The Last Champions

America’s very first champion came with an asterisk.

In the fervent case of baseball fever that gripped America in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it took us only 6 years to form the very first, official, professional baseball league.  That would be the National Association.

In 1871, nine teams formed the inaugural major league season.  There was no set schedule, but each team was expected to play each member a minimum of five times (none of them did) with the team with the most victories at the end of the year being awarded America’s very first sports championship.

Later scholarship has changed the final win totals to give the Athletics a clear victory, but at the time two teams (the other was the Red Stockings) both finished the season with exactly 22 wins.  The committee empowered to settle any disputes awarded the Athletics the title, as they had suffered fewer losses.  Thus, not quite 100 years from the time that representatives from the thirteen American colonies met there to separate themselves from mother England, Philadelphia claimed the country’s first unquestioned (mostly) championship.  In the official records of today, that Philadelphia team is credited with 21 wins to just 20 for Boston – another early bastion of liberty.

The curious thing to moderns looking back on that season was why they didn’t simply hold a playoff.  The modern sport’s scene is dominated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the various post season tournaments, to the point where most leagues have been busily adding teams to the post-season (the NFL will be increasing their post-season openings by two teams this year).  But in 1871 it apparently didn’t occur to anyone.  (By the way, Boston and Philadelphia did meet four times that season, with Boston winning three of the contests).

You would think that – just from the mechanics of it – the playoffs would always have been a part of professional football.  It is, after all, realistically impossible to play all of the other teams in the league even once – so there will always be teams that won’t meet on the field.  Additionally, the shorter seasons encourage similar season records, forcing some sort of tie-breaking procedure.  Even so, the NFL – and its fore-runner, the APFA – took 13 years before they divided into two divisions and initiated a championship game – even though by that time the World Series had been a staple of baseball for roughly three decades.

With the nation beginning to stir out of its covid-imposed lockdown, talks of generating some kind of baseball season have picked up some intensity.  The logistics of this, though, still seem daunting to me.  The most glaring problem faced by baseball – or any other league looking to play games this year – is the testing hurdle.  The sheer quantity of weekly tests necessary to support major and minor league baseball would clearly stagger a system that is already overwhelmed.  In the face of the crisis still at large, it’s hard to justify the disproportionate allotment of this critical commodity to the baseball community.

Even as the NFL boldly announced its 2020 schedule last night – and with MLB set to send a schedule proposal to the MLBPA at any moment, I am still under the impression that baseball – and probably football – for 2020 is a long shot.  Although now, everything seems to hover around the nation’s capabilities to ramp up its testing program.

That being the case, I have been reflecting recently on the last champions in the individual leagues.  In retrospect, they are an interesting – and not at all representative – group.

Hail to the Chiefs

Last February, you will remember that the Kansas City Chiefs erased a 10-point deficit to eclipse San Francisco, 31-20 in Super Bowl 54 (LIV).  A participant in the very first Super Bowl, the Chiefs’ only other Super Bowl victory had come fifty years before in Super Bowl IV.  In fact, over the intervening half century, the Chiefs didn’t even make an appearance in the big game.  In Andy Reid’s first six seasons as head coach, Kansas City had qualified five times for post-season play – making it as far as the AFC Championship Game after the 2018 season (the first time in 25 years they made it that far).

For Kansas City and their rabid fan base, relief had certainly been a long time coming.  That championship – their second ever (if you don’t count the AFL crown they won in 1962) gives them the lead in all-time titles won by all the reigning champions of America’s other major sports.  The other three winners had never won before in the history of their franchises.

The NBA’s Toronto Raptors

What, I wonder, is the average number of years it takes an expansion team to win a championship?  The Arizona Diamondbacks played their first game in 1998 and were only in their fourth year of existence when Luis Gonzalez’ looping single brought them their only World Series title.  The then-Florida Marlins won it all in their fifth year.  The Mets also climbed the ladder rapidly, going from 120 losses in 1962 to a championship in 1969 – just 8 years.  They have won just once since then.  The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in 1992-93 – the sixteenth and seventeenth years of their existence.  Not only have they not won since, they have only two playoff appearances in the last 26 seasons.

The Houston Astros, on the other hand, began play in 1962 and needed 55 years to finally claim the crown.  In their seventeenth year of existence, the Kansas City Royals were gifted the 1985 title (that, of course, was the year of the Don Denkinger call).  Otherwise, they would have had to wait until their 47th year to claim their first.  It took the Angels 41 years to win their only title.

