Best teams on paper don't always win it all
Recent reunion of '95 Indians stars stirs memories of powerhouses
There was a moment in Cleveland Indians' camp last week when Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga were gathered together near the outdoor batting cages, the star talents of the 1995 Indians newly reunited as the reclusive Belle made a rare public appearance.Jason Bere -- a starter for the White Sox that season and now a special assistant to the Tribe coaching staff -- walked by and remarked, "I never saw the '27 Yankees play. But the '95 Indians? Whoa." "Whoa" is right. But woe was them. That Tribe team won 100 games in a strike-shortened, 144-game season. They had a staggering lineup, built around Belle's 50-homer, 52-double, 126-RBI performance, but it also featured star talent up the middle with Baerga at second, Omar Vizquel at short and Lofton patrolling center. They had a young Manny Ramirez in right, Jim Thome at third and future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray at DH. And though it was a club known for its offensive might, the pitching was not too shabby, either. Dennis Martinez, Charles Nagy and Orel Hershiser fronted the rotation, and Jose Mesa had a 46-save season. "Our '95 team was pretty incredible ..." Belle said. "We probably would have gotten way more credit had we won the World Series that year."
Close, but no cigar
|1906||Cubs||.763||Lost World Series|
|1954||Indians||.721||Lost World Series|
|1931||Athletics||.704||Lost World Series|
|1995||Indians||.694||Lost World Series|
|1904||Giants||.693||No World Series|
|1912||Giants||.682||Lost World Series|
|1953||Dodgers||.682||Lost World Series|
|1943||Cardinals||.682||Lost World Series|
|1909||Cubs||.680||Finished second in NL|
They didn't. And the reason they didn't was an Atlanta Braves pitching staff, fronted by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, that limited the potent Tribe bats to a .179 average en route to winning their only World Series title in the Bobby Cox era. Ask Clevelanders what happened, and many of them will likely rail against the wide strike zones that were advantageous to those Atlanta arms in the six-game series. But at the end of the day, the simple fact is that one of the greatest teams in baseball history didn't get it done. This, as any fans of the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies will surely tell you, has been known to happen once in a while. Sometimes the "best" team -- as it's perceived on paper -- loses. With Spring Training under way and the preseason prognostications about to come out in full force, it's helpful to remember that fact. Here, then, is a reminder of some of the best teams in the modern era that didn't go the distance, tales of their glory burdened by a bad case of the woulda-coulda-shouldas. Outside looking in
This is a special kind of pain. Winning 100 or more games and not even reaching the postseason. It happened first to (who else?) the Chicago Cubs, who in 1909 went 104-49. Their .608 winning percentage is the highest of any team in history that didn't reach the postseason (counting only years in which there was a postseason). The 100 wins/zero postseason games trick would be pulled in ensuing years by the 1915 Tigers (100-54), the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50), the 1954 Yankees (103-51), the 1961 Tigers (101-61) and the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers (102-63). Ah, but these teams were partly victims of a system devoid of a playoff. The teams with the best record in each league went directly to the World Series. Thankfully, MLB went to divisional play in 1969. In the time since, only two teams have suffered the indignity of winning 100 games but not winning its division -- the 1980 Orioles and the 1993 Giants. That O's team was fresh off a 1979 World Series loss to the Pirates in seven games. Though they had a sparkling rotation of Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone and Jim Palmer and a Murray-led lineup, they finished three games behind the Yankees in the AL East. Three years later, they'd win it all. The Giants had it really bad. With Barry Bonds and Matt Williams in the middle of their lineup, they won 103 games but lost on the last day of the season to finish one stinking game behind the Braves in the NL West. (Because, you know, when you think of Atlanta, you think of the West, right?) They wouldn't win it all until the post-Barry era. No party to attend
There were two particularly special teams that didn't play in the postseason simply because there was no postseason. The 1904 New York Giants, managed by John McGraw, won 106 games in the NL but declined the opportunity to face the AL-champion Boston Americans because of a feud between McGraw and AL president Ban Johnson. "Why should we play this upstart club, or any AL team, for any postseason championship?" McGraw had said. "When we clinch the NL pennant, we'll be champions of the only real Major League." Yeah, so don't feel too sorry for those Giants, who would participate in and win the 1905 World Series. Rather, save your sympathy for the 1994 Montreal Expos, whose 74-win season was cut short on Aug. 12 by a work stoppage that led to the cancellation of the postseason. The Expos held a six-game lead on the Braves despite having the second-lowest payroll in baseball. They had a dynamic outfield of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, they had a 22-year-old Pedro Martinez in the rotation and they had John Wetteland in the ninth. They would have been dangerous in the postseason, had it actually existed. No payoff in the playoffs
