It still hurts. I suspect it will always hurt, at least a little. There will always be a scar on my baseball psyche, with Madison Bumgarner’s name tattooed over it.
But every day it hurts a little less. I’m actually kind of surprised at how quickly the way October ended has been superseded in my mind by how it began, and by everything in the middle.
For a few days, I couldn’t help but play what-if scenarios in my mind over and over again; I’d find myself daydreaming in the middle of seeing patients, imagining what would have happened if Gordon had gone for home, or if Gore had pinch-ran and stolen home, or – above all – if I had witnessed Salvador Perez crush a Bumgarner pitch that caught too much of the plate deep into the left field night. I guess the only thing I can compare it to is being 13 years old again and daydreaming that the unattainably gorgeous girl in class suddenly took a shine to me, or needed help with her math homework, or even knew that I existed. I was pining for a reality which could never be.
(Oh, stop it. Like you were never 13 years old once.)
But eventually Game 7 stitched itself into the tapestry of my memory, as if it were something that not only was in the past but had always been in the past, as if I had never experienced it in the present. I’m fond of the Shakespearean line that “what’s past is prologue”, and eventually I stopped thinking of Game 7 as something which could have turned out differently in a million different ways, and instead as something which was part of the background of my life. The Royals lost the World Series in 2014 just like they lost the World Series in 1980, when I was five years old, and I’ve never been broken up about losing the 1980 World Series because it was a historical fact as far back as I can remember. Royals fans of the future will learn about the 2014 Royals and they won’t be distraught over the fact that they lost the World Series. They will, however, take immense pride in the fact that their Royals came damn near close to winning it.
The sinking in of that fact is one of the things which, over time, made it easier to accept the way it ended: that while the Royals didn’t win the World Series, they basically came as close as any team can come to winning the World Series without actually blowing it. If they had come any closer to winning, their failure to win would have been their fault. What made the 1986 Red Sox and 2011 Rangers torment their fans is that their failure to win was ultimately the fault of the team, their inability to hold on to a two-run lead with three outs to go (in the Rangers’ case, twice.)
But the Royals didn’t blow a lead in Game 7. They never held a lead in a game which could have eliminated the Giants. They were tied for the better part of three innings, and then they trailed by a single run for six innings, and their bullpen kept it a one-run game for six innings, but they simply couldn’t find a way to come back, mostly because they ran into arguably the greatest single season postseason pitching performance of all time. Bumgarner threw 52.2 innings in the playoffs – the most of any pitcher ever – and allowed seven runs. One was unearned; he had a 1.03 ERA. Against the Royals, he allowed one run in 21 innings. In a situation in which one run would tie Game 7 of the World Series, he threw five shutout innings on two days’ rest.
You can convert the credit for Bumgarner into blame on the Royals if you want, but in the 40 innings not pitched by Bumgarner in the series, the Royals scored 26 runs. Giants pitchers not named Bumgarner had a 5.85 ERA. The Royals didn’t wilt under the pressure and get swept in the World Series; they didn’t choke away a lead when a world championship was in sight. They didn’t lose to a team that had no business beating them. They took the Giants to seven games, and the game ended with the winning run at the plate, and they only lost because the one transcendent player in the Series pitched for the other team. They won three of the four games in which Bumgarner didn’t pitch the majority of the innings for the Giants. There is no shame in that. As Bill Simmons wrote to me after the game, “I thought it was the most noble baseball loss I can remember.” If you’re going to lose the World Series, I can think of no better way to lose than that.
Here’s another way to frame the season we just witnessed: Imagine that you could pick any team in the history of major league baseball to root for, but with the caveat that they could not have won the world championship. Would you pick the 2014 Royals?
