Who would have thought that in 2015, the Pirates—the same Pirates who just two years ago ended a run of not one, not two, but 20 consecutive losing seasons—could be cast as hoary playoff veterans? Yet that, by current lights, is what they are: Pittsburgh has now reached the postseason for the third straight October.
Compare that to the team the Pirates will host at PNC Park in Wednesday's NL wild-card game, those adorable, rejuvenated Cubbies. Chicago hasn't been in the postseason since 2008, hasn't won a playoff game since ’03, hasn't won a pennant since 1945 and, in case you missed it, hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, the year the first Model-T rolled off Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant in Detroit.
Now that could be the phrase of the fall.
Meanwhile, Astros manager A.J. Hinch apparently meant to say exactly those words in a jubilant post-clinch speech to his players on Sunday, but instead he went with, “We’re a f---ing playoff team!”
In this 2015 postseason, one team after another is coming off a painful period of playoff-less-ness. Houston hasn’t been to the postseason since 2005, the Mets not since '06, and the Blue Jays not for more than two decades, since way back when Carter was in charge. (Meaning, of course, Joe Carter, whose Game 6 home run won the 1993 World Series in Toronto.)
Other clubs in this postseason stew are enduring lean times of their own. The Yankees had stayed home from the postseason ball each of the past two years, an eternity for a franchise that has now made it that far 51 times in the past 95 years. The Rangers have frequented the playoffs recently, participating in 2010, '11 and '12, but the franchise finished last in 2014 and has not won a World Series since man walked on Mars. And the Royals, before becoming last year’s playoff darlings, hadn’t played a postseason game since 1985, which is also the last year they had won a division title—before this season.
Other than the Cardinals, who won the World Series in 2011 and got there again as recently as 2013, the NL's four other postseason participants—the Cubs, Dodgers, Mets and Pirates—have combined for exactly one pennant (New York, in 2000) and no world championships in the past quarter-century. And while the AL field includes teams that have won four pennants in the past decade (the Astros, while playing in the NL, in 2005; the Yankees, en route to a world title, in '09, the Rangers in '11 and the Royals last year), the two Texas teams have never won a World Series, and the titles won by Kansas City (1985) and Toronto (1992, '93) came before the advent of the wild card.
The face of playoff deprivation this year has to be the cherubic mug of Mets manager Terry Collins, who at 66, is the oldest manager in baseball. Collins has managed three major league teams and 1,688 regular-season games, but as of right now, he has precisely as much postseason managerial experience as do you or I. (Unless you happen to be, say, Tony La Russa.)
What does all this reversal of playoff fortune mean, bottom line? The Astros (+23%), Mets (19.6%), Blue Jays (17.7%) and Cubs (11.6%) have all shown leaps in home attendance, with four of the top five gains across the major leagues. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars in ticket sales alone for each of these teams, and that’s before anyone’s bought a pennant-race flag, T-shirt or corn dog.
Remember that Houston’s jump in attendance—to an average home crowd of 26,587—is for a team that just last season achieved a perfect 0.0 Nielsen rating for one of its televised games. And the Cubs' increase, to 36,541, may be still more impressive given that the team draws very well even in its lousiest years, on account of playing in an old brick ballpark with plants growing on the wall that people apparently like to come look at.
So, we know there are intriguing newcomers in these playoffs, and that makes for some nice storylines. But do we buy Cinderella’s tale completely? The transformed pumpkin, the mice becoming white horses, the dour footmen, the talking animals—that all stands to reason. But does anyone truly believe that, in real life, Cinderella could steal away with the prince?
Of the 20 teams to win the World Series in the wild card era, the longest drought belongs to the 2002 Angels, who had endured 14 consecutive non-playoff seasons. In the past decade the longest such string of absences belongs to the Giants, who missed the playoffs for six straight seasons before winning the 2010 World Series, their first of three in five years.
So even if the Cubs (six straight playoff-less seasons) can get past those grizzled Pirates; and the Blue Jays (20 years, not counting the 1994 strike season) can knock off the Rangers in one ALDS; and the Astros (nine) can pull one out in Yankee Stadium in Tuesday's AL Wild-Card Game; and the Mets (eight) can down the Dodgers in the NLDS (bitterly ironic, isn’t it, how the rare 2015 playoff team that does not have an October drought comes from California), each will still have a demanding journey ahead to try to win it all.
Still, this could be the year that a playoff-starved team such as this does take the trophy. And if one of them does, you can expect to hear that familiar phrase from a joyous locker room once again: “It’s been a long time coming.”