Tito and his Cleveland streakers now face a 69-year-old challenge

On the chance you didn’t see it, believe me when I tell you it was  just marvelous. When their mainstay, Francisco Lindor, brilliant throughout their epic surge, flailed wildly at a bad pitch in the dirt ending a ninth inning threat against Kansas City and their dramatic date with History, the great crowd fell dead silent. The remarkable winning streak was over, falling a tad short of the ultimate distinction, maybe, but only after making a statement unmatched in a full century. That it was happening in Cleveland, so long the cruel butt of dumb jokes by lame comics, was entirely the point, of course.

The game over, the camera caught the Indians in their dugout – heads down – beginning to exit. And then the crowd unleashed – low at first, but quickly climbing – a mighty roar and it came from deep down in the throat of a battered old industrial town that’s been there and seen it all, a mighty bellow that rose into the night and swiftly engulfed the stadium.

The players, looking stunned, turned and paused, but their manager, as usual, was entirely equal to the moment. Out of the dugout bounded Terry Francona, arms raised and hands clapping to return the salute his team was receiving with his players quickly following to partake in the joyful celebration of a memorable thing superbly done. The tribute, thereby, was mutual.

You just don’t see stuff like this very often in the games we play and are supposed to enjoy. Rarer still are chances to pay homage to 22-game winning streaks. They don’t happen every season or even every century. But the fact  that it’s Cleveland now reveling in this rich moment really makes it special, a woebegone town and its so long just-along-for-the-ride baseball team, winners of only two championships and four pennants in 117 years of checkered existence, delivering the season’s best story thus far. It couldn’t happen to more deserving people.   

But then, however fascinating and exciting, long win streaks in August and September guarantee nothing come October.  When the NY Giants set the all-time record by winning 26 straight in 1916, they finished fourth. There’s been silly talk about striking that Giants record from the books because along the way they played a tie-game, called by darkness. You may dismiss that as mere revisionist claptrap. Games called by darkness were common in 1916 when there were, please realize, no lights. Tie-games had to be replayed from the start. In other words, they didn’t happen, they didn’t count any more than unresolved rain-shortened games would have counted.  

Until the Indians came along, the 1935 Cubs had the second longest streak at 21.  Managed by Charlie Grimm, those Cubs were interesting, featuring the snappy Hall-of-Famer bound trio of Chuck Klein, Kiki Cuyler, and Gabby Hartnett plus the crackerjack double-play combo of Billy Herman and Billy Jurges, both of whom much later would have the honor of quite poorly managing very bad Red Sox teams. The streak sparked the Cubs past the Gashouse Gang Cardinals and Bill Terry’s Giants in the pennant race. But in the World Series, Detroit’s Tigers, led by their G-Men – Brothers Greenberg, Gehringer, and Goslin – romped to the championship.

Of the all-time half dozen longest streaks (19 or more) only two claimants went all the way: the 1906 ‘Hitless Wonder’ White Sox with their peerless pitching staff anchored by Nick Altrock,  Doc White, and Big Ed Walsh, and the 1947 Yankees, featuring Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, and need you hear more.  The 2002 Oakland A’s – famed mainly for their enterprising GM’s so-called “MoneyBall’ shtick – were quickly ousted in the playoffs and have rarely been heard from since. The longest streak the Red Sox ever mounted was 15 games in the sterling season of 1946. Their run cemented them in first-place in April and that’s where they remained the rest of the way with the Cardinals and Enos Slaughter, alas, poised in the bulrushes of October awaiting them.  

So what does all this suggest about Cleveland’s tender hopes this October? It’s been nearly seven full decades since the Indians last won it all with the American League’s first de-segregated team, amassed by Bill Veeck, managed by Lou Boudreau, starring Bobby Feller, and triumphing in the end over my beloved Braves, which I remember too well. Sixty nine years.It’s the game’s longest sustained dry spell now that the Cubs have come in out of the cold.

Also remembered well, and with vast sympathy, is how gallantly the Indians went down against those Cubs a year ago with Tito, the manager the Red Sox so cleverly chased away, clearly outwitting alleged genius Joe Maddon in a classic managerial chess. More popular than ever, Francona has become baseball’s most respected manager, accorded by students of the game with near genius ratings for his handling of his team during the streak. He can do no wrong these days. His Indians will be pets of the non-aligned this fall (sorry Boston) and the hefty No. 2 choice even hereabouts should the unthinkable happen again to your Town Team!

A week after the all-star break, the Indians were 48-45, leading the Central Division by a half-game. In the subsequent two months they’ve been a sizzling 45-12 and with a fortnight left, they lead by 15 games. Skeptics wonder if they’ve peaked too soon.  No question such perversity is possible, somewhat comparable happened to your Red Sox just a year ago.  
It’s Francona’s chore to prevent that. He’s equal to it.