CHICAGO -- The 2001 Mariners won 116 games, and they couldn't do it. The 1995 Indians were 56 games over .500, and they couldn't do it. The 2004 Cardinals won 105 games, and all they're known for is being That Team That Lost to the Red Sox.
Those three tremendous teams all had one thing in common -- and this is where we would advise the 2016 Cubs to pay close attention. Once upon a time, all of them were clearly The Best Darned Team in Baseball, just like the Cubs of this year. Over the regular season, that is. Ah, but what did that get them?
Uh, not a World Series parade. That's for sure. You know what they got out of it? An unhappy ending, nightmares that keep springing back to life and scars that never heal. That's what.
So even as the Cubs head back to Wrigley Field on Saturday night for an epic National League Championship Series Game 6 that Cubs Nation might never forget, Joe Maddon knows the landscape is still filled with land mines. And not all those land mines are named "Clayton Kershaw," either. The biggest land mine of all might just be known as "baseball" -- or, at least, baseball in the multilayered wild-card era.
"I think that the system is built for the best team having a chance to lose," Maddon said with a knowing chuckle.
Well, he has no idea (by his own admission) how right he is. So here come the shocking details:
• This is Year 22 of the wild-card era. Just twice in the previous 21 seasons has a team like the Cubs, which led the major leagues outright in victories, gone on to win the World Series. The only two to win it all: the 1998 and 2009 Yankees. (No National League team has done it in 30 years, since the 1986 Mets.)
• But even if we include teams that tied for the best record in the sport, the percentage of "best teams" that win a championship in baseball is much lower than in the other three major professional sports. In MLB, it's just 19 percent (4-of-21) under this format. In the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information research, it's 31 percent (8-of-26) under the current playoff format. In the NHL, it's also 31 percent (11-of-36) since that league expanded to 16 playoff teams. And in the NBA, it's a whopping 48 percent (16-of-33) in 33 seasons under the current 16-team setup.
Suppose, however, we consider a whole new definition of what constitutes the "best teams." Suppose we just look at teams that have won 100 games in the wild-card era. Well, the odds don't get any better. The Cubs are the 23rd team in the wild-card age to win 100 or more. You know how many of the previous 22 went on to win the World Series? That would be precisely two (again, those 1998 and 2009 Yankees).
But why? That's the question. What makes this mission so close to impossible? What is it about the baseball postseason that sends so many great teams careening off an October cliff? We decided to ask a group of men who have lived through it.
Now granted, one of them (Joe Torre) managed those 1998 Yankees, a juggernaut that actually made it to the land of champagne and ticker tape. But all of these men have lived through enough October pain to understand exactly why winning a title in baseball is the toughest road in sports. So here are the tales they tell:
There's not enough reward for being great
First off, think about what you get for being the best team. You get home-field advantage through the league championship series. And that's about it. But is that enough? Home field is a huge advantage in those other sports. But in baseball, it can actually be a disadvantage, Torre thinks.
"I'm probably in the minority, but I always thought that starting a series on the road was an advantage," he said. "And that's because the home team is supposed to win twice. So if you go in and win the first one in their place, now you can run the table. I've always thought the home team had a lot more pressure on them."
And guess which team he uses as the perfect example of that pressure? Right you are: The Cubs, even though the Cubs team that his Dodgers played back in 2008 was never in the same position to win that these Cubs are in. But Torre has spent enough of his life observing Cubs fans to admit he wanted to start that series in Chicago.
"When I managed the Dodgers in '08, I think we benefited in '08 from them not winning the World Series," Torre said, "because we went into Chicago, and all they talked about was this drought or curse or whatever you want to call it -- and we wind up sweeping them. Even though [that Cubs team] had nothing to do with it, [they] still had to answer for it."
When things are going great and you see the home team feeding off the euphoria in the stands, it's one of the most joyous sights in sports. But when things suddenly stop going so great? Uh-oh. Fans can get tense -- especially in some of America's most nervous metropolises. And when they do, you know who can get tense right there with them? We're about to let you in on that.
