This weekend I’ve tuned out the dismal presidential campaign for the sweet joy of baseball and a World Series featuring the two teams with the longest championship droughts in the game.
My Chicago Cubs friends are praying for an end to 108 years without a World Series win. My Cleveland Indians friends also are praying because their history of falling short at the finish line is 68 years and counting.
When it’s over, one side will be delivered from disappointment spanning generations. The other will be the undisputed definition of futility. This is one reason why World Series TV ratings are soaring to their highest levels in nearly 10 years.
But did you know that Sacramento has its own tortured relationship with the granddaddy of American sports spectacles? Did you know that this quintessential baseball town with sun-drenched diamonds in its DNA is home to men who’ve suffered historic defeats on baseball’s biggest stage, people such as John McNamara and Dusty Baker?
Did you know there have been sons of Sacramento who reached the World Series multiple times and lost, only to have their accomplishments forgotten by the ages?
That describes Stan Hack, who was the star third baseman the last time the Cubs reached the World Series in 1945. He played in four World Series with the Cubs and lost them all. He has Hall of Fame credentials but isn’t enshrined with the great baseball players, even though he was as good as or better than some of them.
Hack is scarcely remembered in his hometown, where he went to Sacramento High School, let alone in the annals of baseball. It’s all part of Sacramento’s connection to the World Series and its tales of big-league hope, courage, heartbreak and resilience.
Other Sacramento players found more success in late October. Larry Bowa, of C.K. McClatchy High School, was the shortstop for the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies World Series champions. Surely as ornery today at 70 as he was then at 34, Bowa hit .375 with two RBIs and three stolen bases in his only World Series appearance.
The late Bob Forsch – a product of Hiram Johnson High School – pitched on the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals that won the World Series. Forsch lost both games he started in, but the Cardinals wouldn’t have gotten to the World Series without him.
Derrek Lee of El Camino High School was the starting first baseman for the 2003 Florida Marlins World Series winners. Andrew Susac of Jesuit High School was the backup catcher for the Giants when they won the World Series two years ago.
Steve Sax, of the former James Marshall High School in West Sacramento, played on two World Series winners with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dustin Pedroia, of Woodland High School, was the starting second baseman on two World Series champions with the Boston Red Sox. Greg Vaughn, of John F. Kennedy High School, hit two home runs in the 1998 World Series. But his San Diego Padres were swept in four games by the New York Yankees.
Others, like Jeff Blauser of Sacramento City College, were World Series champions only as spectators. Blauser was injured and couldn’t play as his 1995 Atlanta Braves beat the Indians in the World Series that year. Blauser did play for the Braves in the World Series the following year, but they lost to the New York Yankees; Blauser hit only .167 in six games.
But in baseball lore, two Sacramentans – both managers – stand out for bravely enduring two of the most memorable losses in World Series history.
In 1986, McNamara’s Red Sox were one strike away from breaking what was then a 68-year World-Series drought for Boston when everything went south. The pitchers McNamara had called upon to protect the lead imploded in Game 6 against the New York Mets. McNamara, who graduated from Christian Brothers High School, left a hobbled Bill Buckner in the game to play first base when many critics questioned why Buckner wasn’t removed for a player with better mobility.
That question hung around like a specter when the winning hit rolled though Buckner’s legs in what remains arguably the most replayed moment in World Series history. McNamara never got back to a World Series, and the Red Sox finally broke their curse with another manager in 2004.
In 2002, Baker, a Del Campo High School graduate and one of the finest prep athletes Sacramento has ever produced, was six outs away from breaking what was then a 48-year World Series drought for the Giants.
But Baker’s opponent, the Anaheim Angels, staged a historic comeback from five runs down to beat the Giants 6-5 in Game 6 of the World Series. “Never before had a team trailing by five runs and facing Series elimination come back to win,” an ESPN reporter wrote at the time.
Every move Baker made was picked apart by critics. The Giants lost Game 7 and the Series. Baker left the Giants soon after and he hasn’t been back to the World Series since. The Giants finally broke their curse in 2010 with another manager.
This came to mind Thursday night at the Kings home opener at Golden 1 Center, when a big cheer followed the sight of Dusty Baker’s luminous smile on the arena’s massive scoreboard.
Baker was courtside, beloved as a celebrity in his hometown. It was nice to see him recognized at the game, but I wish he were managing in the World Series right now. His Washington Nationals have the talent to be there. But they were eliminated in the divisional playoffs.
In 2003, when Baker managed the Cubs, Baker was mere outs away from taking them to the World Series when they lost a historic game to Lee’s Florida Marlins – a game remembered for a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman being blamed for a late inning Cubs collapse by (possibly) interfering with a catch.
It may be hard for Baker’s legion of friends and fans to believe that someone so positive has endured so many infamous defeats. He has come so close so many times. Sacramento is full of people hoping that Baker gets one more chance to win it all. At 67, he knows time is running short.
Sometimes the best players run out of time with a single goal having eluded them. That’s what happened to Hack, who was born in Sacramento on Dec. 6, 1909. He played for the old Sacramento Solons and cracked the big leagues in 1932. Known for his sincere smile, he played 16 seasons in the majors, all for the Cubs.
He led the National League in hits in 1940 and 1941, and led the league in steals in 1938 and 1939. He hit .348 in four World Series appearances. He was one of the best third basemen of his era. He was beloved before he was forgotten.
The Chicago Tribune’s 1979 obituary of Hack said he was “once recognized as the most popular player in baseball’s National League.”
“Smilin’ Stanley Camfield Hack was just about as good as men come in this life,” it read. “In baseball, Stan was better than most of his time. He deserved a full life, and had it.”
Hack spent his time in Illinois and is buried there, but his optimism and resilience were pure Sacramento. Maybe he’s still smiling somewhere, rooting for his team to win the Series. And maybe fortune will smile on Baker, the former Cubs manager, one time before he hangs ’em up.