Hereabouts, it may be little noted, with your Town Team riding high with three weeks to go. Similar indifference can be expected in LA, Texas, St. Louis, maybe even New York.
But in nonaligned baseball territories and sectors of the culture where allegiances are less passionate, there are three potential runaway favorites, with all three up from the deepest of historical dredges. We speak, obviously, of those long woebegone Cleveland Indians, about the offspring of Washington’s least distinguished Senators, and of those eternally cuddly if oft pathetic Cubbies of Chicago.
Everyone pulls for the loveable and star-crossed losers, wronged by the fates for so long that their suffering is ridiculously romanticized and huge faults are forgiven. It’s a very American thing. No team has ever benefited more from this curious dispensation than your Red Sox of 1919-2003, who managed to twist the mindless bungling of season after season into a veritable art-form under the guise of egregious nonsense termed “The Curse of the Bambino,” which was always a crock of you know what.
When the team won three titles within the span of the first 13 years of the new century, that cozy dispensation has withered away. The contemporary Red Sox are the sentimental favorites of very few much west of Worcester.
Ah, but we digress. The point is that much of the nation would delight in a finale matching Terry Francona’s Indians against Joe Maddon’s Cubs with the two teams’ grand total of 170 years of failed promise and wanton under-achievement riding high on the line to the greater amusement of the masses. Only in baseball, might anything comparable be possible. Unless you’re a ravenous acolyte of Red Sox Nation, the charms of this premise are undeniable.
The Washington Nationals. Wayward descendants of the original Senators who once were exquisitely described as representing the town that’s “First in war, first in Peace, and last in the American League.”
Baseball’s original doormats, they won three pennants in six decades with their only championship in 1924 when Walter “Big Train” Johnson carried them on his brawny back and Goose Goslin delivered the punch. The ‘Originals’ become the Twins who were succeeded by the weak expansion Nats, who eventually fled to Texas, leaving the capital in the cold until the Expos expired. Given such weird and confused lineage, Washington Baseball’s perpetual identity crisis makes perfectly good sense.
The Cleveland Indians. You have to be heartless not to weep for this town that’s had a baseball team since 1887 yielding the grand total of four pennants and two championships in thjose 129 years. They last went all the way in 1948 with the American League’s first de-segregated team under the enlightened leadership of Bill Veeck. Your host, who was nine years old at the time, has never forgiven them for defeating the beloved Boston Braves in the World Series. Some say the Indians, chronic losers from a luckless town, are well-named. Quaintly, it’s held there this season that the spell cast this spring by LeBron James ordains them. How very quaint!
The Chicago Cubs. The ultimate loveable losers. They have surpassed the Red Sox both in longest championship drought, now stretching 108 years, and in goofiest excuse, their alleged curse being all about a bloody goat. Long a serious, slugging contender with six losing WS appearances between the two big wars, they haven’t had a sniff since 1945; nor have they deserved one, for that matter. If the Cubs win, expect the rowdiest night in that toddling town since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked that lantern over in her shed. If they lose, it will be Chicago’s cruelest moment since the cross-town White Sox took a dive in 1919. Also at stake is Theo Epstein’s one-way ticket to Cooperstown.
It’s quite a scenario, really. The first stage has essentially been realized. With less than three weeks left to the regular season, the Cubs lead by 15, the Nationals by 8, and Indians by 6, margins too sizeable for even the most snake-bitten of franchises to consider squandering no matter how adept they’ve been at such pranks historically. On the other hand, making the post-season is a mere bauble hardly worth mentioning in this context. It’s all the way or fuhgitaboutit for these three.
You gotta like the odds that one of them will finally shed the monkey, spit in the eye of history, and end all the ragtime by finally doing it. Which of the three, asks you? Not going there, says I. But I’ll gladly do some handicapping.
The Indians are very likeable. They have the pitching. And they have several characters, chief among them old friend Mike Napoli, having seasons sprinkled with pixie dust. If it’s to end in high drama, you can imagine the Indians emerging on top. You can also see the Red Sox posing their gravest challenge with the intensity of that showdown being downright epic.
The Nationals are the most likely to fizzle. The apparent loss of Stephen Strasburg is huge. The likes of Bryce Harper are suspect. And manager Dusty Baker remains unproven. It hasn’t been Washington’s year.
The Cubs are the obvious pick. A dozen of them are enjoying career years. So is the manager, Joe Maddon, best in the business. Might their most formidable foe be their own Great Expectations?
Such would come as no surprise to this observer.