by Jerry Keys
Thanks to expanded playoffs, post-season futility is not heard of as much anymore. Most pundits focus on championship droughts since expanded playoffs have solved post-season action. That is not entirely true. The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are the darlings of baseball, rightfully so. Yet, two other teams have not been mentioned much. The other teams are the Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals.
Toronto is the least likely to be mentioned team. They reside in the cut-throat AL East, the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Devil Rays. From 1985 to 1993 Toronto claimed the (then) seven-team AL East five times, losing the ALCS in 1985, 1989, and 1991; while winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993. In the last nineteen years, the Blue Jays have posted a .500 or winning record nine times. In some divisions an 88-74 mark could win it, but in today's AL East it can merit a 3rd or 4th place finish. Could it be possible for Canada to lose it's only remaining team?
Pittsburgh has a rich century-plus history. During the 1970's the Pirates won the (then) six-team NL East six times, losing the NLCS in 1970, 1972, 1974, and 1975; while capturing the World Series in 1971 and 1979. Pittsburgh remained competitive in the early 1980's, but slowly sank into the NL basement by 1985 (57-104). By the early 1990's, Pittsburgh had restocked, claiming the NL East in 1990, 1991, and 1992. Hard luck befell Pittsburgh, losing all three NLCS, with two being epic (1991 and 1992). Each year the Pirates lost a cornerstone of their team, 1990 being Sid Bream, 1991 Bobby Bonilla, and 1992 Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds.
Beginning in 1993, Pittsburgh began a twenty year run of a losing record. Participating in a division race has been zilch unless you count the year the Houston Astros stumbled all year (1997). The '97 Pirates were at 69-70 and one and a half games out of first in early September. A new ownership group emerged, a new stadium, but results were a continuation of losing. Any talent which flourished in Pittsburgh was traded away for prospects. Attendance was abysmal.
Enter a highly regarded ex-catcher who never panned out and you get a 60-40 team nearing the trading deadline (July 31). Clint Hurdle hung up his cleats in 1987 and began managing at the major league level in 2002. In his sixth year with Colorado, Hurdle guided the team to the World Series. Hurdle took over the Pirates in 2011, guiding the team to a 53-47 mark in the first one hundred games. The Pirates won nineteen of their last sixty-two and all hope for a winning season vanished in August. Last year, Pittsburgh was 58-42 at the one hundred game point. After promptly winning twenty-one of their last sixty-two, Pirate fans were let down.
Enter 2013, 60-40 at the hundred game mark. This year will conclude differently. The team has a great mix of youth and experience. Wandy Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano head a veteran pitching staff, and if Pittsburgh becomes buyers rather than sellers by July 31st, it remains to be seen. A solid #2-3 starter and a couple experienced bats could lead to a NL Central title. A selling team this year is remotely slim. If they are not buyers, look for a second place finish and a #5 seed. But a Pirate fan could not complain, winning record, playoffs! But 'if' they are smart buyers, they could very well win the Central. A smart buy would total 98 wins, a mediocre buy totals 92 and a no buy 86.
The team with the longest post-season drought is a forgotten team. It is the team a younger friend honestly thought, were a minor league team, the Kansas City Royals. Like Toronto, who began play in 1977, Kansas City has not been around long, 1969. From 1976 to 1985 the Royals won seven AL West pennants. They failed to reach the World Series in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1984; while losing the World Series in 1980 and winning it in 1985. The Royals remained competitive until 1994. No one can surmise what may have happened then, a 64-51 record, 3rd best in the AL Central; while the Texas Rangers were leading the AL West with a 52-62 forgettable mark. When salaries became predominate, like the Pirates, the Royals were left out in the cold.
Similar to Pittsburgh, Kansas City was a small-market team. Once upon a time there were no large nor small market teams. As team salaries rose, certain teams could not justify increased spending. Kansas City also became a breeding group for great young talent, only to be traded away for more prospects. Why? If they were not traded they would bolt for free agency. Hmmmm, top level talent the Royals brass would evaluate before the trade or (if lost via free agency) an additional late first round draft pick?
The Royals of the late 1970's, along with the Philadelphia Phillies, fielder almost the same team each year. Both won consecutive divisions in 1976, 1977 and 1978 only to lose in their respected championship series. The key is both teams did not venture much into free agency. By today's shuffling of players, one would be amazed at how many players took part in the 1976 Royals and 1985 Royals. This formula worked a generation ago. Since 1994, Kansas City has posted one winning season, 2003 83-79 or three losses away from another losing season. From 1975-94, they posted fifteen winning seasons out of twenty. At the one hundred game point in 2013, the Royals were 49-51. As with Pittsburgh, a playoff team could be welcomed with open arms, but a simple winning record would still be a start.
The U.S. soccer team posted three convincing wins last month to extend their record to 4-1-1 in final round play for World Cup qualifications. Three of the six teams advance to Cup play next summer and the fourth participates in a playoff game for an additional chance to qualify.