And, of course, there a several baseball expansion teams that have yet to claim a title.  The Rangers will – if the season gets underway – be playing their sixtieth season in 2020, still waiting to wear a ring.  This will be 52 years for the Brewers and Padres.  The Seattle Mariners will be playing their 44th season still looking for that elusive championship.  Relative new-comers, the Rays and Rockies are still seeking titles, having played 22 and 27 years respectively.

For the Toronto team in the NBA (the Raptors) their title came in the 24th year of their existence.  On the one hand, that is quite a long time.  Imagine a ten-year-old fan who cheered their inaugural 1995-96 season.  He would be a 34-year-old man now – perhaps with his own ten-year-old son by the time his team finally got to taste the Champaign.

On the other hand – and in spite of the fact that they had never won one before – the players and fans in Toronto had – and by several decades – the shortest drought of any of the four reigning champions.  Testimony, perhaps, to how difficult it is to bring home the hardware – and what a special experience it is every single time.

The Saga of the Blues

Speaking of expansion prodigies, the St Louis Blues played in the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons (they lost all three series).  They once went 25 consecutive seasons making the playoffs every year (from 1979-80 through 2003-04).  Even considering that playoff admissions in hockey have always been relatively easy to procure, that is still a remarkable achievement.  No one would have expected that this franchise would have to wait more than fifty years – fifty one, in fact – to finally be allowed to take Lord Stanley’s cup home with them. 

Arguably, the best team in Blues’ history was the 1999-2000 edition.  They went 51-19-11.  Their 114 points led the entire NHL (teams are awarded two points for every victory and one point for every tie and overtime loss). 

Their first round opponent in the playoffs that year was a mediocre San Jose Sharks team (35-30-10).  A cartoon on the sports page before the series started depicted an enormous, burly hockey player dressed in Blues garb standing on a boat and holding fishing gear while a tiny little shark swam off the bow.  The player was saying, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.”  After the Blues lost the series, the succeeding cartoon found an enormous shark swallowing half of the boat – and half of the player.  The dialogue bubble this time this time was “Bad fishy.”

So it has gone for the Blues throughout their entire existence.  Until last year, of course.  I have told people that being a Blues fan was the closest a St Louis fan could come to understanding what Cubs fans were experiencing.

Perhaps nothing captures the recent season of upheaval more than the sight of the St Louis Blues skating around the arena carrying the Stanley Cup.

Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and (gulp) First in All of Baseball?

But, perhaps, none of these tales of waiting to exhale is more bizarre – and, possibly, more rewarding (or perhaps irritating) than the reigning champion of all major league baseball – the Nationals of Washington.

Back in 1969 – the same year the miracle Mets stunned the Baltimore Orioles for the title – the National League expanded into Montreal, Canada (and San Diego, too – by the way).  The then-Expos lost 110 games that year.  They played 36 years in Montreal with almost nothing to show for it.  Their lone Canadian playoff invitation occurred in the strange aftermath of the strike-interrupted 1981 season.  Coincidentally, the only version of the Montreal Expos to play over .600 ball – the 1994 team that went 74-10 – was denied their playoff opportunity when a players strike wiped out the entire postseason that year.

So was life for the Montreal Expos.

Shortly thereafter, Montreal and baseball gave up on each other.  As it became apparent that the ownership group was looking to sell the franchise to an American city, the fans decided to stay home.  The 2004 Expos – the last version of the team in Montreal – drew just 749,550 fans.  It was the sixth time in the last seven years of the Expos that their attendance failed to reach the one million mark.

So, where would this benighted franchise go?  Why the nation’s capital, of course.  Washington DC was a city steeped in baseball history – almost all of it bad.  Two previous franchises had called Washington home – and had moved on to greener pastures.

An original 1901 member of the American League, the original Senators finished at least 20 games out of first place in each of their first 11 seasons.  In seven of those years they languished more than 35 games behind.  This futility gave rise to the ditty that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”  For the next 14 seasons, things brightened slightly behind the fastball of Walter Johnson.  In 1924 those Senators won Washington’s only World Series until last October.  Thereafter, the franchise returned to its inglorious tradition.  After a final World Series appearance in 1933, the Senators finished in the lower half of the league in 24 of its final 27 seasons in Washington – including all of the last 14.  In 1961 they moved to Minnesota and were re-branded as the Twins.