If you could pick from any team of all time, you probably wouldn’t; the 1951 Giants remain the gold standard in this category. In an era when the World Series was the entire postseason, the Giants nevertheless played a best-of-three series to decide the pennant when they finished tied with the Dodgers for first place in the NL. And the Giants had two historic comebacks – the first from being 13 games behind the Dodgers on the morning August 12th (they went 37-7 from that point to catch the Dodgers), and the second from being three runs down in the bottom of the ninth inning in the third and decisive game of the NL tiebreaker. Yes, there’s a little bit of New York paternalism (a.k.a. East Coast Bias) in the fact that Bobby Thomson’s homer is still known as the Shot Heard ‘Round The World, or that the date October 3rd, 1951 still resonates today. But just a little bit. It’s hard to imagine a more fun season that didn’t end with a world championship than the one the 1951 Giants had.
But since then? I think these are our requirements:
1) The team must have lost in the World Series. It’s hard to qualify your season an all-time great among non-world champions if you didn’t even win the pennant. This eliminates, for instance, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, or the 1983 “Winning Ugly” White Sox.
2) Your team must not have been a historically great regular-season team, or at least a team that was highly favored in the World Series. An all-time great season can’t end with your team being upset in the playoffs. There has to be some aspect of the just-happy-to-have-made-it-this-far narrative. This eliminates the 1954 Cleveland Indians, and in my opinion the 1995 Cleveland Indians (one of my favorite teams ever) as well.
3) Your team can not have recently won a World Series, as the near-miss season would pale in comparison no matter how great it was. Otherwise, given all the non-baseball stuff going on, the 2001 New York Yankees would be tough to beat.
So here are our contenders:
1) The 1959 White Sox. After finishing in third place for five straight years from 1952 to 1956, and in second place behind the Yankees in 1957 and 1958, they finally won the pennant for the first time since the Black Sox of 1919. They had an identity – the “Go-Go Sox” – that still holds up to this day, leading the league with 113 steals, 56 of them by Luis Aparicio – Mickey Mantle, who finished second in the league, had just 21 steals. (Aparicio had more steals by himself than every other team besides the Red Sox.) The 113 steals were the most by any team in the majors in ten years, since the 1949 Dodgers. (This is an aside, but 1950s baseball was like a sabermetric dream – lots of walks and homers, very few steals. It might have been the percentage way to play, but it was probably kind of boring. The Go-Go Sox heralded a new era; in the 1960s, 17 teams would have more steals in a season than any team in the 1950s had.)
But they lost the World Series in six games, and worse, they lost to a Dodgers team that went 88-68. True, there were fewer games in the season then, but think about that: in an era before divisions, no team in the NL won more than 88 games that year. (The Dodgers actually went 86-68, but then won both games of a best-of-three tiebreaker with the Milwaukee Braves.) That had to hurt.
2) The 1961 Reds. Won the pennant for the first time since 1940. Finished under .500 the previous three years. Bill James once described this team – I’m paraphrasing – as the only team in the history of baseball where a GM looked at his team in the off-season, identified the bad players, and then replaced every single one of them with good players before the next season.
Points are docked for the lack of drama – they moved into first place for good on August 16th and won the NL by four games. They then got beaten up pretty good by the 1961 Yankees, who between the numbers 109 (the number of games they won) and 61 (the number of homers that Roger Maris hit) were the story of that season.
3) The 1965 Twins. The Twins had finished under .500 in 1964 (they had won 91 games each in 1962 and 1963), and this was their first playoff berth since moving to Minnesota (the franchise hadn’t been to the World Series since 1933). The home team won each of the first six games of the World Series, but for Game 7, the Dodgers started Sandy Koufax on two days’ rest, and Koufax threw a three-hit shutout to beat the Twins, 2-0.
That sounds familiar.
The Twins have an excellent case, but get docked for the fact that while the franchise was long-suffering, the city itself had not – it was just their fifth season in Minnesota. Also, they had precious little drama during the season – they held a lead of at least seven games for the entirety of the last three weeks of the season – and the World Series itself didn’t add a lot of drama. None of the games were one-run affairs, in no game was the winning run scored after the sixth inning, and in just one game was the winning run scored after the fourth inning.
