"So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has "pitted" himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts." -- William James, The Principles of Psychology.
There are basically two ways to cope with one of life's great near-misses. You can look at it as the final, incremental step toward achieving your ultimate goal and use it to become more focused on finishing your task. Or, you can deflate, believing that your best was simply not quite good enough, and reel from thoughts of having to go through it all again.
Which path will the Cleveland Indians choose? Is there really a choice?
THE (ALMOST) HOLLYWOOD ENDING
A large part of the baseball world seems to overlook what the good people of northeast Ohio know all too well. That is, the result of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series gave us a great story. It also deprived us of another great story, one still being told in the Cleveland of some alternate universe. The one we got is already being turned into a movie. The Chicago Cubs, with an unforgettable 8-7 victory on that rainy night in Cleveland, ended a 108-year championship drought, capping what was one of the biggest sports stories in recent memory with, dare we say it, a Hollywood ending.
The Cleveland story would have been almost as alluring, with all the hallmarks of a baseball fairy tale. There was the city itself, fighting for a boost to a shaky civic sense of sports esteem only recently buoyed by the NBA title won by the Cavaliers. After a half-century without any sports titles, Cleveland was poised to win two in a row, while snapping its 68-year World Series championship drought. You can't make that stuff up.
In the process, the Indians would have buried a lot of near-miss history. The 1954 team that dominated the American League in an era when a Yankees pennant was a foregone conclusion. Four decades later, Cleveland put together one of the great offensive teams of all time and won pennants in 1995 and 1997. All three of those teams lost in the World Series.
That's the history the Indians were trying to overcome. It's the history they came so, so close to finally putting to bed. And since they didn't, it's fair to wonder how much, if at all, the disappointment will affect the season to come.
HOW CLOSE WAS IT?
Some sports fans, usually the casual ones, will rationalize a near-miss from their favorite team by saying, "I never expected them to get that far, anyway." The more cynical, over-invested types might warmly recall the ride, but never quite get over the result. Even some Kansas City Royals fans, thrilled by the great run in 2014 and the title in 2015, stew over the one they lost, when Alex Gordon was just 90 feet away from tying the game and had a microscopic chance to score on his two-out triple before being held at third.
Could Gordon have scored?
We'll never know. Like their Kansas City brethren, Cleveland fans can run through similar end-of-game scenarios that never came to pass. That's what happens when you come so close. So, so, so, so close.
The fact is, after racing to a 3-1 series lead against the Cubs, the Indians never led after the series shifted back to Cleveland. But in Game 7, when Rajai Davis stunned the universe by pulling a game-tying, two-out, eighth-inning, two-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole off Aroldis Chapman, it was right there for Cleveland. Coco Crisp singled right after that, but was stranded. The heart of the order was up in the bottom of the ninth, but Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor went down in order against Chapman.
Then, in the 10th, after the Cubs scored two, Davis pulled Cleveland within one by stroking a two-out single. That brought utility man Michael Martinez to the plate, representing what would have been the most cathartic winning run in Cleveland sports history. With a career slugging percentage of .266, an historic Martinez dinger was the longest of shots. But he had homered before, six times in his big league career. And Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery had given a few up. In fact, the very first batter Montgomery faced as a Cub, after being acquired from Seattle before the trade deadline, was Milwaukee's Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who had one career homer off a lefty and zero in more than four seasons. Nieuwenhuis poked an opposite-field, three-run shot off Montgomery to break open a close game.
Crazy stuff happens in baseball, pretty much every day a game is played. Crazy, percentage-defying stuff. It is why we love it. And on that Nov. 3, a flood of crazy stuff was happening. Dexter Fowler's leadoff homer. The Indians scoring two runs on a wild pitch. The Davis homer flipping a bipartisan crowd on its proverbial ear. A late rain delay that prompted Jason Heyward to play the part of Knute Rockne. Why not one more crazy thing? Isn't that what you tell yourself, if you're a Cleveland fan?
Alas, the only thing crazy that happened in that moment came after the play, a weak Martinez roller to third. Kris Bryant fielded it, fired to first baseman Anthony Rizzo and just like that, the entire city of Chicago erupted and, really, hasn't stopped since. The Cubs had become the stars of their own fairy tale. And as we sit, Hollywood scriptwriters are consigning the Indians to background status. They are part of the setting. Two-dimensional villains. Either way, it's the Cubs' story.
How do you rebound from that?