But, not to fear Senators fans.  1961 brought a new version of the Senators in the form of a new expansion team.  The Senators 2.0 played 11 seasons in Washington – ten of them losing seasons.  In 1972 they became the Texas Rangers.

So it was that 35 years after baseball had abandoned Washington, the star-crossed Expo franchise arrived to call the District of Columbia home.  Through their first seven seasons in Washington, it must have looked like the Senators had never left.  They played .500 ball that first season (81-81) and followed that with six consecutive losing seasons – two of them 100-loss seasons.

But 2011 was the last losing season for the Nationals – who then moved on to the next level of frustration – playoff frustration.  Prior to last year, Washington had qualified for the playoffs in four of six season – losing in the opening round every single time.

So when, last October 30, the Nationals dogpiled on the mound in the aftermath of their Game Seven victory, it brought to a close a 95-year baseball drought for the city of Washington.  Whether their former fans in Montreal felt a similar sense of relief or a continued sense of frustration is anyone’s guess.

Continuing a Pattern

The National’s victory continued a curious pattern in the National pastime.  Looking back on recent baseball history, 2003 stands out as a watershed year.

As that season began, the Expos (34), Astros (41), Giants (48), Red Sox (84), White Sox (85) and Cubs (94) were riding a combined streak of 386 seasons without a championship.  But that year, there was a disturbance in the force.  A seemingly dominant Cub team – the Cubs of Kerry Woods and Mark Prior – sat, at one point, 5 outs away from a World Series date.  Their potential opponents could well have been the Red Sox – who also, at one point, sat 5 outs away from the series.

But then, forces seemingly beyond human control took over.  A bit of interference on the part of a fan named Steve Bartman and a surprising hesitancy on the part of the Red Sox to go to the bullpen contributed to the collapse of both of those teams.  Soon after, the Florida Marlins – just eleven years old – took home the hardware.  For the second time in their nascent history.  There probably aren’t words adequate to express the feeling of the fans of the Cubs and Red Sox – generations removed from their last titles – as they watched the expansion Marlins win it all.  Again.

But that would be the last year that baseball would honor the most ancient of its grudges.

On October 16, 2004 the New York Yankees pummeled their historic rivals from Boston by an embarrassing 19-8 score.  At that point the Red Sox trailed in the AL Championship Series three games to none.  No team in baseball history had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.  But that blowout loss would be the last time Boston would lose that year.  After roaring back to win four straight against the Yankees, they swept to victory to win their first World Series since 1918 – when they were led by star pitcher Babe Ruth.  And that victory seemed to open the door for all the rest.

The following season (2005) it was the Chicago White Sox claiming their first title since 1917 (two years before the Black Sox scandal).  The Giants, who hadn’t won the series since Willie Mays made that catch in 1954 took home the 2010 title.  The Chicago Cubs ran their incomprehensible streak to 108 years without a championship before that treasured bastion of baseball stability fell in 2016 – yet another black mark in a black, black year.  Here, I mourn the expiring of the curse.  The droughts of the Astros and Nationals ended in 2017 and 2019 respectively.  (The Astros lone championship has, of course, been sullied by the sign stealing scandal that has recently come to light.  To date they have not been stripped of that title.)

Mixed in with the others were titles for Kansas City, Philadelphia, and a couple for St Louis – franchises that hadn’t suffered as much as some of the others, but had still gone more than 20 years without a title.  Both Boston and San Francisco won multiple titles over the last 15 or so seasons.

With the victories by the Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians now hold baseball’s longest stretch without a ring.  The tribe last claimed the prize in 1948 – 71 seasons ago.  In the interim, the city that has been variously referred to as the “mistake by the lake” has been the “other” team in 1954 to the New York Giants (the Willie Mays catch); to the 1995 Braves – the only title an Atlanta team has ever won; to the 1997 Marlins (losing the seventh game in 11 innings); and most recently to the 2016 Chicago Cubs when they had a first-hand look at the end of that historic 108-year curse.