4) The 1967 Boston Red Sox. The Impossible Dream. The Red Sox hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1946, and were coming off eight losing seasons in a row, but they had in place one of the youngest lineups in the game. In a wild four-team race for the pennant, the Red Sox were never more than 1.5 games out of first place nor more than 1.5 games ahead at any point from August 20th on. From September 2nd until the end of the month, the Red Sox were tied for first place eight times without ever leading the league outright. With two days left in the season, they were a game behind the Twins and tied with the Tigers, with the White Sox a game behind them. They beat the Twins on September 30th, 6-4; Detroit was rained out. On October 1st, the final day of the season, they beat the Twins again, 5-3; the Tigers won the first game of their doubleheader, but lost the second game, 8-5, and the Red Sox were AL champions.
In the midst of all this, Carl Yastrzemski finished one of the greatest seasons of all time – he won the Triple Crown, and finished with 12.4 bWAR, which ranks as the third highest by a hitter ever, behind a pair of Babe Ruth seasons – with one of the greatest stretch runs of all time. In Boston’s final 12 games, Yaz went 23-for-44 (.523) with four doubles, five homers, and 16 RBI. In the next-to-last game against the Twins he went 3-for-4 with a homer; on the final day of the season he went 4-for-4. Joe Posnanski once wrote a tremendous breakdown of Yaz’s final two weeks, which seems to have been lost in the ether; if anyone can track it down I’d appreciate it. (Yastrzemski also hit .400/.540/.840 in the World Series, with three homers.)
They lost the World Series to the Cardinals, who had recently won the World Series in 1964, in seven games. Bob Gibson won Games 1 and 4 for the Cardinals; the Red Sox were down 3 games to 1 but won Game 5 to bring the series home to Boston, then won Game 6 to force a Game 7 at Fenway Park. But the Cardinals could call on Gibson again, and Gibson threw his third complete-game victory of the World Series.
Holy crap that sounds familiar.
5) The 1975 Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 1967, having been in first place the entire second half of the season, then faced the defending three-time world champion Oakland A’s in the ALCS – and swept them handily. They then faced the Cincinnati Reds, who went 108-54 and were The Big Red Machine – and gave the Reds everything they could handle. Carlton Fisk’s walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 remains one of the 20 greatest moments in baseball history, which is pretty incredible given that his team didn’t win a championship.
The 1975 Red Sox could rank at the very top of this list, but for a couple of things: 1) having already come so close in 1967, a second near-miss in eight years wasn’t nearly as happy as the first was, particularly for a franchise that hadn’t won a championship since 1918. I wonder if 1975 was the point where Red Sox fans started to wonder if their drought wasn’t simply the result of bad owners selling off great players for many years, but started to involve divine providence. That point might have been reached in part because after winning Game 6, the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead after five innings in Game 7, at home, but starter Bill Lee threw an eephus pitch in the sixth inning that Tony Perez hit for a two-run homer, the Reds scored another run in the seventh to tie, and a final run in the ninth on a two-out single by Joe Morgan that gave them the win.
The 1975 Red Sox had a phenomenal year, but the combination of having already come so close just a few years earlier, and having had a three-run lead in Game 7, left a bitter taste in the mouths of their fans that winter.
6) The 1980 Kansas City Royals. I mention them only because of the catharsis that comes, after losing three straight ALCS rounds to the Yankees from 1976 to 1978, with sweeping the Yankees and clinching their first AL pennant, punctuated by George Brett’s titanic home run off Goose Gossage in Game 3.
But they not only lost the World Series to the Phillies in six games, they twice blew late leads that could have changed the course of the series – Dan Quisenberry blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 2, allowing four runs, and with the series tied at two games apiece in game 5, he blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning by allowing two runs. I’m too young to remember this series at all, but I have to imagine it was a very bittersweet winter for Royals fans: they finally slayed the Yankees, but man, they really should have won the title.
7) The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had made the postseason for the first time the year before, but had lost in the first round, the very first Division Series necessitated by the strike that season and the bizarre split-season format that was instituted. In 1982, they were 23-24 and in fifth place on June 2nd when manager Buck Rodgers was fired and replaced with Harvey Kuenn. From that point on they became Harvey’s Wallbangers, going 72-43 under Kuenn. With five games left they had a four-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles. But they lost to the Red Sox on Thursday, then lost a doubleheader to the Orioles on Friday and lost again to Baltimore on Saturday, putting them in a tie for the AL East. But late-season acquisition Don Sutton beat fellow future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer on Sunday to clinch the division.
