing in Game 7 of the World Series, but with a chance to win the game with one swing. He was just the fourth batter, after Mays, McCovey, and Rose – quite the combination there – to do so with two outs. If the season had ended right there, fading to black Sopranos-style with “Don’t Stop Believin’” playing…well, that would have been a more satisfying ending than the actual Sopranos ending.
He didn’t come through, but just the fact that he had the chance is something that I imagine will stick with me forever. My last column was about whether the Royals had the most enjoyable season ever by a team that didn’t win a title. Well, the Royals didn’t just come within one swing of a championship – they came within one swing of the greatest season in baseball history.
What’s the greatest season in baseball history? What season combines drama, sheer improbability, and cathartic victory? There are the 1914 Boston Braves (the “Miracle Braves”) and the 1969 New York Mets (the “Miracle Mets”). There’s the 1924 Washington Senators winning their first pennant, then winning Game 7 in 12 innings after being down two runs entering the 8th.
There’s the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, finally winning one over the Yankees in seven games. There’s the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, winning their first title in 35 years by beating a vastly more talented Yankees team that outscored them 55-27 in the World Series.
There’s the 1978 Yankees, who came back from 14 games down to catch the Red Sox and win a tiebreaker game before winning the title. There’s the 1980 Phillies winning their first championship ever. There’s the 1986 Mets, who combined a regular season coronation – their 108 wins were the most in baseball in a decade – with an incredible six-game victory over the Astros in the NLCS, and then Game 6 of the World Series, featuring a comeback from down two runs with two outs in the tenth inning, and then coming back from down 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7.
There’s the 1988 Dodgers, who rode Orel Hershiser’s arm and Kirk Gibson’s magic to a title. There’s the 1991 Twins, who went from last to first and then won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series in extra innings. There’s the 2001 Diamondbacks, who rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson to a title and were losing in the ninth inning of Game 7 to Mariano Freaking Rivera. There’s the 2004 Red Sox, who broke an 86-year-old drought and are the only team to come back from a three games to none deficit. There’s the 2011 Cardinals, who had no business even making the playoffs – they were three games behind the Braves with five games to go.
Maybe I’m not the most unbiased person to be answering this question, but if Madison Bumgarner had missed his spot once and left a pitch where Perez could get to it, and if Perez had dropped that pitch into the left field bullpen, the Royals would have had a case to be ranked ahead of every one of those teams – maybe even the 2004 Red Sox. The Royals had a 29-year drought of their own, and they would have won Game 7 of the World Series after being down to their final out.
The Royals didn’t win the World Series. But they came within one swing of something far more monumental than a world championship. They came within one swing of the greatest story in baseball history. How I can dwell on the way it ended? The mere fact that it could have ended differently is a miracle in its own right.
And now I’m done living in the past. It’s time to look at what 2014 means for the future in my final few columns before I turn out the lights here. But first up, an apology needs to be written. An apology I was hoping I’d have to write for the past two years, and an apology many of you have been hoping you’d get to read for just as long.