For One Fortunate Team, a Waiting Game Nears Its End


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Fans in Cleveland leaving Game 5 of the 1948 World Series. The Indians won the title that season, four games to two, over the Boston Braves. Every team remaining in this season’s playoffs has waited at least a generation since its last Series triumph.

Credit
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals fly four flags atop their scoreboard to honor three pennants won by the ancestors of … the Minnesota Twins. In Washington baseball, as in politics, the truth can be opaque.

The Twins descended from the Washington Senators, who played in the World Series in 1924, 1925 and 1933. Another version of the Senators became the Texas Rangers, but they never won a pennant here. And now we have the Nationals, who are eager to sew their own magic numerals onto a flag — someday.

“We come here to win, not only for the organization and ourselves, but the town,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said before Game 5 of this National League division series on Thursday. “I mean, this is something that lasts, that’s going to go a long ways in town and is going to last forever when you finally win.”

However you view it, it has been a long time since this city last won baseball’s championship. And Washington, which hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, is not alone. Every team left in the postseason has waited at least a generation since its last triumph.

The Game 5 winner here Thursday will meet the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. No matter who it is, the final four teams will have more than 225 collective unfulfilled seasons since their last World Series championship.

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The Cubs playing the Giants, above, in 1908. They went on to beat the Tigers that year for their last World Series championship.

Credit
Geo. R. Lawrence Co, via Library of Congress

The Cubs, you may have heard, last won the World’s Championship Series — as it was often called then — in 1908. You know the rest: the Called Shot (maybe), the billy goat, the Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade, the black cat, the Leon Durham error, Game 6 against the Marlins and so on.

The Nationals descended from a Montreal Expos franchise that never won a pennant, and the last Washington championship came in that first World Series appearance, in 1924. The last title for the Los Angeles Dodgers came in 1988. The teams in the American League Championship Series have also waited decades — the Cleveland Indians since 1948 and the Toronto Blue Jays since 1993.

The agony of the Indians’ streak was muted, somewhat, by the Cavaliers’ triumph in the N.B.A. finals in June, which ended a civic championship drought that stretched to the Browns’ N.F.L. title in 1964.

It also seemed to spark the Indians, who embarked on a club-record 14-game winning streak just two days before the Cavaliers won it all. The Cavaliers’ parade route snaked around the Indians’ Progressive Field on a game day.

“It was awesome to have the parade, but to have it on that day was tough for us because we still had to play,” outfielder Rajai Davis said, a week or so after the Cavaliers’ coronation. “Guys who live 15, 20 miles away, it took them two and a half, three hours to get here. But to see all the Cavalier colors, all across the entire stadium, was amazing. You know they were at the parade, and yet they stayed for our game, so that was really something special. And we won.”

The Indians have not had many close calls since their 1948 title. They hit .199 in that World Series, and Bob Feller lost two starts, but Bob Lemon, Steve Gromek and a rookie knuckleballer, Gene Bearden, pitched them past the Boston Braves.

The Yankees won the next five World Series, until Cleveland rolled to 111 victories in 1954. But the New York Giants swept the Indians in the World Series — helped by Willie Mays’s famous catch — and the Yankees promptly resumed their dominance of the league.

In 1959, the Indians traded the American League’s co-home run leader, Rocky Colavito, to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, who lasted just a year in Cleveland. They compounded that mistake when they reacquired Colavito five years later and lost two future stars, Tommie Agee and Tommy John, in the process.

Burdened by the Colavito curse — made famous by the author Terry Pluto — the Indians stayed out of the postseason until 1995, when they started their run of six division titles in seven years. They won two pennants, losing the World Series to Atlanta in six games in 1995 and falling to the Marlins two years later. Jose Mesa blew the save in Game 7.

A decade later, the Indians had it all set to return: Up three games to one on Boston in the A.L.C.S., they sent C. C. Sabathia to the mound in Game 5 at home. But Josh Beckett beat him, and the Red Sox won the last two at Fenway Park. The combined score of the final three games: 30-5.

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Cleveland Indians reliever Gene Bearden, center, embracing his teammates, the starting pitcher Bob Lemon, left, and catcher Jim Hegan, after winning the 1948 World Series over the Boston Braves.

Credit
Associated Press

By then, the Blue Jays were deep into their hibernation. After three fruitless trips to the A.L.C.S. — in 1985, 1989 and 1991 — they had broken through with titles in 1992 and 1993, deftly interchanging superstars between those seasons. When David Cone and Dave Winfield left after the first victory, Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor replaced them.

But as the Yankees’ dynasty rose, starting in 1996, the Blue Jays faded. They had star power — Roger Clemens, Carlos Delgado, Roy Halladay — but sank in the standings, switching managers and uniform styles constantly. (Their black caps and jerseys are best forgotten.)

Blue Jays reliever Jason Grilli grew up near Syracuse, where his father pitched for the Blue Jays’ Class AAA team. Steve Grilli also pitched one game for Toronto, in 1979, and his son grew up rooting for the team. Now that the Blue Jays are strong again, the atmosphere is spellbinding.

“It’s a rock-star show,” Jason Grilli said. “It’s unbelievable. To see the stadium packed now, it’s been 20-some years to get that winning feeling back. Everybody wants to be associated with a winner, and to have a whole country to rally behind us, it’s pretty interesting. It’s insane. It’s wonderful.”

The Blue Jays, who lost the A.L.C.S. to Kansas City last fall, began this postseason journey by beating Baltimore in the wild-card game when Edwin Encarnacion pulled a homer over the left-field fence.

Perhaps it was an omen: The last time the Blue Jays won it all, they clinched it with a home run to left by Joe Carter.

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