Are you a heart-broken baseball fan? Has your favorite ballclub been eliminated from the playoffs? Well only one team a year that can win a championship. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair - especially when a team is thoroughly fun and the brand of ball is oh-so-entertaining. Entertaining doesn't always win championships or bring accolades, but cult followings have started on far worse premises than entertainment–just ask Jim Jones. Here are five of my favorite post season "losers" from the past 3 decades of playoffs.
2010-2011 Texas Rangers
This was a particularly cruel era for Rangers fans. Front office guru and Texas legend Nolan Ryan put together a squad that was exciting and talented enough to make their first trip to the World Series in franchise history.
The 2010 season was a bit of a novelty because it was the first time in a long time Rangers fans had something to cheer about. Most Texas fans were glad to finally be out of the Tom Hicks, bad contracts to sullen players era (they were floating the Yankees on a good chunk of Alex Rodriguez's salary for years after he was traded). Players like Vlad Guerrero and Cliff Lee joined Josh Hamilton to give Texas some nationally recognized star power.
It looked like they would give the San Francisco Giants a run for their money after disposing of the Yankees and Devil Rays, but Tim Lincecum and that vaunted pitching staff took care of the Rangers in five games. Fans were just happy that they made it so far, and the season was considered a success.
The 2011 Rangers team picked up where last season left off, winning the West with a 96-66 record. Though one of the best offenses in the majors, their pitching staff lacked consistency, as their best pitcher at the time was C.J. Wilson. This didn't keep them from beating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Detroit Tigers on their way to the World Series, and getting to within one strike of a World Series title. Although Nelson Cruz gets scapegoated for the play that effectively cost the Rangers the season, the truth is they wouldn't have gotten that far without Nelson Cruz's offensive production–that was his only real gaffe during that run–albeit his biggest (one wonders why Cruz was in the game at that point anyway. Despite Cruz’s strong-arm, Manager Ron Washington could have put in a defensive replacement for the bottom of the 9th inning).
Everyone knows what happened in extra innings, setting up one of the biggest sports letdowns for a fan base since the 1986 World Series. It took me almost a week to tear down the protective plastic I'd hung up in my apartment for the post game celebration I'd had planned. A case of Budweiser went unopened–not for drinking, but for spraying around my living room (In case you're wondering, yes I planned to throw and attend that party alone).
1993-94 Philadelphia Phillies
Although not the prettiest of baseball teams (stylistically or physically), the 1993 Phillies were an entertaining bunch. Lenny Dykstra was the type of player I'd envisioned myself as. Scrappy, down and dirty, and often overlooked, but he did whatever it took to win.
Dykstra had 6 HR's and 10 RBI as a lead-off hitter and would have been the World Series MVP had they somehow managed to win. He wasn't the fastest, nor the strongest, but whenever a big play was needed, "Nails" made it happen.
John Kruk was also easy to love. He was a fantastic contact hitter, who barreled around the bases in his big and burly frame. Darren Daulton and Dave Hollins were big hitters, and with a platoon of players to insert around them (including former Ranger great Pete Incaviglia) they could score runs in bunches.
Their patchwork pitching staff often let them down as 14 runs were sometimes not enough to guarantee a win. Left hander Terry Mulholland was their most consistent pitcher, and this was the post-season where Curt Schilling started making a name for himself as a clutch pitcher; delivering goose eggs in the biggest moments of both the LCS and World Series.
The Phillies' run inevitably ended when Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams came in to pitch with a 6-5 lead (after a big 7th inning sparked by yet another Dykstra home run) - setting up this World Series moment that would be the backbone to an Adam Sandler written script and a hip-hop diss record.
1991 Atlanta Braves
Before the general public turned on the Braves organization from overexposure, Atlanta had a very likable roster. Their worst to first back story was a charming change of pace for the baseball media, and even non baseball fans got infected with "Tomahawk Chop" fever (my own mother always greeted each David Justice at bat with an exclamation of "cutie pie" to no one in particular).
After they dispatched the Los Angeles Dodgers (next to last day of the regular season) and Pittsburgh Pirates to emerge as National League champions, the Braves continued to amaze with their timely hitting and rotation of young pitchers. Steve Avery, John Smoltz, and Tommy Glavine would become household names after this season, and young guys like Ron Gant, Deion Sanders (yes that one) and vets like Otis Nixon and Terry Pendleton made them a good team, but not too good to the point of being annoying.