Even great teams feel the pressure
Charlie Manuel isn't over it yet. In 2011, he managed a Phillies team that was a lot like the 2016 Cubs. It was a team that had That Look from the first day of spring training, and then went out and won 102 games -- five more than any other team in baseball that season.
But if you don't recall the 2011 Phillies World Series parade, that's because it never happened, of course. And the manager still stews over all the strange stuff that befell that team in its memorable loss to the wild-card Cardinals in one of the best division series of modern times. There was the Rally Squirrel that unnerved Roy Oswalt. And Cliff Lee blowing a four-run lead (for just the second time in his life). And two balls his outfielders didn't catch in the shadows of a late-afternoon start. And, especially, a traumatic 1-0 loss in Game 5 to a brilliant Chris Carpenter.
So five years later, do you want to guess what Manuel remembers most about that Game 5? It's the tension that welled up in the stands and the tension that enveloped his players as the zeroes and the pressure mounted.
"I remember everything about it," Manuel said. "And you know what? The ballpark was tense. Our fans were tense. Our players were tense, especially after we played a few innings and we weren't ahead. And all of a sudden, we started swinging real hard. Go back and look at it ... the balls we chased and how hard we were swinging. We were trying to get it all back too quick, when we still had time in the game to be ourselves."
On one level, Manuel still finds it amazing that the great players on that team -- a team filled with men who had won a World Series and played in so many postseason games -- would feel that weight, get undone by that pressure. But on another level, he has seen it too many times, over too many years, to be shocked. He was the hitting coach on that 1995 Indians team too -- and even that powerhouse lineup, he said, "definitely felt the pressure" in losing that World Series to the Braves.
"You can see it, even on winning teams," Manuel said. "There is a feeling there. And whether athletes want to admit it or not, there's a fear of failure that definitely can creep in, in those big games like that."
So far in this postseason, the Cubs have been as good as it gets at deflecting those feelings. But it wouldn't be hard to imagine that same tension gripping Wrigley Field on Sunday night, if the Cubs should lose to Kershaw in Game 6 and then have to win Game 7. Now would it?
The pressure grows every year
At least this Cubs team appears to be in the beginning of what could be an extended window to win. But imagine being the exact opposite of this team -- a group of players who have begun to recognize that they're at the end of their window and haven't won nearly as much as anyone (including them) thinks they should.
If that sounds like the Braves of 1991-2005, congratulations. You've just won a copy of "The Life and Times of Jeff Blauser." OK, no you haven't. But you've definitely been paying attention, because with every year the Braves didn't win a second World Series, after beating Cleveland in 1995, the heat on the core of that team grew a little more scorching.
"The reality is," said John Smoltz, Fox's lead baseball analyst, "we should have won in '96. So we should have won back-to-back."
But because Jim Leyritz hit the long ball of a lifetime, that team didn't win two World Series in a row. And even though the Braves kept going back to October for another nine consecutive seasons -- and actually averaged 103 wins a year from 1997-99 -- they were always haunted by the years they didn't win. So they felt the tonnage of those losses in every one of those Octobers.
"There are so many things that I think change the destiny of a ballclub, based on the end result," Smoltz said. "And in 1996, when we were up, two games to none, against the Yankees, we were going to win our second consecutive World Series. If we do, there's no way John Schuerholz trades David Justice or Jermaine Dye. There's no way he trades Marquis Grissom. You don't change a team that won. But because we lost and the Yankees won, they went on to spit out four out of five. And that, to me, was the hardest thing for us to take, was that we were in position to win a championship back-to-back. And who knows what could have been for us."
Smoltz still believes that if the Braves had just won that World Series, they would have gone on to be the team of the '90s, not the Yankees. They would have kept that team together. They never would have had to play those future postseasons under the omnipresent cloud of Team That Can't Win the Big One. So who knows how many more times they would have won?
