How MLB underdogs made playoffs

3:39 PM, Sep 30, 2013   |    comments
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Nick Swisher thrust his arms high into the air, looked into the sky, and proclaimed that he has never felt so proud to be a Clevelander.

"Hopefully, this changes the perception of what people think of this city and this organization,'' Swisher said Sunday. "People in the 216, get ready y'all, it's time to party.''

The Cleveland Indians, who lost 94 games last season, are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, earning an American League wild card home game.

And for the time in 21 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates are joining them.

The Detroit Tigers are returning, too, as well as the Cincinnati Reds.

This isn't a Major League Baseball postseason.

It's a baseball renaissance.

These four cities, decimated over the years by economic woes and, in some cases, downtown desolation, suddenly have baseball teams to at least provide a diversion from their troubles.

"The impact of professional sports to a city is such a life, a sense of pride to the community,'' said Cleveland vice president Bob DiBiasio, who has been with the organization for 34 years, "it's almost an inspirational thing. Nothing can bring a town together more than sports.''

The Indians, who averaged a major-league low 19,661 fans a game this year, sold out their Wednesday wild-card game before the team charter even landed in Cleveland on Sunday.

"I've got to tell you, this day is as rewarding as anything I've ever experienced,'' DiBiasio said. "It's a heck of a day around here.''

It was a magnificent day in Milwaukee too, home of Commissioner Bud Selig.

There are nine teams alive for the postseason, and four of them are among the five lowest-revenue teams in baseball.

While the New York Yankees and their mountains of cash are sitting home, the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Pirates and Indians are still playing. The Rays and Texas Rangers play a tiebreaker game tonight to determine who plays Cleveland for the wild-card berth.

Oh, and those fat cats who are among the top five revenue-producing teams?

The Boston Red Sox are the lone team who qualified for the postseason, with the Yankees, Phillies, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants finishing a combined 82 games out of first place, no one finishing higher than fourth.

Yeah, baby, after 20 consecutive losing years, even the Pirates can mock the Yankees, evoking 1960 and Bill Mazeroski, if so inclined.

"There's no more negativity,'' says Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the likely National League MVP winner. "We don't have to think about it anymore, or be a part of it.''

Most of McCutchen's teammates were still in diapers the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs in 1992, and considering fans in this football-crazed town are numb that the Steelers are 0-4, their success couldn't come at a better time.

"I've been around a lot of playoff atmospheres growing up in Pittsburgh," Walker told news reporters in Cincinnati. "I watched the Steelers win two Super Bowls. I saw the Penguins play home playoff games.

"I always wanted to be a part of something like that."

Now, on Tuesday against the Reds in the first playoff game at gorgeous PNC Park, the Pirates will finally have a playoff game. It will be their first postseason game in Pittsburgh since Oct. 11, 1992.

"People are going to be out of their minds," Walker said. "I'm imagining it's going to be Steeler-esque.''

Yes, the Pirates have finally rekindled the love between a city and its baseball team.

Now, we'll see if the Oakland A's and Rays can do the same with their ballparks.

The A's ballpark stinks. Literally. There have already been two sewage leaks this season in the 45-year-old Coliseum, with Selig recently calling the stadium "a pit" and "an unfortunate mess."

Oh, and please don't remind him that the O.co Coliseum could be the site of the World Series with a nation wondering if the sewage system will hold up with the place packed with fans and media.

Then again, at least Selig is convinced the A's will have fans showing up for the postseason, with the upper-deck tarps already planning to be removed. In Tampa, there is no guarantee of sellout crowds, with Selig calling their attendance "disgraceful.''

This is why Tigers manager Jim Leyland wept during his club's AL Central Division title celebration last week, last week, humbled that 3.1 million fans in baseball's most economically troubled city would support the Tigers this season.

"This was about the three million,'' Leyland said. "Probably a lot of them who couldn't afford to come, and didn't show up, but were with us in spirit every night.

"There's a passion here that's unbelievable.''

The Tigers, of course, would love to deliver owner Mike Ilitch his first World Series trophy, last winning in 1984. There are plenty of other droughts among this year's playoff entrants. The Indians haven't won since 1948. The Dodgers in 1988. The Pirates last won the World Series in 1979, and the Braves in 1995.

The Rangers and Rays have never won. Only the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox have been regular guests on the celebratory stage, winning four World Series titles since 2004.

This postseason, there are no overwhelming favorites, but clearly, America's darlings will be your Rust Belt teams, where a World Series championship will be so much more significant than claiming hardware.

"For this city, after everything it's been through, '' Indians president Mark Shapiro said, "it would mean absolutely everything.''

 

Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports

Gannett/USA Today

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