This morning as I watched the baseball report, I heard it said of the Indians June swoon that since they hit their high-water mark a few weeks back, they've been shut out more than they've won. I could hear my pessimistic Tribe-fan son KC saying, "see, I knew it would happen." But I can remember another classic collapse by a team that wasn't supposed to be there.
The year was 1977. The team was the lovable Cubs. They had taken first in the old NL East on the 28th of May, and by June 27th had pushed that lead to 8 1/2 games. But reality began to set in on the 29th, when they began a slide that ended July 5th after losing 7 of 8. Included in this was a 19-3 loss to the Montreal Expos in which starter Ray Burris went just 1/3 of an inning and Ellis Valentine hit 2 HRs- one of them off infielder Larry Biitner in the 9th.
They continued to cling to a lead of anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 games until a four game set in Philadelphia. The opener was a twi-night double-header on July 15th in which the Cubs lost the opener to cut their lead to 2 1/2 yet again, and Greg Luzinski of the Phillies hit a game tying two-run shot. I got to listen to game two on my transistor radio from the hospital- I'd gotten my appendix out that afternoon. You could feel the panic in the faltering Cubs. In the sixth inning though, you felt the air go out for good when Luzinski hit the facing of the second deck off of Paul Reuschel to put the Phils up 3-1. That game went on to become a 9-2 loss, and the home team took three of four. Still, the Cubs continued to win just when they needed to, including a game I well remember, a 16-15 war with the Reds. But a loss to struggling San Diego put them under water at last, and the Phillies finished them off for all practical intents with a 4-game Wrigley Field sweep that included 2 more Luzinski HRs and a collective score of 34-14.
In the meantime, "my division"- the AL West- was in the midst of the most savage battle in modern history. The Minnesota Twins had assumed the early lead on April 30th, but never could shake the Chicago White Sox, with a biggest lead of 3 1/2 games. The southsiders got hot in late June, and took first themselves on July 2nd, building a 5 1/2 game lead, giving Chicagoans dreams of an intra-city World Series. But that high water point marked the start of a ten-loss-in-14-games slump. They were still in first place, though, when the Week That Was began.
On Sunday, Aug. 12th, the Sox lost to Texas 12-9. That put the Rangers in third, a game back of the Sox, while Minnesota held second despite a 6-5 loss to the Tigers. Fellow contender Kansas City also lost, to expansion Toronto 6-3 to remain 1 1/2 back. The next day, the Sox began a 2-game set with the Yankees with a 6-2 loss, which gave the Twins an opportunity. They took it, hammering the Orioles 13-9 to retake first place by 1/2 game. First baseman Craig Kusick was the star of the show, hitting a three run HR of starter Rudy May to chase him in the fifth; he capped a 5-run 6th with another off Mike Flanagan. Losses by Texas and Kansas City put them 1 1/2 and 2 games back, respectively.
The Twins continued to lead Tuesday despite a 6-5 loss to the O's as all the contenders lost except Texas, who routed Milwaukee 11-3. The Sox lost the second game to the Yankees in a heart breaker; after the Yanks got a 4 run 8th to stretch their lead to 9-4, the Sox got 6 in the ninth off Ron Guidry, Sparky Lyle, and Ken Clay to take a 10-9 lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, reliever Randy Wiles walked Thurman Munson leading off the inning, and one out later, Chris Chambliss hit a walk off 2-run shot to give the Yankees an 11-10 win.
Wednesday, the Twins took their turn at losing to an expansion team, falling to Seattle 3-2, while the Rangers were getting a walk-off RBI single from catcher Jim Sundberg to beat Toronto 6-5 in 10 innings and give the Texicans first place by 1/2 game. The Sox were idle and remained a half-game out, and KC topped the Tribe 5-3 to get back to 1 1/2 out.
Thursday, the White Sox were idle again, and everyone else won. Texas got a 3 hitter from Dock Ellis in a 8-0 win over the Jays, while Dennis (the menace) Leonard blanked Cleveland 4-0 on a 4 hitter. So the only change in the standings was that the Sox were now 1 game out.
Things really tightened up on Friday, and the lead changed hands again. While Texas took its turn at getting hammered by the Yankees (8-1), Wilbur Wood knuckled down the Brewers 3-1- and the Sox were in first by percentage points. In the meantime, Minnesota was losing to Baltimore 3-2 and KC whupped Boston 9-3, leaving them both a mere 1/2 back.
Saturday gave us the 4th different leader in a mere seven days. Kansas City, led by the heart of their order,knocked out Luis Tiant after just 2 1/2 innings; after a single by Tom Poquette and a strikeout by Hal McCrae, the Royals got RBI hits by George Brett (single), Al Cowens (triple), and John Mayberry (single). The Royals won 5-2 while everyone else lost- Texas 6-2 to the Yanks, Chicago 4-2 to Milwaukee, and Minnesota 6-2 to Baltimore.
Kansas City was never headed again on their way to a second straight AL West title and 3-0 pennant series loss to the Yanks. In fact, while Texas spent the rest of the season going 26-15, the Sox 23-21, and the imploding Twins 15-23, the Royals ran off a 34-9 streak to win going away. But for one magical week, all the world revolved about these four teams.
And the Cubs? they capped of a string of disappointing 3 game losing streaks with losing their last six to finish at 81-81- not even a winning record.
What does this mean for the 2011 Indians? I keep telling KC that they are a talented team, if injury bit. I think they're in it for the long haul. Not like the poor Cubs, who every time they look good, spend all their time waiting for the other shoe to fall, just like 1977.