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Doing Pennants

Some wonderfully gaudy facts and feats have decorated this extraordinary baseball season. Mutual admirers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa demolished home-run history, of course, going downtown a total of 136 times. Cal Ripken--he of the silver countenance and the iron constitution--finally decided to take a day off after seventeen years on the job. Barry Bonds became the first player to list 400 homers and 400 stolen bases on his resume. With three games left in the regular season, three National League clubs found themselves dead even for the league's wild-card spot, and hearts thumped audibly from Queens Boulevard to State Street to Telegraph Hill. The indestructible Roger Clemens, a pitcher for the ages, won twenty games for the Toronto Blue Jays and seems likely to take home an unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award.

And, yes, the Cubs, Indians and Red Sox all made it to the playoffs.
Now, this is a bit like the Prohibitionist, Whig and Grateful Dead party candidates for president all throwing their hats into the ring--an exercise that, while momentarily uplifting for the participants, has as much chance of success as Mr. Clinton running for pope. Compute the sum of their futile seasons and you discover that these three venerable teams have not won a World Series in 220 years.

The way things are going in the divisional playoffs, none of them will do it in 1998, either. As of Monday morning, Boston and Chicago were both gone, and Cleveland had a familiar mountain to climb in the Bronx.

But where can human beings dream, if not in the country of baseball?
The beleaguered Cubs sadly traded two of their boisterous, unabashedly partisan broadcasters of old, Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, to the Celestial League this year. But North Siders' ancient hopes were revived by right-fielder Sosa, who whacked 66 home runs on their behalf, and by a baby-faced pitching phenom named Kerry Wood, who on May 6 struck out twenty Houston Astros. It was just his fifth major-league start, and the rest of his season sparkled, too, until he got hurt. It is upon Wood's strong right arm that the tides at Wrigley Field may some time, some day, some century, rise.

For now, though, Chicagoans must live with the fact that their beloved Cubbies have not played in the Series since 1945. Thank you very much, Leon "Bull" Durham, for letting that San Diego Padres grounder scoot through your legs in 1984! And they haven't won a World Championship since 1908--ninety years ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was president! Perhaps this excerpt from The Baseball Encyclopedia concerning the events of October 14, 1908, at Detroit can provide a bit of comfort: "Three hits and one RBI each by Evers and Chance aided Overall's 10-strikeout performance in the [Cubs'] Series clincher."

Then again, maybe not. As any chowderhead can tell you, the Boston Red Sox have been only slightly less frustrated in their efforts at glory. In the 1918 Series--eighty years ago, a full season before the Black Sox scandal!--the Bosox knocked off (who else?) the Cubs, in six games, on the strength of two wins by pitcher Carl Mays and two more by a chunky lefty named George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Quoth the Encyclopedia regarding September 11, 1918, the day Boston won its last Series: "Flack's error in the third let in two runs as Mays subdued Chicago on three hits."

Two seasons later, Mays, by then a New York Yankee, would fatally subdue Cleveland's Ray Chapman by flinging a fastball into his temple. But the Red Sox would never again subdue anyone--at least not in the World Series. When hard-up Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 and a loan of $300,000, some of his teammates were glad to see him go. After taking a shower, it was said, Babe always put on the same underwear he'd worn in the game. Still, the "Curse of the Bambino" went into effect against Boston, and it hasn't yet been lifted. In 1975, for instance, Cincinnati edged the Sox four games to three in the Series; in 1978, light-hitting Bucky Dent of the hated Yanks hit a home run in a one-game playoff for the divisional title and denied Boston any further chance.

A dozen years back, the champagne was on ice for the Red Sox in the Shea Stadium clubhouse when the Bambino clubbed his old team upside the head one more time. Thank you very much, Bill Buckner, for letting that New York Mets grounder scoot between your legs in 1986!

