A seven-team league will be hosted on Mars in 120 years and it’s quite possible the Padres still won’t have a World Series to their name. This nightmare isn’t unique to San Diego. With the league looking to expand to 32 cities, it won’t be a novelty to have teams on a 30, 60, or 90 year championship drought.
At some theoretical level that would make any statistician blistering angry, each team has a one-in-thirty chance to hoist the commissioner’s trophy at the end of the season. You wouldn’t hesitate for those odds at winning the lottery, and nearly every team would snatch up that chance during spring training given half an opportunity. They’re solid odds when they prize is so tantalizingly high. A World Series Championship.
In that world of perfect parity, teams could expect to win one World Series every 30 years, that’s a non-trivial 3% chance per year. Compound that percentage over 30 years and you’re guaranteed a championship. But the world isn’t perfect. It’s cruel and baseball is no different. Teams can’t expect the World Series carousel to pick them up every few decades. Historically some teams have been more successful than others, sure, and the windows of opportunity through the years are different sizes and shapes for each team.
With that in mind, just how often can fans of any one team expect a championship, or put another way: when do teams know they’re in a World Series drought?
Obvious answers exist. Six teams have never raised the vaunted “hunk of metal”, but not all of these teams are created equal. Surely the Rays who only been around since 1998 can’t claim a drought. On the other hand, the Texas Rangers are in their 60th title-less year, and they were inaugurated when the league had only 18 teams (sorry Rangers fans). Here are the teams who have not won in the last 40 years:
One team to me sticks out. Only one city on this list was granted a Major League franchise that wasn’t relocated or another rebirth of a lost ball club or created within the last forty years.
The San Diego Padres. The oldest Major League team that hasn’t relocated without a World Series championship. Their drought is a little different.
The Padres were a baseball team far before the Major League Baseball was brought to the West coast, having originated in Southern California in the 1926 season as the Hollywood Stars. The Stars were quickly moved to San Diego the same year the California Pacific International Exposition rolled into town in 1932, offering millions of new visitors the face of the new, prosperous city. With millions of new visitors attracted to the city, San Diego wanted to be a part of the national past time as the cherry on top.
Named after the Franciscan Friars who founded the city 200 years earlier, this baseball team was created with that International Exposition’s tagline for San Diego in mind: “Built Upon a Glorious Past Dedicated to a Glorious Future.” Led by star outfielder Vince DiMaggio and 17 year old Ted Williams, that phrase seems prescient. The young Splendid Splinter was called “the best natural long distance hitting prospect since Babe Ruth” in 1937 and fulfilled that promise of glory, leading the Padres to a Pacific Coast League championship just a year after the team arrived.
Newspapers around the country announced the Padres had buried their opponents in a four game sweep, “furnishing both pallbearers and the slow music”.
Both Williams and DiMaggio departed San Diego that off-season for the chance to play in the Majors, and the promise of a glorious future seemed to have gone with them. It took another thirty years before the team was finally called up to the National League in 1969, finally ready to fulfill that prophecy.
Only it never came.
24 teams competed that season, and after sweeping the Astros to start their existence the Padres wound up tied with their expansion brethren Expos for worst record in the league (though they did roster A+ baseball name, Billy McCool). The glorious future was nothing more than a mirage, finishing last in 21 of the next 54 years.
San Diego got their championship in 1937, but Minor league championship flags don’t fly in Major League ballparks. Then, a slap hitter-sized window suddenly appeared.
“In my street clothes, nobody’d say I was a pro athlete. They always told me I couldn’t be an athlete. There have been doubters. I like to think of myself as normal. I try not to act like a ballplayer. I say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to people. I’m kind of quiet, stay to myself, love to laugh. I just am who I am. Sometimes people can’t accept that.”
Tony Gwynn was San Diego personified. He was what San Diego is on a on early Spring afternoon: magnificent. If that 1932 International Exposition foretold anyone, it was Tony Gwynn, and it was apparent from the moment he walked on the diamond. In his first 20 games as a Major Leaguer Gwynn was held hitless just twice. Once by Tom Seaver, the other by Steve Carlton.
The young man led the Padres with a .289 average his rookie campaign in limited at bats and did the same thing with in less than 100 games the following season. He would prove to be the leader sputtering expansion team needed, and in 1984, Tony Gwynn became Tony Gwynn.
The outfielder led the league with 213 hits, swiped 33 bags, and finished third in the MVP race. That effort resulted in the first trip to the World Series for the franchise.
While the team would narrowly avoid a sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, the future was brighter than any day San Diego spring afternoon.
Once again, that future never came.
Tony Gwynn led the world in hits, putting up batting averages not seen since the deadball era featuring a deceptive number of stolen bases. But the team would only reach the World Series one more time in his career, proving it takes just as much luck as skill.
Despite some very good players, these teams decisively missed the championship carousel.
The Glorious Future
The Padres today feel special. Up and down the lineup, you can feel the joy the players have taking the field every day. Fernando Tatís Jr, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove have already created playoff moments early in the season, and they led the franchise to October baseball for the first time in over a decade last season. Their window has just opened and it’s one most teams would be envious of. Young homegrown talent emphatically punctuated with blockbuster trades and major free agent signings.
Young teams and promising futures, however, have all too often failed to reach the promised land. Not because they’re lacking talent or world class ability, but just because a ball landed a few inches inside a line or a fluke play in the field let a runner score. That’s what makes droughts as intolerable as they are inevitable, all the talent, passion, and strategy in the world can’t defeat the luck needed to win a championship. Sure, they make it easier. But for every 2020 Dodgers loaded with talent, there’s dozens of other teams that solemnly watch the other players dog pile in celebration on the field. All because a little luck went the other way.
30 years of a championship drought can be expected today. 60 will soon be commonplace. But if the San Diego Padres miss just one more thirty year cycle, they’ll take the mantle as the only one-city franchise in 100 seasons of solitude.
Photo by Mario Cuadros from Pexels | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)