Anything can happen in a playoff series and usually does. And so, any number of truly terrific teams have found themselves held down by the hand of fate. But a few special cases come to mind. How about the 1976-78 Philadelphia Phillies? They lost three consecutive NL Championship Series, first to the Big Red Machine and then two straight to the Dodgers. The '76 and '77 teams won 101 regular-season games apiece. They had Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski powering their lineup and Steve Carlton leading the rotation. It was not enough. And then, of course, there were those Phils of '11. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all made at least 31 starts and had ERAs of 2.79 or lower. It was -- is -- a pitching staff for the ages, but it couldn't escape a Division Series in which the Cardinals found a way to win -- a theme that would be repeated often last October. Whether their "once-in-a-generation" rotation eventually goes the distance remains to be seen. The Phillies' rotation is often compared to that of the 1990s Braves, and while the '95 Braves club beat the Indians and four other Cox-managed clubs reached the World Series, the '93 team that won 104 games and allowed 61 fewer runs than any NL team didn't reach the Promised Land. And the '98 team that had five starters who won at least 17 games (Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood) and four players who hit 30 or more home runs (Andres Galarraga, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones) also came up short in the NLCS. We also pause to remember, with deep consolation, Billy Beane's Oakland A's teams of 2001 and '02. They rank 11th and seventh, respectively, in winning percentage among all teams since 1995, and they both fell flat in the Division Series. You can watch "Moneyball" for all the details. But no team dominates this category quite like the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were all gone, and yet the M's rattled off an American League-record 116 games in Ichiro Suzuki's rookie year. That team had eight representatives at the All-Star Game, which it happened to host. Despite a comfortable lead in the AL West, the Mariners kept pushing toward the record, and perhaps that was their downfall. In the postseason, the Mariners first barely squeaked by the Indians in the best-of-five round, rallying to win each of the last two games. And then, in the ALCS against the Yankees, they were dispatched in five. "It wasn't supposed to end like this," second baseman Bret Boone said at the end of that series. "It wasn't supposed to end here." Best of the second-best
We could make an exhaustive list of the best teams to lose the World Series. The first team on that list would be the 1906 Cubs, of "Tinker to Evers to Chance" fame, who hold the NL record for wins (116) and the Major League record for winning percentage (.763) but lost the Series in a crosstown matchup with the White Sox. The Cubs, though, won the Series the next year, as well as the year after that. And that's something of a trend among many of the teams that would comprise the "best of the second-best" list -- teams like the 1934 Tigers (101-53) or the 1942 Yankees (103-51) or the 1953 Dodgers (105-49) or the 1969 Orioles (109-53) or the 1974 Dodgers (102-60) or the 1988 A's (104-58) or the 2004 Cardinals (105-57). They didn't win it all that particular year, but they would win it rather soon thereafter. The 1931 A's are a particularly famous "great team that didn't win it all," but they had won the World Series the year before. The 1954 Indians are another, but they had won it all in '48 with a similar roster. No, it's more interesting to consider the great clubs that never pushed through, no matter how many times they knocked on the door. Teams like Ty Cobb's Tigers, who were a three-time AL champion from 1907-09. They lost all three World Series, including a seven-gamer in which they fell to the 110-win Pirates in 1909. Teams like McGraw's Giants of the early 1910s, who, aside from Christy Mathewson, had little carryover from the 1905 championship club and lost three straight Series from 1911-13. Teams like the 1933 Washington Senators, who had the best winning percentage in all of baseball by seven games but fell to the Giants and didn't reach another World Series for 32 years, by which time they had moved to Minnesota. Teams like the Cubs of the 1930s, including the 1935 squad that won 100 games (the only Cubs club to do so in the past 102 years). Teams like the 1946 Red Sox -- the only Red Sox team to win a pennant in a 48-season stretch from 1919 through 1966. Those were the Red Sox of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr. The World War II effort cost Williams three years of his prime, but he returned in '46 and the Red Sox went 104-50. They reached Game 7 against the Cardinals in the World Series, only to lose it on Enos Slaughter's eighth-inning "Mad Dash." Williams would never play in the postseason again, and the Red Sox wouldn't win the Series for another 58 years. Teams like the 1965 Twins -- the only Twins team in the Harmon Killebrew era to reach the World Series. It was a terrific team that went 102-60 with a potent offense that led the league in runs but was shut down in Game 7 of the Series by the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax. No shame in that. And then you have those 1990s Indians. They would reach the Series a second time in '97, famously two outs away from a title in Game 7 before the Marlins shocked the world. But whereas the '97 club was an 87-win team that got hot at the right time, it's that '95 powerhouse that holds a special place in baseball ignominy, among the many great teams that simply didn't get it done.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.