After losing the first two games of the ALCS in Anaheim, the Brewers had to win all three games in Milwaukee – and did so, winning Game 5 by the score of 4-3 after scoring the tying and winning runs in the seventh inning. They were up three games to two on the Cardinals in the World Series, but the Cardinals came home and throttled the Brewers in Game 6, 13-1 (the first baseball game I have a clear memory of watching on TV), and then won Game 7, 6-3.
The near-collapse at the end, winning three elimination games in the ALCS, the sad (if brief) history of the franchise to that point, the iconic nickname…this team rates very, very well. The biggest blemish I can find is simply that the team probably wasn’t the national public’s sweetheart in the World Series the way these Royals were – the Cardinals hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1968 before this season.
8) The 1984 San Diego Padres. It was the Padres’ first-ever playoff berth, and while they won the NL West with minimal drama, winning the division by 12 games, they came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Cubs in the final best-of-five NLCS before they switched to the current best-of-seven format. That series is generally remembered for the Cubs not winning it, which sort of sums up the plight of the Padres – no one cares about them. And then they went to the World Series and got steamrolled by the 1984 Tigers, one of the greatest teams of their generation.
9) The 1991 Atlanta Braves. The Braves had gone 65-97 the year before, and had finished in dead last in the NL West (yes, there was a time when a team in Atlanta played in the NL West) for three straight years. They were 39-40 and 9.5 games out of first place at the All-Star Break. They went 55-28 from that point on, catching the Dodgers with three games left and then clinching the division in Game 161. They were down 3 games to 2 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, and had to win Games 6 and 7 on the road. Game 6 was scoreless until the ninth, when catcher Gregg Olson hit a two-out double to drive home Ron Gant. 21-year-old Steve Avery threw eight scoreless innings to outduel Doug Drabek, who had won the Cy Young Award the year before. The Braves scored three runs in the top of the first in Game 7, and John Smoltz threw a six-hit shutout.
The Braves then lost one of the greatest World Series of all time to the Minnesota Twins. Really, the only reason not to rank this team first with a bullet is that the way they lost. Kirby Puckett stole a potential homer in Game 6, then hit the walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th against Charlie Leibrandt. And then Game 7, when Lonnie Smith lost sight of Terry Pendleton’s double in the gap in the eighth inning, got deked by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, and held up at third base. And then, with men on second and third and none out, the Braves didn’t score. Ron Gant hit a grounder to first base, and I still don’t know why the Braves didn’t have the contact play on – with a runner at second, even if the go-ahead run gets thrown out at the plate you’ll have a new go-ahead run at third base. Smith held, the Twins intentionally walked David Justice, and Sid Bream – sort of a left-handed-hitting Billy Butler – hit into an inning-ending double play. And then the Braves let Jack Freaking Morris shut them out for 10 innings before the Twins pushed the season-ending run home.
But it was a hell of a year for a young, immensely talented team. No, we didn’t know the Braves would win 14 division titles in 15 years. But we didn’t think we had seen the end of them either.
10) The 1992 Atlanta Braves. Mentioned here only because they beat the Pirates again in the NLCS in the most dramatic fashion possible, with a two-out, bases-loaded pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 by Francisco Cabrera, driving home the tying and winning runs. Cabrera’s single ranks with Fisk’s homer as the greatest moment in baseball history by a non-champion. But they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series in six games. The nation was already starting to tire of them a little.
11) The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. A team remembered more for its personalities than its talent today, but they were a tremendously enjoyable team at the time. The Phillies hadn’t reached the playoffs in ten years and were coming off six losing seasons in a row. But this team just wore out pitching staffs with their offense – they led the NL with a .351 OBP, and are one of only two teams in major league history to have three players draw 110 or more walks. (The other team was the 1949 Philadelphia A’s.) The Royals have had three players draw 110 or more walks in their entire franchise history.
