Loveable Losers

Loveable Losers

After one hundred and eight years of watching other teams celebrate a World Series victory, the Chicago Cubs have finally ended the drought and brought a championship home to long-suffering Cub fans.  The series went to seven games, dramatic shifts in the lead gave the seventh game far more punch than we’ve seen in most tilts, a rain delay kept the suspense alive, pitchers played the part pitchers should play, unsung heroes emerged, steady vets provided leadership, two great managers contended with wily genius, and the right teams were in the series.

One of the things I like about sportswriting is the freedom to jump from one strongly held conviction to another at mid-season, even mid-game, as momentum changes and vivid personalities emerge..  Writers love to tag an early contender a “team of destiny”, with the caveat that there might be other teams with equally fated destinies lying in wait.  From the start of the season, it appeared that this was the Cubs’ season; they got off to a rip snorting start with a line-up that appeared inevitably a World Series machine.  Then, somewhere in August, it also became the Indians’ season, as a squad with remarkable pitching and one of the best infielders of the modern age emerged in the other city by the lake.

Oh, and they hadn’t taken a series victory since 1948.

Now, THAT was a team of destiny.  How many stories can any one team provide without devolving into fantasy?

The ’48 Indians were owned by baseball’s greatest showman, Bill Veeck (rhymes with wreck) who is now best remembered for the stunts he pulled as owner of the St. Louis Browns, particularly for putting Eddie Gaedel, at three feet and seven inches the shortest man who ever played in the majors, in as a pitch hitter in a double-header against the Detroit Tigers.  Gaedel, who took four straight pitches, walked to first base, and retired with an on-base percentage of .1000.

Less well remembered is the role that Veeck played in bringing the first black ballplayers to the American League.  Larry Doby was the second player to break the color barrier, making his first appearance as an Indian in July of 1945.  In 1948, legendary Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige, appeared in his first game as an Indian, the oldest major league rookie on record, taking the mound at the age of 42.

To be completely transparent, Satchel Paige’s actual age was always a subject of some contention.  Next to Yogi Berra, Paige may be the most frequently quoted baseball player, responding with evasive wisdom to almost every question posed him.  Asked about his age, Paige famously replied, ” If someone asked you how old you were and you didn’t know your age, how old would you think you were?”

Doby, who went on win RBI and homerun championships in the American League and who was voted to the All Star team seven times, was also the second black manager in major league baseball.  He and Paige were to become the first African American baseball players to win a world series with the 1948 Indians.  Their accomplishments stand on their own, but Veeck, whose interest in the Negro League was long-standing, had tried to integrate baseball as early as 1942, when his bid to bring Negro League players to the Phillies cost him the chance to own the team as the commissioner of baseball at the time was not ready to end segregation.

So, kudos to Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson; their struggle to break the color barrier is the stuff of history.  But, let’s not forget the Indians, who had to win a sudden-death play off game in 1948 against the Boston Red Sox, the last major league team to integrate, holding out until 1959.

Good news – Bad news.  The world series in 2016 between the Cubs and the Indians was the equivalent of a battle-to-the-death between unicorns and pandas; anyone with a heart hated to see either team lose.

Kris Bryant, the fresh-faced wunderkind whose heroic performance had much to do with the Cubs’ success this year and with the fondness fans feel for the club, found himself in the sort of awkward corner into which on-the-field sports reporters love to push young players, asked to respond to yet another hypothetical question:   “If the Cubs win the series, won’t fans of the loveable losers see the team as just another ball club?”

Uh, ok.  No?  Yes?  Who cares?

The Curse of the Bambino finally left the Red Sox (don’t get me started), and its fans became Red Sox Nation after the Sox finally pounded their way to the top in 2004.  Again, a sense of perspective is important in evaluating the degree of sympathy to lend to the suffering fan.  The Red Sox have won eight world series and played in twelve.  A total of 36 Hall of Famers have played for the Sox, 14 of whom were inducted as Red Sox.  Again, citing transparency, Roger Clemens could be included in the list of extraordinary players who played for Boston; Dom DiMaggio should be in the Hall of Fame (don’t get me started – save a place for Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, Jack Morris, Trammell and Whitaker, Barry Bonds, and (ugh) Clemens).

All of which is to suggest that if non-affiliated proto-fans are looking for a place to invest their love and loyalty, the current crop of ballplayers laboring for the Cleveland Indians include some exceedingly loveable winners, including shortstop Francisco Lindor and Cy Young Award winner Corey (Kluobot) Kluber.  Perhaps the most loveable of all, however, is Indian manager, Terry Francona, whose dad, Tito Francona, played for the Indians from 1959 to 1964.  Not only is Francona among the most highly respected baseball strategist, his calm and steady leadership is evidenced by the success he has had, both as the Indians manager and as the manager who finally took the Red Sox to their long-postponed world series triumph.

Not to sidetrack the Red Sox bandwagon, but Francona was hired to manage the Sox after Manager Grady Little’s team lost the ALC series in 2003 and fired after having led the Sox to World Championships in 2004 and 2007, after racking up 1000 games as the manager of the Red Sox, and after losing the AL Wild Card spot to the Rays as the team folded like a Flamenco dancer’s fan in September of 2011.   His post-season winning record as manager of the Red Sox was .622, and his regular season percentage of .545 tops  Joe Cronin, Boston’s second winningest manager from 1935-1947.

Oh, and fired after having had a heart attack and returning to take the Sox back to victory in the series.  Just saying.

So, Congratulations, Cubs!  They are a great team and deserve the continued support of fans who now know the thrill of victory.

And for the Indians, wait until next year.







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