It’s Oct. 14, 1908. Today, the Chicago Cubs will face off against the Detroit Tigers in game five of the World Series. The Cubs are up 3-1 in the series, meaning with a win tonight they can secure their second straight World Series championship and their second overall as a franchise. The Cubs do not have the benefit of home-field advantage: game five will take place at Bennett Park in Detroit in front of 6,210 roaring fans, not West Side Park in Chicago. Today, Cubs pitcher Orval Overall will pitch a complete game shutout, including a classic four-strikeout inning in the bottom of the first, securing the Cubs a 2-0 victory and a World Series championship. The Cubs will savor this day for a long, long time.
Fast-forward to Oct. 11, 1948. The Cleveland Indians find themselves in the World Series against the Boston Braves. The average attendance for this year’s World Series is nearly 60,000 fans. Cleveland has played well to give themselves a 3-2 series lead, and need a win at Braves Field to win their first World Series since 1920 and their second overall as a franchise. Backed by a home run from second baseman and future Baseball Hall of Famer Joe “Flash” Gordon, Cleveland pitcher Bob Lemon does enough to get the 4-3 win and bring a World Series title back to Cleveland. They will treasure this victory for a long, long time.
It is now October 2016. This year, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, both with a meager two championships apiece, find themselves face-to-face with a World Series title on the line. Combined, the two franchises boast a 4-11 record in their World Series appearances over a total 257 seasons of baseball, the Cubs contributing quite generously to that total with a 2-8 record over 141 years. For the baseball mathematicians out there, this means that these two teams have combined to win a World Series title 1.55 percent of the seasons in which they have played. Given the fact that there are currently 30 teams in baseball, that number ought to be closer to 6.7 percent, and even higher if you consider the depressing fact that there were only 16 teams vying for the championship back in 1908.
This is all to suggest one rather sad, if not obvious, fact: history has proven unfavorable to these longstanding franchises. The Cubs have come to embrace the “loveable losers” identity that has been bestowed upon them, and Cleveland has built itself a reputation as a city void of sports success (except the Cavaliers’ miracle 3-1 comeback against the record-setting Golden State Warriors in this past summer’s NBA Finals, which ended the city’s 52-year championship drought).
However, Lady Luck, in a generous yet undeniably cruel gesture, has decided to pit these two desperate franchises against one another for a chance at the elusive World Series championship. Each franchise boasts a fanbase starving for a championship, yet only one will walk away with a World Series title at the end of this month. The Cubs and the Indians might as well be Harry Potter and Voldemort (you can decide which is which), for neither can live while the other survives.
This is the 2016 World Series matchup. This is why baseball still matters in 2016. Even with the MLB and its mess of shortcomings — the outdated formality of baseball’s unwritten code that seems to crush any attempts at fun (bat flipping, anyone?); the four-, sometimes five-hour games; the seemingly never-ending regular season and the frustrating playoff structure (the All-Star Game determines home-field advantage in the World Series? The Wild Card series is a one-game playoff?) — baseball stands in a tier of its own amongst American sports.
A storyline like this doesn’t happen in the NBA, NFL or NHL. Baseball has embraced its status as a timeless tradition that other professional sports can only dream of replicating. Baseball fans are initiated into a history unlike any other sports tradition; fans harbor an inherent appreciation not only for where baseball is now, but also for where it came from all those years ago.
This is a preview of this year’s World Series. But this isn’t an analysis of each team’s personnel, strengths or weaknesses. If this had been for any other sport, the discussion might have focused on the Cubs’ incredible starting rotation, the breakout of second baseman Javier Baez or the absolute torching that Cleveland put on the rest of the American League this postseason with the help of their seemingly unhittable relief pitching. Sure, that all matters, and plenty of ESPN analysts will spend this week talking about ERAs, batting averages, matchups and all of that other technical data. But in the end, all of that pales in comparison to the historical significance of this year’s World Series. This is about what a championship means to a Cubs fan and what a championship means to an Indians fan. In the end, that story overshadows all of the technical crap, and that’s what sports fans will remember another 100 years down the line. A Cubs championship has often been referred to as the holy grail of sports accomplishments (as much as Cubs manager Joe Maddon would like to deny), and no stat line can hold its own in comparison to a tale of such epic proportions.
Baseball differentiates itself by being one of the only sports without a clock; one could say that baseball games transcend time. Yet even without a clock, baseball may be more reliant on time than any other sport. By embracing history, the great American pastime simply gets better with age.