They then beat the Braves in the NLCS in six games. But they lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series, and did so because aside from emerging ace Curt Schilling, no one on this team could pitch worth a damn. They famously lost Game 4 of the World Series, 15-14, the highest-scoring game in World Series history – the Phillies held a 14-9 lead through seven innings, but Larry Andersen and closer Mitch Williams combined to allow six runs in the eighth. Schilling threw a shutout in Game 5, but Williams was back for Game 6, coming in to protect a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the ninth and instead allowing a leadoff walk, a one-out single, and then Joe Carter’s series-ending walk-off home run.
12) The 1995 Cleveland Indians. I said that they didn’t qualify earlier, but they were just so damn good, man. The first Indians team to make the postseason in 41 years, and they were just a machine – as good offensively as The Big Red Machine 20 years earlier. Carlos Baerga at second base. Omar Vizquel at shortstop. Jim Thome at third base. An outfield of Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and Albert Belle. Eddie Murray at DH. Add on Sandy Alomar behind the plate and Paul Sorrento at first base, and this is probably the only team aside from the 1975-76 Reds where I can name the entire starting lineup.
Naturally, this was the team that the Braves beat for their only world championship of this generation. Baseball doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
13) The 2005 Houston Astros. Deserve a mention because they finally reached their first World Series, after the near-miss of 1986, and after losing an epic and completely forgotten NLCS against the Cardinals in 2004. This was this year that Albert Pujols sent a pitch into orbit and derailed Brad Lidge’s career with a game-winning homer in Game 4 with the Astros one out from winning the pennant; the next night Roy Oswalt coolly pitched Houston to the World Series anyway.
But they got swept in the World Series by a White Sox team that hadn’t won a title in 88 years. That has a way of overshadowing what the Astros accomplished that year.
14) The 2007 Colorado Rockies. The Rockies were 76-72 on the morning of Sunday, September 16th; they were in fourth place in the NL West; they were 4.5 games out of the wild card, and behind three teams in the wild card race.
And then Rocktober happened. They won 11 games in a row, including a sweep of the Padres, and heading into the final weekend of the season they were 87-72. The Padres were 88-71. The Diamondbacks were 89-70. They were hosting the Diamondbacks, knowing that a sweep guaranteed them a playoff spot.
On Friday night, they lost, eliminating them from the division title. The Padres won, meaning the Rockies were two back with two to play.
On Saturday, the Rockies crushed Arizona 11-1, but the Padres led the Brewers, 3-2 going to the bottom of the ninth, with all-time great closer Trevor Hoffman on the mound. Hoffman struck out Prince Fielder, then allowed a double to Corey Hart, then struck out Laynce Nix. With the Rockies down to their final out from a thousand miles away, the Brewers’ manager – some guy named Ned Yost – called upon a pinch-hitter (NO, SERIOUSLY!). He called upon the son of the greatest San Diego Padre of all time: Tony Gwynn, Jr.
On a 2-2 pitch – with the Padres one strike away from the playoffs – Gwynn tripled to right field to tie game. In the bottom of the 11th, Vinny Rottino hit a walk-off single to win the game for Milwaukee.
On Sunday, the Rockies edged the Diamondbacks, 4-3, in a game that was tied 1-1 after seven innings. The Padres blew an early 3-0 lead and lost to Milwaukee, 11-6, setting up a tiebreaker game in Colorado on Monday.
This being Coors Field, you expected a lot of runs, and both teams delivered. The Padres scored five runs in the third inning, but the Rockies scored in five of the first six innings, and led 6-5 until the Padres tied it with a run in the eighth. And then both teams went scoreless in the ninth, the tenth, the 11th and the 12th. In the 13th inning, Brian Giles led off with a walk, and Scott Hairston hit a two-run homer. Trevor Hoffman once again came out to save a game that would put San Diego in the playoffs.
