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Nightengale: Cubs, Indians World Series Drought Raises Stakes

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Oct 19, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Indians first baseman Carlos Santana (41) celebrates after making the final catch to beat the Toronto Blue Jays in game five of the 2016 ALCS playoff baseball series at Rogers Centre. PHOTO: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, just in case anyone has forgotten outside the 216 area code, there’s another long-suffering legion of fans, with generations never having seen their team win a World Series championship.

They are the Cleveland Indians, the American League’s version of the Chicago Cubs.

The Indians last won a World Series in 1948 during the Truman administration.

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. PHOTO: By Keith Allison on Flickr - Wikimedia Commons
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. PHOTO: By Keith Allison on Flickr – Wikimedia Commons

The Cubs, who hadn’t even been in the World Series for 71 years, last won in 1908 while Teddy Roosevelt was in office.

When the teams meet Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, Fox) at Progressive Field for Game 1 of the 112th World Series, it will be the longest combined championship drought — 174 years — in World Series history.

One team will give its fans a memory of a lifetime, sending them running to graveyards, placing caps on the tombstones of their loved ones who weren’t around to see it.

The other’s anguish will last at least another year.

“That’s why I wanted it to be us against the Cubs,” Indians DH Mike Napoli said. “I thought it would be a cooler thing to be part of. To go to Wrigley on the road, to see that atmosphere. To see it here. That’s something I live for.

“The Cubs have a lot of history.

“We have a lot of history.”

It just happens to be a whole lot of bad history.

The Indians, who dominated the AL Central in the 1990s, at least have recent World Series experience. They were in the World Series in 1997, two outs away from finally winning that coveted title, but blew a ninth-inning lead to the Florida Marlins and lost Game 7 in 11 innings. They lost in six games to the powerful Atlanta Braves in 1995. And before that, you’ve got to back to 1954 against the New York Giants.

The Cubs haven’t been to the Fall Classic since 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell will make history as the first African Americans to play World Series games in a Cubs uniform.

“This erased a lot of failures that the teams have had,” said Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the most beloved Cub of his generation. “It’s a long time coming.”

Perhaps this Series would be even more compelling if the city of Cleveland still had not won a championship of any kind in any sport. The NBA’s Cavaliers took care of that in June, ending the city’s 52-year drought, and will unfurl their championship banner about an hour before Game 1 across the street when they begin defense of their NBA title at Quicken Loans Arena.

Does it ease the Indians’ pressure knowing they don’t have to carry Cleveland’s burden?

“Maybe,” Napoli said.

He paused.

“Probably.”

It’s no different than Chicago, of course. Chicago had a World Series winner in 2005, it just happened to be the White Sox. The Bulls won six NBA titles from 1991 to 1998. The Blackhawks have won six Stanley Cups, including three since 2009. The Bears were Super Bowl champions in the 1985 season.

None of the past will matter in one town.

“To win a championship here after all of this time, that would be pretty cool,” Napoli said. “Friends from here have let me know that if the Indians ever won a World Series, the city would be out of control. It would be bananas.”

Let’s see, will there be 2 million fans watching a parade on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland — or 3 million watching a parade on Michigan Avenue in Chicago?

There are enough enthralling story lines in this World Series to make a Hollywood movie.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona resigned in 2011 after eight years with the Boston Red Sox. Three weeks later, Francona’s boss, Theo Epstein, resigned, too, and went to Chicago to head up the Cubs’ baseball operations.

“We were together eight years, and eight years in Boston, I would say is almost miraculous,” Francona said. “There’s a lot of fond memories.”

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. Photo: Chicago Tribune
Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. Photo: Chicago Tribune

Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Francona interviewed for the Red Sox managerial vacancy in 2004. Francona got the job and immediately led the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years, then did it again in 2007. Maddon wound up in Tampa Bay and led the Rays to the 2008 World Series, but he’s still looking for his first ring.

“We loved him,” Epstein said of Maddon, “but we thought taking over a veteran team in a big market, there would have been some risk involved because he’s so unique. For us having Tito, who had already managed in the big leagues, it obviously worked out great for both.”

Cubs pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey won World Series rings with the Red Sox, yes, playing for Francona.

“A lot of history there, great man,” Lester said. “I’m glad we’re facing Cleveland, just because Tito is a friend.”

Napoli won the 2013 World Series with the Red Sox and is close friends with Lester, Lackey and David Ross.

Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman and Cleveland relief ace Andrew Miller were teammates with the New York Yankees this season, then were traded within six days of one another.

Miller, the AL Championship Series MVP, saw his career revived as a reliever when Francona insisted the Red Sox re-sign him after trading for and then non-tendering him in 2010.

Then, of course, there is the Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who actually helped make Cleveland’s championship run possible.

The Cubs will be facing Corey Kluber, who could win his second Cy Young Award in three seasons, in Game 1. Yes, the same Corey Kluber who once was a Class AA pitching prospect in the San Diego Padres organization. The prospect that Hoyer, as GM of the Padres at the time, traded to Cleveland in 2010, only to see him emerge as one of the finest pitchers in baseball.

“We kid him all of the time about it,” Epstein said, laughing.

The Padres were going for the division title in 2010, needing one more bat, and pulled off a three-way deal with the Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Padres landed Ryan Ludwick, the Cardinals got Jake Westbrook and the Indians came up with Kluber.

“Our offense needed help, big-time,” said Cubs vice president Jason McLeod, who was Hoyer’s assistant GM. “And at the time Kluber wasn’t rated high as a prospect in our system. I remember while the trade was being made, Jed asked a lot about people on the staff. We had only been there one year, so we didn’t really have a lot of history with Corey.

“We debated about it, and I remember a few of us saying, ‘Hey, Jed, he’s the one starting pitcher in our minor league system that can miss bats, I think he can be a starter.’ He said, ‘No, he’s a reliever type of guy.’

“We all saw what happened.’’

Hoyer, of course, has been involved in plenty of deals that turned out brilliantly, including the acquisition of Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop, but his colleagues can’t help but tease him.

Now, with Epstein sending a congratulatory text to Francona after the Indians knocked off the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, and Francona responding an hour later to say, “Hope to see you next week,” the time has arrived.

“I think every city would be going crazy in the World Series,” Miller said. “I can’t imagine Yankee fans got tired of their dynasty. I don’t think Boston was underwhelmed with their third World Series in 10 years.

“But this year, considering the droughts, I’ve got to think this one will be pretty special.”

Call it epic.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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