As another baseball postseason is upon us, a few lucky teams will have the opportunity to erase years — decades, even — of frustration by winning the World Series. For some clubs, that elusive first title remains just out of reach, while others hope to win glory they haven’t seen since before you and I were born.
Few teams have fared more poorly in the 21st century than the Royals. The glory days of the ’70s and ’80s must look like a speck in the rearview mirror of KC faithful, who last enjoyed a World Series crown over the rival St. Louis Cardinals in 1985 behind the hitting of George Brett and the pitching of Bret Saberhagen and Dan Quisenberry.
The Royals kept things respectable up until about the mid 1990s, and then the bottom fell out. The 1985 season marked not only the Royals’ only championship but their last first-place finish and playoff appearance. In fact, you have to go back to 2003 for the team’s last finish above .500, and all the way back to 1995 for their last finish better than third place in their division.
One season before the Royals won their last title, they were vanquished in the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers, who went on to defeat San Diego Padres in five games. It was Detroit’s fourth World Series title and first since 1968. And like the Royals, the Tigers managed to hold it together for awhile after their championship season.
And while Detroit didn’t fall quite as far as KC during the ’90s, they were decidedly mediocre. When the ’90s ended, though, the Tigers gave new meaning to the word suck. The 2003 squad set the bar for modern-day futility when they set an American League record with 119 losses, one off the Major League record. But things turned around in a big hurry in 2006 — the Tigers improved by an astonishing 24 games, won a wild card berth, and advanced to the World Series. There they lost in five games to the Cardinals.
Other than a stumble in 2008, Detroit has remained competitive since then, making the postseason again in 2011 and 2012.
I didn’t realize before I started compiling this list that the first three teams would also have won their last World Series titles one after another. I’m sure it means nothing but it’s a neat coincidence anyway.
So the Orioles. They won their third MLB crown — I’m not including their time as the St. Louis Browns — in 1983 in five games over the Phillies, thanks to some great O’s pitching that limited Philly to nine runs total. But since then, Baltimore has managed just two more postseason appearances, the last one in 1997.
Since the ’97 the Orioles have been at or near the bottom of the AL East division in just about every season but 2012, when they closed an enormous gap on the New York Yankees to challenge for the divisional crown in the regular season’s final days.
Oh, Pittsburgh. Despite only placing #7 on this list, my money is on the Pirates moving up to the top spot at some point in the next several years. I just don’t see any meaningful, lasting turnaround in the Pirates’ future. They dangled hope in front of their fans in 2012, but finished below .500 yet again (as they have every year since 1993).
So for now, 1979 remains the high water mark for most of the fans still around today. That’s the year “We Are Family” was the Buccos’ theme song, they won 98 games and cruised past the Cincinnati Reds en route to the World Series. There they pulled off an incredible comeback, returning from a 3-1 deficit to win three straight against the Baltimore Orioles and claim their fifth World Series title.
And now we reach the first franchise on our list to have never won the World Series. So if your math skills are on par with mine, you can figure out that the Mariners entered the league in 1977. Since then they’ve had one legitimately good run, from 1995-2003. During that stretch they won three AL West titles, made the playoffs four times, and reached the ALCS three times.
It hasn’t been all bad since 2004, but it’s mostly been a lot of mediocre baseball. Well there have been two 100-plus loss seasons (2008 and 2010), which is kind of bad.
The Nationals’ season total takes into account their many years as the Montreal Expos (1969-2004), in case you were wondering. Les Expos made the postseason just one time (1981), when they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. And then of course they got royally jobbed by the MLB players’ strike in 1994, as they were leading their division at the time the strike started.
The Nationals themselves were dismal until 2011, when they finished one game below .500. Then of course there is the 2012 season, by far the best for the franchise since the Expos won 94 games in 1993. The Nats captured their first NL East title since Montreal won the division in the strike-split ’81 campaign.
The Padres, like the Mariners, have never tasted ultimate glory in the World Series. They have, however, had two chances to do so. The 1984 club lost the World Series to the aforementioned Detroit Tigers in five games, while the 1998 Padres were unceremoniously swept by the New York Yankees. Most recently, San Diego made the playoffs in ’05 and ’06, losing both times to the Cardinals in the NLDS.