This year's Bosox went down to Cleveland three games to one.
Compared to the Cubs and the Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians are rank newcomers to disappointment and failure. It's been only fifty years--a mere half-century--since the Bob Lemon-Lou Boudreau-Larry Doby edition of the Tribe vanquished the Boston Braves in six games for their last Series win, and only 44 seasons since Willie Mays and the New York Giants swept heavily favored Cleveland, which had won 111 games in the regular season and appeared to be invincible. Here's what the Bible has to say about that collapse: "The Indian pitching staff was the disappointment of the Series as they allowed 21 runs in four games after going through the regular season with a 2.78 ERA."

Poor Cleveland. Aside from the Chapman tragedy (he's the only man ever killed on the field of play--and by a Yankee, no less), the team has been stalked by tragedy. In 1911, one of its Hall of Fame pitchers, Addie Joss, died from tuberculous meningitis at the age of 31. In 1957, staff ace Herb Score had his right eye socket shattered by a screaming Gil McDougald line drive (another damn Yankee!), and his career never recovered. In March 1993, two Indians pitchers--Steve Olin and Tim Crews--were killed in a Florida boating accident, and a third, Bobby Ojeda, was injured. At least George Steinbrenner wasn't driving the boat.

In 1995, of course, Cleveland lost the World Series to the Atlanta Braves, and last year the Florida Marlins denied them the crown.

They have now advanced in the playoffs three of the last four years, but they're rank underdogs to the Yankees in the American League championship series.

Could things be worse? Maybe. Of the remaining teams in this year's playoffs, one, the San Diego Padres, got to a World Series in 1984 but was soundly thrashed by a great Detroit Tigers club. Two others, the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros (this October's failed hip pick to win it all), have been stopped short of the Series on half a dozen occasions. If you add their years in the major leagues together, they represent another eighty seasons or so of futility.

Who does that leave at the top of the heap?
As if we didn't know. It leaves the longtime imperialists of the game, the New York Yankees, who have won 23 world championships since the Babe got out of Beantown and who this season set an American League record for wins with 114. As irony would have it, the major-league record of 116 is held by the 1908 Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since. It also leaves the Atlanta Braves--winners of eight straight divisional titles--who have the best starting pitchers in the game (maybe the best of all time), won the Series in 1995 and ran away from their National League East rivals this season.

For the teams that keep planting their peach trees in Antarctica--the hapless Cubs, the hopeless Bosox, tragic Cleveland, the graying Texan expansionists who get a sniff of glory but no more--baseball simply isn't fair. The strong get stronger. While titles pile up like scrap paper in the Bronx, Greg Maddux grows ever more unhittable in Georgia.

Waiting for the Cubs or Boston to win a World Series? Better check back in another half-century or so. Dreams may thrive in the country of baseball, but your wake-up call comes every morning.

Zenzational...
While most baseball fans (and millions of curious tourists) continued their Sammy and Big Mac alerts last week, the New Orleans Zephyrs quietly defied the odds and won the Triple-A World Series over the Buffalo Bisons.

For the record, Zephyrs outfielder Lance Berkman smashed three home runs in his club's 12-6 final-game win at Cashman Field in Las Vegas.

Why care about this? Why take note?
Because the Zephyrs, who get a lot less attention in the entertainment-rich Big Easy than the average plate of crawfish, were once the Denver Zephyrs. Pre-Larry Walker, pre-Don Baylor, pre-1993, the Z's plied their trade in all-but-empty Mile High Stadium as the top farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers. Before that, of course, the Denver Zephyrs were the Denver Bears--farmhands, at one time or another, for the Yankees, the Reds, the White Sox, the Expos, the Rangers and a few other parent clubs I've likely omitted.

That period, long and languid and beautiful, represented our baseball innocence. Now that the Z's, who didn't even earn a spot in the Pacific Coast League playoffs until the last week of their season, have won the crown, their feat should serve to remind Denverites of the muted glories minor-league ball once bestowed upon us, of where we've been and where we've choosen to run.