It’s been a rough half-century in Cleveland.  The Browns last title came in 1964.  The now-defunct Cleveland Barons played 11 seasons in the NHL without a title.  Since 1964, only the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavs have balanced the scales somewhat in Cleveland.  Along with the near-misses by the Indians, the Cavs went to the finals in four consecutive seasons, losing three times, and the Browns lost three conference championship games in four years to Denver – twice when they had them all but beat.

Over the last couple of generations, there has been a lot of pain in Cleveland.

More Baseball Droughts

After Cleveland – and not counting the expansion teams that are still looking for their first win – there are four other teams in the 30-40 year drought range.  All of these title absences have come on the heels of some of the most iconic moments in recent World Series history.

Forty years ago, the 1979 Pirates – the “We Are Family” Pirates of Willie Stargell – upset the Baltimore Orioles for the crown.  They haven’t won since.  Seven years later the Red Sox almost ended their streak, but Mookie Wilson’s dribbling grounder snuck through the legs of Bill Buckner and sent the Mets on to the title.  The Mets haven’t won since.  Two years after that, Kirk Gibson hit his memorable home run off Dennis Eckersley to spark the Dodgers to the 1988 title.  They haven’t won since.  The year after that, Oakland won the bay area series against San Fran – the World Series that was memorably interrupted by the earthquake.  That was Oakland’s last title.

All of those teams – to some degree or other – looked like they would be contenders for several years to come.  But none of them ever made it back.  As former Cardinal Joaquin Andujar famously noted, “youneverknow.”

Baseball and 1918

With the many comparisons of the recent pandemic with the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918, I have been searching around for evidence of the impact of the flu on baseball.  The season was noticeably shortened – down to about 126 games each from 154 the season before.  But that was because of the war (World War I was winding down at that time), not the flu.  None of the histories that I’ve found for the league has any mention of the pandemic.

This research includes one of my favorite books – The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.  In this work, James spent 12 pages discussing the beginning of platooning, but made no mention of the flu.  One of the features of the book is a year-by-year listing of notables (baseball and otherwise) who passed away during a given year.  His listing for 1918 read: Jim McCormick, 62; Patsy Tebeau, suicide by gunshot, 54; Jake Beckley, heart disease, 54; Silent Mike Tiernan, tuberculosis, 51; Eddie Grant, killed in the Argonne Forest, 35.

It has been a bit confounding for me to reconcile the fact that a pandemic that would claim more than 600,000 American lives didn’t cause the cancellation of a single baseball game, while our current version of the plague has brought everything to a crashing halt.

The answer here lies in the delicate timing of the whole mess.  The very first case of “Spanish” flu probably originated in America, with the first reported case among the military in Fort Riley, Kansas in May of that year.  From there, it transported with the soldiers to Europe and did wide-spread damage there, but relatively little here until the soldiers started coming back at the end of the summer.

The crisis and the World Series of 1918 missed each other by days.  That year, the Series was moved up to early September, and was moving back into Boston at just about the same time the effects of the flu were beginning to express.  (Boston was, perhaps, the first American city to fully experience the second wave of the disease.) Only a little more than 15,000 people showed up to watch the series finale (as Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox past the Cubs).  Within days, panic would grip the nation.  That October, nearly 200,000 people would perish in the much more virulent second phase of the flu.

The second wave of the 1918 epidemic peaked that October.  There was another brief third wave in November (as the soldiers returned home).  And then it was basically over.  While the flu lingered through the end of 1920, the deaths it caused fell off dramatically.  By the time teams were ready to report to Spring Training, it was yesterday’s news.

The Spanish Flu was – to be honest – never really cured.  It raged briefly until everyone had either died or recovered from it.  This article traces the timeline of the disease in America.  This article graphs the death rate per 100,000 on a week-by-week basis.  Here you can easily see how rapidly the pandemic came and went.  (The second article will require you to sign up for a National Geographic account.  The account is free, but you will get a steady stream of emails from them as a result.)

To these, I will recommend one more very interesting read.  This article ties together Babe Ruth, Boston, the World Series and the Spanish Flu in one revealing chronology.  Of particular note, here, is that Ruth reportedly caught the flu twice.  He seems to have been part of phase one as the flu was headed overseas, and then he caught it again in phase two after the season and recovered.  Viruses, I’m told, always mutate – sometimes to the point where it is different enough that even though you previously may have had it, that doesn’t mean you are necessarily immune to the mutant version.

