Heading into tonight’s action at Wrigley Field, the Cubs have a 41-19 record at what Ernie Banks termed the “Friendly Confines.” That’s a .683 winning percentage, the equivalent of a 111-win full season.
And yet, this home juggernaut hits the road and simply forgets how to win. Their 25-39 record away from Wrigley is a .391 winning percentage, the equivalent of a 99-loss regular season.
This makes no logical sense. How can a team that wins that easily in one place look like nearly the worst team in baseball when they’re not in that place? The conventional wisdom says the Cubs can’t possibly win the World Series — or maybe even get to the postseason — unless they fix this issue.
Here is the story of two teams that had extreme home/road splits like that and did, in fact, win the World Series.
The 1987 Minnesota Twins won the A.L. West by two games, with an 85-77 record. They were 56-25 at the Metrodome, 29-52 on the road. In that pre-wild card era, that was only the fifth-best record in the American League; three A.L. East teams (Blue Jays, Brewers, Yankees) had better records than the Twins, but sat home in October as the Tigers won the division title with a 98-64 record. Four N.L. teams had better records than the Twins, so they made it to the World Series with the ninth-best record in MLB in 1987.
The Twins were bad on the road all year, but it got worse after the All-Star break, when they went 9-25 away from home and in fact, nearly blew a six-game lead in the division with eight games remaining.
In that era, as we have previously discussed here, home field advantage in the LCS was rotated between divisions. The A.L. East had home field in 1986, thus it was the Twins who wound up with home field in 1987.
One thing that’s worth remembering is that these were the first American League postseason games played indoors. In 1987, the A.L. had two indoor parks, both in the West Division — the Metrodome and Kingdome — and the Mariners weren’t anywhere close to a postseason berth back then. With no interleague play, teams in the A.L. East would play just a small handful of games indoors each season.
The Twins won Games 1 and 2 in Minnesota in the LCS. As the series switched venues to Detroit, the Tigers won Game 3, but the Twins won the series behind excellent pitching from Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven. They had been swept in a regular-season series in Detroit in August.
For the N.L. champion Cardinals, it was even stranger to play indoors. There was only one indoor stadium in the N.L. in 1987, the Astrodome (Olympic Stadium in Montreal didn’t get its roof until the following year). And the Twins used that home field to extreme advantage. Again, with home field rotating, the A.L. had it in 1987 and the Twins won the first two games by a combined score of 18-5. They lost three straight in St. Louis and came back and won Game 6 in Minnesota 11-5, before taking Game 7 4-2 to win the World Series.
It was the noise level at the Metrodome, something the Cardinals had never previously experienced, that led to their defeat, said Bill Clark, a hearing research scientist:
The roar of the Metrodome crowd almost certainly caused temporary hearing loss in unprotected fans, and Clark said repeated exposure to such high noise levels could lead to permanent hearing loss in athletes, concessionaires and others who work in the Metrodome.
’The only term to use is deafening,’ Clark said. ‘At times it was impossible to hear the person screaming right next to you.’
Clark logged an average noise level of 94.4 decibels, 90.4 percent of the federally allowed dose, in Game 6 at the Metrodome. Levels were a sedate 77-90 decibels when the Cardinals were ahead but jumped to 95-109 when the Twins took the lead in later innings. The maximum level was 114 decibels in the game won by the Twins, 11-5.
In Game 4 in St. Louis, the average noise level was 90.6 decibels, only 49.3 percent of the allowable dose. The Cardinals won 7-2.
Because noise levels are controlled by the course of the game, Clark said the fairest comparison is to measure noise level in the first 40 minutes before anything too critical happens. In St. Louis, that average was 83 decibels. In the Metrodome, it was 92.
’Perceptually, 92 decibels is twice as loud as 83 decibels,’ Clark said.
So the Twins took an unusual home-field advantage and used it to their benefit. The 1987 World Series was the first in history in which the home team won all seven games. The Twins did that again four years later and again won a seven-game World Series.
There’s one other recent team that had a good record at home, a mediocre mark on the road, and yet went on to become World Series champions. That’s the 2006 Cardinals, who posted the worst-ever record by a World Series winner, 83-78.
The ‘06 Cardinals were cruising to the N.L. Central title. After defeating the Brewers 12-2 on September 19, they had an 80-69 record and a seven-game lead with 13 remaining.
They almost blew that lead, losing seven in a row before winning three of their last five. Had the Astros won their final regular-season game against the Braves, the Cardinals would have been forced to play a makeup game against the Giants to determine whether a tiebreaker was needed for the division title. But Houston lost, and St. Louis went on to the postseason with the 13th-best (!) record in baseball.
They had a 49-31 record at home and were 34-47 on the road, again largely from playing poorly away from St. Louis after the All-Star break: 12-25. (Is this starting to sound familiar? The 2019 Cubs are 7-12 on the road since the break.)
By now, home field in the postseason was determined by better records — at least until the World Series, where we had Bud Selig’s silly All-Star winner determining it in this time frame. The Cardinals had to open the postseason in San Diego, where they had lost two of three during the regular season.
Suddenly, that didn’t matter. The Cardinals won the first two games and the Padres scored just one total run. The Padres won Game 3, but the Cardinals closed them out in Game 4 and went on to the NLCS against the Mets. There, the teams alternated wins in Games 1 through 4, each winning one in the other’s home park. (The Cardinals had won zero games in Shea Stadium during the regular season.) The Cardinals put the Mets on the brink by winning Game 5 in St. Louis, but the Mets won Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7 at Shea, where two players still with the Cardinals (Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright) led them to a win, Molina with a two-run homer and Wainwright, then a closer, striking out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded to win it.
The American League had won the 2006 All-Star Game, giving home field in the World Series to the A.L. champion Tigers (who would have had it in a “better record” scenario anyway, as they won 95 games to the Cardinals’ 83).
The teams split the first two games and then headed to St. Louis, where the Cardinals won three straight to win the World Series.
Teams with lousy road records have made the postseason and made a run all the way through the World Series. Once these teams got to October, the bad regular-season record didn’t seem to matter. So for this year’s Cubs, the lesson could be the same: Figure out a way to win the N.L. Central, even if road wins aren’t coming easy. It might all change when the calendar turns to October.