By Paul Casella
It's fair to say that few people predicted the Kansas City Royals would be where they are right now. But, even at the beginning of the year, many thought that the club had a window of contention, especially coming off a 86-76 season, with a lot of their young players starting to coalesce at the same time.
So, yes, even though the franchise has not won a title in 29 years, if they do win it all it won't come completely out of the blue. There have been some far more shocking teams that have won the Fall Classic.
Using two simple qualifiers, this list will break down the most unlikely World Series champions in Major League history. To qualify, it had to be that club's first title in at least 10 years (unless, of course, it was the first in franchise history) and that team had to have a sub-.500 winning percentage the previous season. (So, sorry Red Sox fans: That 2004 season ended quite a drought, but the team had 95 wins the season before and were just a few outs from the World Series in 2003.)
Here's the list of surprising champs, presented in increasing order of title droughts.
1997 Marlins (4 years/first franchise title)
This was hardly a drought, but it was no less of a surprise title run, as the Marlins nabbed their first championship in just their fifth season of existence. Not only that, but it was the first winning season for the club period.
The then-Florida Marlins had an improved winning percentage over each of their first four seasons, but few saw them making the jump from an 80-82 team in 1996 to a 92-win, title-winning team just one year later. The team lacked an outright superstar, but received balanced contributions from Moises Alou (team-leading 23 home runs and 115 RBIs), Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Jeff Conine. The rotation was anchored by Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez and Al Leiter, but it was rookie Livan Hernandez, who stormed onto the scene and helped get the Marlins over the edge.
Hernandez went 9-3 over his 17 regular starts before going 2-0 in both the NLCS and the World Series, claiming MVP honors in each series. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind unanimous winner Scott Rolen.
1969 Mets (7 years/first franchise title)
Nothing in the first seven years of existence suggested the Mets were on the verge of winning a title. They joined the league in 1962 and went on to lose a still-Major League record 120 games that season. And things didn't get too much better over the next few years.
The Mets finished with the worst record in the Majors each year from 1962-65. They also finished either last or second-to-last in the 10-team National League every year until their '69 title run.
Yet in their eighth season, things miraculously clicked for Gil Hodges' club (hence the nickname, "The Miracle Mets"). New York rattled off a 100-win season in what was the first-ever season of division play. They ultimately won the National League East by eight games, then went on to sweep the NL West champion Braves in the inaugural NLCS before beating the Orioles in five games for their first World Series title.
1933 Giants (11 years)
The then-New York Giants just barely qualified for this list, as they went only 11 years between titles -- and lost two World Series during that span. Yet it was the 1932 season that made the '33 run a bit surprising.
It was in that season that the Giants went 72-82, finishing in sixth place out of eight NL teams. That marked their worst standing since finishing dead last in 1915. They wasted little time in turning things around, however, thanks in large part to future Hall-of-Famer Carl Hubbell.
Hubbell led the NL in 1933 in wins (23), ERA (1.66), innings pitched (308 2/3) and shutouts (10) en route to being named the NL MVP. He also won his two World Series starts (both complete games, including an 11-inning outing), not allowing a single earned run over 20 total innings of work. The Giants defeated the Washington Senators in five games.
1914 Braves (11 years)
This is another one that does not necessarily qualify as a "drought," as the inaugural modern-day World Series had been played just 11 years earlier in 1903. That said, the Boston Braves had lost 100-plus games each year from 1909-1912 and finished 31 1/2 games back in '13 before suddenly cruising to a World Series title in 1914.
Prior to 1914, the Braves had lost at least 90 games in nine of their last 10 seasons and their best winning percentage during the World Series-era was .457. Their first winning season during the era came in style, though, as they went 94-59-5 (.614) in 1914 then swept the defending champion Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.
1990 Reds (14 years)
The 1989 season was a tumultuous one for the Reds, both on and off the field. Along with finishing 75-87, their worst record in five years, the club's manager, Pete Rose, received a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball amid gambling accusations.