Remember also that the second wave was particularly deadly to healthy young people.  Some scientists have suggested that the virus might have triggered a cytokine storm – best explained as a severe over-reaction on the part of the normal immune system.  Therefore, the healthier you were, the stronger your immune system was.  And the stronger your immune system was, the more deadly it became when it attacked you.  (Yes, this is a significant over-simplification of what a cytokine storm is.)

The point here is that COVID-19 could just be getting warmed up, and future generations of the disease could take on a virulence far beyond our experience with phase one.

Some Football Talk

The NFL still believes that it will play their entire schedule without interruption.  While I am skeptical, it has been a noteworthy offseason and it’s about time I address some of it.

Recently, football conducted its collegiate draft.  While the bulk of the pre-draft chatter revolved around an Alabama quarterback named Tua Togovailoa, the face of the 2020 NFL draft quickly became the ex-Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, drafted by the Packers with the 26th pick.  The gasps produced by this pick came because a) Green Bay is still led at quarterback by soon-to-be hall of famer Aaron Rodgers, who doesn’t look like he is on his last legs; and b) Love’s stock had fallen significantly on the heels of his FBS-leading 17 interceptions.  As one scout put it, there was just too much bad tape on Love for them to even consider him.  Green Bay, apparently, sees a greater upside here than other organizations.

Within days, there were internet speculations on where Rodgers might get traded to.  Let’s tap the brakes a little, here.  Remember that Rodgers himself was a first-round pick – taken at about the same part of the 2005 draft (24th overall) – even though Brett Favre (then 36 – Rodgers is now 36) was still going strong.  Rodgers held a clipboard for three years (throwing a total of 59 passes over those seasons) while waiting for his turn.  Jordan won’t turn 22 until November 2, and is clearly not ready to take over as an NFL quarterback anytime soon.  The most reasonable expectation here is that Jordan will repeat Aaron’s pattern.  He will sit and watch and learn for three or four years, and then the Packers will make a decision.

But anyone who is expecting anyone other than Aaron Rodgers to line up under center for the Green Bay Packers this season (barring some kind of pre-season injury) is badly misreading the situation.

Brady and Gronk to TB

Already one of the great retirement communities in America, Tampa Bay, Florida will welcome two of the NFL’s most decorated senior citizens.  In the talk of the offseason, Tom Brady (who will be 43 by the time the season starts) and Rob Gronkowski (30) have relocated to the Gulf Coast.  But Tom and Rob have not migrated to Florida to retire – in fact, in Rob’s case, he is coming out of retirement.  They have come to carry the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.

At least, that is the expectation in Tampa Bay – and, probably, elsewhere.

Gronk adds his talents to an exciting receiving corps that includes Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.  With the perception being that Brady’s 2019 season was limited by the lack of impact receivers, the bounty he will find in Tampa must seem like Christmas come early.  Tampa Bay has become the trendy favorite to make waves if there is a 2020 season.

A closer look, though, shows that New England’s offensive problems were less the lack of impact receivers.  After years of being one of football’s elite offenses, the Patriots offensive line had finally eroded to the point where it could no longer sustain the offensive brilliance that has been its trademark.

Coming now to Tampa Bay, Tom has receivers but no better of a line in front of him and no running game to speak of.  Tampa Bay did invest its first-round draft pick (number 13) on a highly regarded offensive tackle (Tristan Wirfs of Iowa), but adding Brady’s two-year, 60-million-dollar contract to their balance sheet doesn’t leave them very much cap room to improve the team around Tom.  Moreover, his defense in Tamp Bay won’t be nearly the group that supported him in New England.  The Bucs had only three games last year when they held their opposition to under 20 points.  And in two of those they were facing primarily backup quarterbacks. 

In Week 13 they beat Jacksonville 28-11 when Gardner Minshew relieved a less-than-effective Nick Foles.  Their Week 15 win over Detroit (38-17) came against backup David Blough.  The other time they allowed fewer than 20 points came in Week Two when they slipped by Carolina 20-14.  Cam Newton did play that game, but was obviously physically compromised.

In short, Tampa Bay isn’t necessarily the powerhouse that many are expecting.  Add in the loss of the play-calling of Josh McDaniel, and there is reason to believe that Brady’s introduction to the NFC South will be more challenging than advertised.

Again, if there is a 2020 season.

One thought on “The Last Champions”

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