The Brewers spent one season in Seattle as the Pilots, and have called Milwaukee home since 1970. Their lone World Series appearance came in 1982 while they were still an American League franchise. There they took a 3-2 series lead over the Cardinals before letting it all slip away. They Brew Crew had a shot at redemption in the 2011 NLCS, but lost again to the Cards in six games.
Of all the MLB franchises to never win a World Series championship, the Astros have had the most opportunities (in terms of playoff appearances). Since their inception as the Colt .45s in 1962, the ‘Stros have made the postseason nine times. But it took until time #8 before they won their first playoff series, beating the Braves 3-2 in the 2004 NLDS.
They were stopped in the 2004 NLCS by St. Louis, but returned in 2005 to beat them in an NLCS rematch. In Houston’s first and only World Series appearance to date, they were blanked by the Chicago White Sox (Chicago’s first title since 1917).
Houston is currently in the midst of a rather terrible run of baseball, having compiled back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2011 and 2012. Perhaps their move to the AL West in 2013 will change their fortunes a bit.
The Rangers’ title drought includes their 11 years as the Washington Senators (1961-1971) as well as their time in the Lone Star State. It took until 1996 for Texas to even crack their postseason appearance drought. But three times in four years they were stymied by the Yankees in the ALDS, winning just one game in those three series.
After 1999 Texas went into a bit of a slumber, awakening in 2008 under manager Ron Washington to finish second in the AL West. They’ve been on a nice run since then, capturing three division crowns and advancing to the World Series twice — losing to the Giants and then the Cardinals. They appear poised to make another run at the Fall Classic in 2012.
Now we’re getting into an area where you can no longer credit bad luck or rotten circumstances to a title drought. Or maybe you can, I don’t know. All I know is that few cities have embodied sports futility like Cleveland in recent years, and few teams have carried that banner better than the Tribe.
Cleveland’s last World Series title came during the Truman Administration, when they defeated the Boston Braves in six games for only their second Major League championship. They returned in 1954 but were swept by the New York Giants in a series highlighted by Willie Mays’ iconic catch in Game 1.
As the 1960s dawned, the Indians entered the desert and didn’t emerge until the mid-’90s. From 1960 through 1993, Cleveland’s best regular season finish was their third-place campaign of 1968. But in 1994 they opened a new stadium — Jacobs Field — and began a new era of Indians baseball. From ’94 through 2001 Cleveland captured six AL Central crowns and advanced to two World Series. They came oh so close to winning it all in 1997 against the expansion Florida Marlins, but suffered a heartbreaking defeat in 11 innings in Game 7.
The team’s last playoff appearance came in 2007, when they defeated the Yankees in the ALDS but lost to the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS.
Man, what can I say about the Cubs that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I was going to include a picture from their last World Series title, but it predates photography.
Ha ha, kidding of course. But seriously, 1908 was a long damn time ago. That was the second year of a back-to-back championship run for Chicago, who beat the Tigers twice. They certainly had plenty of chances after that, as they returned to the World Series in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, and finally 1945, coming away empty-handed each time. After that, well…
Chicago fielded some decent teams in the late ’60s and very early ’70s, but otherwise it was one disappointing season after another. Then the ’84 club came out of nowhere to capture the NL East with 96 wins before losing to the Padres in the NLCS. Then it was back to the bottom until another shocking run in 1989. They took first place again but got stopped by another California squad — the Giants — in the NLCS.
The pattern for the Cubs nowadays seems to be some really good seasons sandwiched in between really bad ones. Twice in this century they’ve bounced back from awful finishes to win the NL Central. But in all this time, the closest they’ve come to returning to the World Series was the 2003 NLCS — the year of Steve Bartman.
The last three years have been pretty rough for the Wrigley Field faithful, as only the utterly putrid Pirates and Astros have kept the Cubs from living in the divisional basement. So barring another dramatic turnaround, Chicago will continue to hold the dubious honor of the longest stretch in North American professional sports without a title. Their 103 years of frustration and counting far eclipses similar streaks for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals (64 years), the NBA’s Sacramento Kings (61), and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs (44).
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