AL is going to the underdogs (both of 'em)

October 14, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEVELAND -- Let's stop talking for a minute about who is going to win the American League Championship Series, or how. Let's talk about something really important. Something really tough to figure out.

Who is the underdog?

Is it the Cleveland Indians, who have spent four miserable decades at the bottom of the baseball barrel since last gracing the postseason in 1954?

Or is it the Seattle Mariners, enjoying their first trip to the playoffs and their third winning season in franchise history?

Wow. Talk about legitimate underdog credentials.

We're talking Charlie Brown against Charlie Brown here.

"Both teams have had a rough go for a long time," announcer Bob Uecker said on the field before Game 3 last night at Jacobs Field, "and that's putting it kindly."

Kindly, indeed. The teams are hot items now, with some of the game's best young players. But they were the Bad News Bears for years before that.

The Mariners are 367 games under .500 since they came into existence in 1977. The Indians? They're 189 games under .500 since 1977 and, until this year, hadn't finished within 10 games of first place in a non-strike year since the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

The two teams finished a combined 67 games out of first place in 1983, and a combined 52 out as recently as three years ago.

In 1985, they were so stultifyingly dull that they combined to draw half as many fans to their games as the Orioles drew this season.

In other words, taking the long view, this series is a punch line in search of a joke. The Indians and Mariners playing for the right to go to the World Series? Ba-dum-bum. But seriously, folks.

L Has anyone else thought about how ridiculous this really is?

L Yet here we are. In Cleveland. Having flown in from Seattle.

Two cities gone all but apoplectic at the reversal of their long-standing baseball fortunes.

In Seattle, even the alternative rock stations were humming about the Mariners. And they hate everything.

In Cleveland, the local TV stations broadcast the noon news from the ballpark yesterday. As if Albert Belle were going to show up and say hello or something.

Two teams, two towns, two scenes of baseball futility for years, baseball mania now.

Who is more deserving of your sympathy, your support? Who is the underdog?

It's the Mariners in the baseball sense, of course. The Indians are monsters this year. They won 21 more games than the fast-closing Mariners during the season. It will be a huge upset if the Mariners win the ALCS.

But we're not talking about that. We're talking about teams playing stunningly lame baseball for years and years. We're talking about fans of teams with absolutely nothing to cheer about for decades. Nothing at all.

"I vote for Cleveland as having had it worse," said Uecker, who sort of qualifies as a professor of woe. "This place was just dead for so long. And no town has taken more hits. No one tells Seattle jokes."

True enough. Puget Sound never caught on fire.

You can't really argue with Uecker's point. The Indians have been a baseball laughingstock for twice as long as the Mariners have existed.

"There are families here who have gone through two generations without experiencing a winner until now," Indians general manager John Hart said. "I don't dispute that fans in Seattle have suffered. But that's a fledgling franchise."

But there is another side to that argument. At least the Indians have experienced some success at some point in their history. OK, so it was a half-century ago and anyone who would remember it is dead. That doesn't mean it didn't happen.

The Indians won the World Series in 1920 and 1948. Nineteen players who wore the Indian uniform are in the Hall of Fame, including Bob Feller, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie and Cy Young himself.

The Mariners can't match that history. Primarily because the Mariners don't have a history. Harold Reynolds ranks second on their all-time hits list, for crying out loud.

This was the first season in which the Mariners contended for a division title, the first in which they played a game that mattered in September.

Got that? This was their first pennant race. Ever.

Mariners in the Hall of Fame? Sorry, Alvin Davis -- the best player in Mariners history -- doesn't quite measure up. You remember Alvin Davis, don't you?

Basically, the Mariners can't match famous players with anyone. If they start retiring numbers, they'll have to retire Bruce Bochte's.

Take that, Cleveland.

But maybe the biggest joke on Seattle's fans is occurring now. Just as the Mariners are giving them thrills for the first time, the Washington state legislature is haggling over whether to build a new stadium and keep the team in town. If it doesn't work out, the Mariners could be gone. Next year.

Nice.

So, who is the biggest underdog? Which franchise was lamer? Which team better perfected the art of extremely bad baseball?

Hard call. Impossible call. Let's just put it this way, in the interest of fairness: May the worst team win. If you get the idea.

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