Kazuo Matsui led off with a double. Troy Tulowitzki doubled him home. Matt Holliday tripled to right field, tying the game and putting the winning run at third with none out. Todd Helton was intentionally walked. Then Jamey Carroll hit a flyball to right field, and Holliday was just in under the tag – it’s still not clear he actually touched home plate, because until 2014 it was somehow totally okay for the catcher to block the plate with his body – to win the game.
Three times the Rockies looked finished – when they had the seventh-best record in the league with two weeks to go, when they were one strike away from watching the Padres clinch in Milwaukee, and when they were two runs down in the 13th inning of the tiebreaker game. They somehow overcame all three obstacles – and once their death sentence was commuted and they started the playoffs on equal footing with every other team, like the 2014 Royals, they just went nuts. They played the Phillies in the NLDS and swept the series. They got a rematch against the Diamondbacks and served their revenge dish cold, sweeping again.
And then they played the Red Sox in the World Series and learned that their National League Rocktober Magic, while cute, was no match for AL superiority. The Rockies not only were swept, they held a lead in the World Series for the grand total of three innings. They held a lead or were tied for the grand total of six innings. It was kind of a beatdown, and it kind of left the impression that the Rockies were a fluke, if not a fraud. And in light of what’s happened to the Rockies since, they probably were both. But man, it was fun while it lasted. The Rockies maybe couldn’t hold their heads up as high as the Royals could when it was over, but their fans probably appreciated just how lucky they were to be there in the first place even more than Royals fans have.
15) The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Forget a winning season – in the Rays’ first ten years, they hadn’t won more than 70 games in a season. A new administration took over that knew what the hell it was doing, and they had a lot of young talent thanks to all their high draft picks, and they underwent one of the greatest defensive makeover in modern times (B.J. Upton, horrible second baseman, became B.J. Upton, excellent centerfielder; the Rays had traded defensive butcher Delmon Young for shortstop Jason Bartlett; Evan Longoria debuted as a rookie third baseman, and Akinori Iwamura was moved from third base to his natural position of second base.) A team that had gone 66-96 in 2007 went 97-65 and won the AL East, then beat the White Sox in four games in the ALDS before prevailing over the Red Sox in an epic 7-game ALCS. The Rays blew a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 5 that would have clinched the series, then lost Game 6 at home before winning Game 7, 3-1, with a pre-rookie left-hander named David Price, who had thrown just 14 regular season innings and one inning in the playoffs so far, getting the final four outs to clinch the pennant.
The Rays then lost to the Phillies in five games in the World Series; three of their four losses were by one run.
16) The 2014 Kansas City Royals.
You could rank these teams in any number of ways, but to me there’s a pretty clear first tier, which I’ll do my best to rank here. (Feel free to debate this in the comments.) Remember, the criteria is, “since 1951, the team you would most like to have rooted for even though they didn’t win the World Series.”
1) 1967 Boston Red Sox
2) 1991 Atlanta Braves
3) 2007 Colorado Rockies
4) 2014 Kansas City Royals
5) 1982 Milwaukee Brewers
6) 2008 Tampa Bay Rays
7) 1959 Chicago White Sox
8) 1975 Boston Red Sox
(I go back and forth on whether the 1995 Indians should be on this list, because I just see them as a different kind of team – like the 2001 Mariners, they were such a regular season juggernaut that anything shy of winning the World Series felt like a disappointment. Maybe it’s unfair that I’m penalizing them for being too good – in which case they probably should rank #1.)
Depending on how much weight you want to put on the World Series itself – coming close, but not too close – I could see the 2014 Royals ranking as high as second, and no lower than fifth. I could see the 2007 Rockies first if you don’t put any weight at all on what happens in the World Series – their path to the World Series (Tony Gwynn Jr. knocking his dad’s team out of the playoffs!) was stranger than fiction.
But by any measure, the 2014 Royals were one of the most fun teams to root for among non-championship teams in the last 60 years. They might have been the most fun AL team to root for since the 1967 Boston Red Sox, a team which lives on in memory a half-century later even though they didn’t win it all. I hope that, a half-century from now, these Royals will do the same.