As destiny would have it, the Braves would match up against another worst to first team, the Minnesota Twins. If Atlanta was one of the more lovable baseball teams of all time, then the Twins were one of the easiest teams to hate of all time. Put aside the off the field stuff written about Jack Morris and Kirby Puckett, and you still had villains like Chuck Knoblauch and Kent Hrbek. Plus, I hated Danny Gladden's mullet, and Mike Pagliarulo's mustache made him look like a dirty cop from an episode of Hill Street Blues.
Even though game 7 of that series will go down as one of the best World Series games of all time, in one of the greatest World Series of all time, I will always remember the unsettled feeling I had going to bed after the final run was tallied and the game ended. Lonnie Smith going for the Okie Doke was the difference maker, and Jack Morris was as clutch as clutch can be; pitching 10 scoreless innings of ball. In all honesty, the Braves just didn't have the horses to win it all.
Kirby Puckett was transcendent and his game 6 heroics set up the most memorable World Series moment of my lifetime. One last bit of trivia that will forever be null and void is Braves' 2nd baseman Mark Lemke's World Series leading .720 batting avg. that had almost guaranteed him a vote or two for MVP had Atlanta won. Of course, the Braves would finally get their title in 1995, after beating Cleveland, but that ‘95 team was supposed to win. They had Fred McGriff and Greg Maddux, and had a stacked lineup. It was much harder to be happy for that squad.
1990-1992 Pittsburgh Pirates
The first MLB game I ever attended in person was a Pirates vs. Astros game at the Astrodome. When I first started collecting baseball cards, Bobby Bonilla (I would pronounce it so that it rhymed with Vanilla) was one of the first in my collection. The Pirates outfield of Andy Van Slyke, Barry Bonds, and Bobby Bonilla was my favorite in this era of baseball, and I thought Doug Drabek (from Victoria,Texas) had cool looking hair because they were silver streaked.
The light hitting, but sure fielding double play combo of Jose Lind and Jay Bell (who nearly always led the league in sacrifice bunts) were steady and dependable. The Pirates were a good fundamental team with a likable manager in Jim Leyland, and I had no problem at all rooting for them when they came to town to face the Astros (mockingly called the "Disastros" or "the Lastros" depending on where they were in the standings).
The year that the Texas Rangers let Steve Buechele go to make room for Dean Palmer, I was happy for both Buechelle and Pittsburgh, and part of me wanted to see the Pirates make the World Series for Ranger fandom alone. It almost happened too. After losing to the eventual champion Cincinnati Reds in 1990, then again to the Atlanta Braves, the Pirates were one out away from finally getting out of the NLCS. Then this happened. Although Yankees fans will disagree, I still to this day can't think of a better ending to an LCS elimination game.
1999-2000 New York Mets
Though this wasn't the Mets teams of 80's folklore (Doc Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, and David Cone were long gone), this new Mets team was a fun bunch to watch. The strength of this squad was their Gold Glove winning infield with 3B Robin Ventura (yes THAT Robin Ventura), SS Rey Ordonez, 2B Edgardo Alfonso, and sweet swinging, sure handed John Olerud. Bobby Valentine had a couple of throwback names in his outfield platoon with Rickey (the GOAT) Henderson, and Shawon Dunston.
Their pitching staff was hit or miss. Orel Hershiser and Al Leiter, their aces, both had an ERA well into the mid 4's, and their best 2 relievers were lefthanders Dennis Cook (former UT Longhorn great) and John Franco. Mets fans got a little dose of what past and future franchises would endure with high stakes appearances by Kenny Rogers and Armando Benitez; both of whom are legitimate red flags that you have a suspect pitching staff.
For every exciting grand slam single the Mets produced, there was Kenny Rogers giving up a frustrating game ending (and series ending) walk, or Mike Piazza letting opposing pitchers punk him get into his head.
History is not kind to losers. At best, one gets a footnote in some book somewhere detailing one's valor in the face of defeat. If a fanbase is lucky, those losses are assuaged by a win the following year (with luck, it may even be against the previous year's opponents) . These wins have a way of negating that empty feeling one gets when they realize they care way too much about the success and failure of millionaires playing a kid's game. I'd personally rather root for players like Ozzie Smith and Robin Yount than cheaters like Alex Rodriguez and Kent Hrbek.
I mean sure the latter two won championships with their respective teams, but both are renowned cheaters. I bet you that if either Hrbek or A-Rod were invited over to a teammates' house for dinner, that their wives were counting silverware the minute the guests were out the door. Hopefully this post helps to reposition the perspective that these are only games, and that winning and losing is less important than playing the game with enthusiasm and integrity. This is the core of being a fan of your favorite teams. You want your team to play hard, and do their best, but win or lose, there is always the possibilities that come with the next season.