The team was in a bit of disarray when it welcomed in new skipper Lou Piniella, whose only managerial experience was over parts of three seasons with the Yankees. He certainly helped right the ship in 1990, however, leading the Reds to a 91-71 record, their best in a dozen years. They went on to beat the Pirates in the NLCS before sweeping the defending champion Athletics in the World Series.
Cincinnatti finished just 74-88 the following year, meaning their surprising title run was bookended by 75- and 74-win seasons.
1954 Giants (21 years)
Just more than two decades after Hubbell led the Giants to a surprising title in 1933, it took another future Hall-of-Famer having another MVP season to lead them to their next title.
This time around it was legendary outfielder Willie Mays, who won Rookie of the Year honors in 1951 before missing most of the '52 season the entire '53 campaign while serving in the United States Army. The Giants went just 70-84-1 in that 1953 season, finishing 35 games back in the NL.
Yet Mays returned the following year and picked up exactly where he left off in his rookie season, hitting a Major League-best .345 to go along with 41 home runs, 13 triples and 33 doubles. Mays made the first of his 20 All-Star appearances and won the first of his two MVP Awards that season as the Giants went 97-57 then swept the Indians in the World Series.
1924 Senators (22 years)
Prior to the franchise relocating and becoming the Minnesota Twins in 1961, the Washington Senators managed just one championship season from 1903-60. They were around prior to 1903, but again, this is focusing on the modern-era World Series only.
Even with Hall-of-Fame pitcher Walter Johnson dominating the league year-after-year, starting in 1908, the Senators rarely even came close to making the World Series. Prior to their 1924 title run, only twice (1913 and 1918) had they finished within 10 games of first place in the AL and the closest they came to making the World Series over the five years immediately prior to their first title was a full 18 games in 1921.
It was Johnson's second MVP season, however, that finally pushed the Senators over the top. Johnson earned MVP honors by going 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA and six shutouts in the regular season. He capped his MVP season by pitching four shutout innings in relief to earn the Game 7 victory in the World Series, as the Senators knocked off one of the 1920s powerhouses in the New York Giants.
2002 Angels (41 years)
Prior to 2002, the Angels had made just three postseason appearances and had not qualified since 1986. They had never won a World Series title, despite joining the league in 1961. The 2001 Angels had finished 41 games out of first place in the AL West (no, that's not a typo).
Yet in 2002, the Angels surprised everyone, winning a then-franchise best 99 games to earn the AL Wild Card. They then knocked off the perennial power New York Yankees in four games in the ALDS, defeated the Twins in five games in the ALCS and rallied to beat the Giants in seven games in the World Series.
Not only was the Angels' season shocking, as a whole, but they kept the surprises coming down to the very end. Trailing 3-2 in the series, they rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the seventh inning of Game 6 then went on to win Game 7 with rookie starting pitcher John Lackey on the mound.
1987 Twins (63 years)
One of, if not the most, shocking World Series runs came courtesy of the 1987 Twins. The franchise had not won a World Series since 1924, a time when the team was still known as the Senators (see above). On top of the 63-year drought, they were coming off a 71-91 season. They hadn't made the postseason since 1970 and hadn't even had a winning season since 1979 -- and even that was just an 82-80 season.
It's hard to put a finger on what exactly went right for the Twins in '87. Nothing jumps off the page immediately, but they did just enough to win the AL West then knocked off the Tigers in five games in the ALCS before beating the Cardinals in seven games in the World Series.
Outfielder Kirby Puckett led the AL with 207 hits and finished third in AL MVP voting. Frank Viola, meanwhile, led the team in wins (17) and ERA (2.90), while finishing sixth in the Cy Young Award voting. Aside from that, the Twins relied on a balanced team effort and got hot at the right time en route to shocking the baseball world.
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Paul Casella is a Sports on Earth contributor and a reporter for MLB.com.