That team won 100 games in six different seasons -- and won the World Series in none of those years. But how minuscule for those Braves was the line between dynasty and disaster? Let's reflect on that too.
One pitch, one bounce, one call, one play
Suppose Mark Wohlers had never hung that fateful slider to Leyritz in 1996? Suppose, for that matter, Dye hadn't gotten tangled up with the right-field umpire, Tim Welke, in a bizarre play in the same game, as the Yankees were blowing a 6-0 lead? Suppose they'd won Game 4 and led that World Series three games to one, instead of being tied 2-2?
How different might everything have been -- because of one pitch or one crazy moment that no one has witnessed before or since? We can't answer those questions, of course. But go back and take a look at every postseason in this era. There is always a pitch, a play, an umpire's call or a ball that bounces the right (wrong) way -- and alters the fate of teams, players and the fans who care much too deeply about them.
Everyone we talked to for this piece had a story like that -- a moment they can't forget, one which would have turned games and postseasons and careers upside-down.
"Never put a percentage on how much luck is in a baseball game," Manuel said. "And human nature plays a role."
As the Red Sox were coming back after losing the first three games to the Yankees in 2004, there were so many tiny little twists of fate that made it all possible. And not just Dave Roberts stealing second and making it by 1/16 of an inch. Torre can still see a Tony Clark double that would have given the Yankees the lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 -- if it hadn't bounced into the seats in Fenway as no other ball has hopped before or since.
Manuel still shakes his head over that squirrel in St. Louis in 2008. And a wild Bartolo Colon pickoff throw against the Mariners in 2001 that was supposed to be a bluff. And an unlikely game-winning 2010 home run by Juan Uribe -- off a Ryan Madson slider that missed its target by a foot.
Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said he is still haunted by the agonizing out call on J.T. Snow's slide at the plate -- and by a fly ball Jose Cruz Jr. didn't catch -- in the 2003 loss to the Marlins that ended the Giants' only 100-win season in the past two decades.
In baseball, more than any other sport, those October oddities you've never seen before are often the reason that so many underdogs win and so many 100-win teams go fishing. But we never seem to account for that.
"Winning is very fleeting," Wotus said. "And I'm speaking from experience, from the three World Series we won too. It's the bounce of the ball. It's a bloop hit. It's something strange -- one player having a tremendous night. It's so fleeting that ... everyone's goal is to win the World Series, but it's always something strange like that, that seems to knock you out of that."
October isn't fair
What it all comes down to, really, is that postseason baseball is a whole different sport. So the qualities that make teams great from April through September aren't the qualities that decide who wins in October. And is there any greater example than what we've already witnessed in October 2016?
"It's a totally different season," Smoltz said. "You might as well just play baseball totally different. I get the complexities with some of it. But there are too many off days. And you don't utilize your roster the way you would in 162 games. You would never be able to pitch your closer three innings and come back the next day and even think about using him."
Would the Indians be in the World Series if they hadn't been able to use Andrew Miller to make six multi-inning bullpen appearances, totaling 171 pitches, in the same postseason? Would the Dodgers still be playing if Kenley Jansen hadn't shown up on the mound at the start of the seventh inning in Game 5 in Washington? Those answers are "no" and, well, "no."
"You can't do that in the regular season," Smoltz said. "Nor would you. Everybody's claiming now that that's the way it should be, but it can't. You have to approach it differently. ... It would be like the Golden State Warriors abandoning their approach and trying to shoot all 2-pointers in the playoffs. It's just not going to be part of their game plan.
"But that's just kind of what happens now in baseball. It's a format that you can play totally different than you would in the regular season."
Well, that format isn't changing. Not any time soon. And certainly not between now and the start of Game 6 at Wrigley. So no wonder the ingenious architect of these Cubs, Theo Epstein, said that when you build a team, all you can do is construct a roster that you think can get you to October.
Yeah, but what happens once you get there?
"Then," he said, "you pray."