WHAT SCIENCE SAYS
The Royals' loss in 2014 was as gut-wrenching as the one Cleveland suffered. Kansas City was working on a 30-year title drought, quaint by Cubs or Indians standards. But the Royals had been mostly non-competitive during that period and were on the cusp of conquering a baseball world that had seemingly left them long behind. Like Cleveland, the Royals had that championship-winning run at the plate, with power-hitting catcher Salvador Perez up to bat. As with Martinez, the result was anti-climactic, a weak pop foul that ended the Series. Like the Indians, the Royals had to watch their opponent celebrate on their home field.
And yet, they bounced back in the best way possible. There's probably no real way to determine if the Royals' 2015 title was in any way a product of their 2014 near-miss. Some have suggested as much, that if they had not come so close in 2014, 2015 might never have happened. The suggestion is interesting, though impossible to prove. Does coming close motivate us to reach higher? Does disappointment prove too much to overcome? Or is it neither?
There is quite a bit of academic literature on the topic of near-misses as a psychological phenomenon, though most of it is in relation to betting. The aforementioned William James quote dates back to 1892, but it sums up much of the research in this area that came later. The bottom line is that nobody likes finishing second.
In fact, finishing second is the worst. One famous study found that during Olympics medal ceremonies, gold medalists were generally pretty happy to win, as you'd expect. You know who else was happy? Bronze medalists, presumably because they got a medal when so many others didn't. But the silver medalists? Frowns and curses. They had but one foe to overcome, it didn't happen, and life is tough.
If you're second, you're forgotten, unless you lost by the result of some sort of historical goof, which means you'll be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Famous examples of that have happened in the World Series. In 1912, the New York Giants led the decisive game 2-1 entering the bottom of the 10th. Then Fred Snodgrass dropped a fly ball in center field, sparking a two-run Boston rally that gave the Red Sox the championship. When Snodgrass died at age 86 in 1974, the headline on his New York Times obit emphasized the error.
Luckily, the Indians had no such goat. Still, this sort of phenomenon is likely what spurred the fictional baseball philosopher Nuke LaLoosh to remark in the movie "Bull Durham," "I f---ing love winning. You know what I mean? It's like ... better than losing."
What the research doesn't tell us is what happens when you have, indeed, lost.
BUT ... THE ROYALS
The Royals seem to be very recent proof that an epic near-miss doesn't have to be a spirit-killer, but rather a rallying cry. Had it ever happened like that before? Had a team ever been that close to a title, to where they could almost reach out and grab it, and yet come up short? Yes.
Quite a few times.
There could be others, depending on how you wanted to define "so, so close," but there are 18 World Series losers for whom another key out or one more timely hit would have made history books read very differently. Of the first 17, not including Cleveland, 10 made it back to the postseason the next season, which seems like very good news for the Indians. However, just three won the Series the next season: the Royals in 2015 and the Yankees in 1926 and 1960.
So, turns out the Royals were an exception, not the rule, and the Indians are now tasked with becoming another one.
IT'LL COME DOWN TO BASEBALL
Admittedly, there is no scientific conclusion to be made from our survey of World Series near-miss losers. But it seems clear that you can rule out a couple of things. First, lingering disappointment is not an overwhelming competitive disadvantage. If it were, we wouldn't see 10 of the most disappointed teams in history back in the very next postseason. Talent wins out. At the same time, you also can't say there has been a pattern of talented, hyper-focused teams making the final step the year after coming so close, the Royals notwithstanding. Not when those near-miss teams have been just 3-for-17 in their revenge quests.
What we're left with are simple baseball questions.
Are the Indians good enough to win it all?
Their performance last season and the forecasts generated by their 2017 roster say yes, most definitely yes, the Indians are well-positioned to replicate the Royals' feat. The consensus of the projection systems this spring is for Cleveland to win around 91 games, nine more than any other team in the AL Central.
Only the Astros have a better baseline forecast in the American League.
Still, the odds of winning any World Series are long.
Rather than standing pat with a team that overcame numerous injuries to win the 2016 AL pennant, the Indians signed premier slugger Edwin Encarnacion this winter. And they hope for better injury luck, but spring developments haven't been great in that regard. Will their close loss last November be another mitigating factor? Probably not in any obvious way. What is obvious is that if the Indians match the Royals and further reduce our dwindling supply of epic sports droughts, it will be a great story.
If Cleveland wants to chalk up that 2017 championship to a revenge quest, so be it. It'll be a claim well earned, and no one in northeast Ohio will mind.